Leonid Kravchuk, who became Ukraine’s first popularly elected president to steer the country out of the Soviet Union’s collapse and agreed to give up the country’s nuclear arsenal, died Tuesday. He was 88.
A family member reported his death to the Ukrainian news agency and it was confirmed by Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky. The health of Mr. Kravchuk had deteriorated last year, when he underwent heart surgery and then spent a long period in intensive care.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Kravchuk a leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party and later headed the country himself. An old ideologue, he was determined to destroy any nascent nationalism.
However, as an accomplished statesman with a knack for well-timed evolution, he saw the winds of change in the late 1980s and eventually took on the mantle of independence.
He left the Communist Party in 1991 after hardliners staged a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In December, he was elected president in a landslide victory in the first popular elections in independent Ukraine. “Ukraine is born,” he exulted.
Days after his election, he signed a multinational agreement formally declaring the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mr. Kravchuk was the last remaining signatory – Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia died in 2007 and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus, who became the first leader of independent Belarus, died last week at the age of 87.
The death of Mr. Kravchuk arrives when the country he helped establish is embroiled in a possible existential war with Russia.
“Leonid Makarovich knew what freedom costs, and with all his heart he wanted peace for Ukraine,” Mr Zelensky said in a video address on Tuesday, swearing the country would succeed in bringing that peace.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov saluted Mr Kravchuk on Twitter for the breakup of the “Evil Empire” and thanked him for the country’s independence. “We now defend it with weapons in our hands,” he said†
None of those weapons are nuclear, as Mr Kravchuk agreed to part with the arsenal Ukraine inherited from the Soviets in exchange for security guarantees. At the time, Ukraine was the world’s third-largest nuclear power, and that deal is now the source of some regret.
Mr Kravchuk ensured a peaceful transfer of power in Ukraine after losing the 1994 presidential election.
He remained involved in the country’s struggle to maintain its sovereignty. In 2020, Mr. Zelensky appointed him to represent Ukraine in the Trilateral Contact Group, which was established in 2014 with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in hopes of bringing a diplomatic end to the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas. Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin used elements of that conflict to justify his February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Leonid Makarovich Kravchuk was born on January 10, 1934 in the village of Velyky Zhityn, in the western region of Rivne. The son of a farmer who died in World War II, he attended a vocational school before studying Marxist political economy at Kiev University. He graduated at the age of 24 and became a political economy teacher in Chernovtsy, in southwestern Ukraine, before entering politics.
He is survived by his wife, Antonina, who also taught political economy at Kiev University, and their son and grandsons.
Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko was one of several prominent Ukrainians who greeted Mr Kravchuk on Tuesday and praised his love for Ukraine.
“We are still fighting for our independence and freedom,” Mr Klitschko wrote on Telegram, adding: “But we will keep the sovereignty and freedom that we gained more than 30 years ago!”