Viktor Yushchenko knows a thing or two about how nasty things can get when a former Soviet bloc country tries to embrace democracy, freedom and the West. 

He was running for president of Ukraine in 2004 when he was poisoned by what doctors determined to be the chemical dioxin. As USA Today reported, doctors said the dioxin level of his blood was “more than 1,000 times” normal. Most likely, someone had poisoned his food.

He survived, and he eventually was elected president of Ukraine in a second election forced by protesters who said the first one was rigged. That became known as the orange revolution. He served until 2010. 

On Monday, he met with the Deseret News editorial board.

No one has yet to prove who poisoned Yushchenko, although he has said it was a deliberate attempt to kill him. Meanwhile, he makes no pretense of his dislike for Russian President Vladimir Putin, or of his own conviction that Ukraine must win the war.

Yushchenko’s visit to Utah this week highlighted how close any struggle for freedom is to the Beehive State, even if it is taking place thousands of miles away. Ukrainian refugees are here, of course. But U.S. support remains crucial to Ukraine, and NATO continues to watch nervously as fighting comes close to its borders.

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Still, many Americans don’t seem to get it.

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in March found that 62% of Utahns believe the United States is doing enough to help Ukraine right now. When asked what sort of response they support, 48% said providing military weapons and supplies, while 42% said more economic sanctions. Only 9% said they would support no help at all.

That indicates that Utahns, at least, still stand behind Ukraine and its fight for freedom. Nationally, the picture isn’t as clear. In January, Pew Research Center found that 26% nationwide said the U.S. was providing too much support to Ukraine, while 31% said it was providing about the right amount and 20% said it was giving too little.

When I asked Yushchenko what he would say to the 9% of Utahns who would not help at all, he said, “The world is a much more integrated place than we think.” Even in the vast open stretches of the Mountain West, people can’t be isolated from the world.

“You cannot say that there is a security policy related just to the state of Utah, or the United States only, or Ukraine only, or Lithuania or Estonia or any other country of the world.”

Allowing Russia to win the war, he said, would affect everyone globally.

“The question is always who is next. What nation will be attacked again? It can be you.” 

Putin, he said, wants to revise the world’s security arrangements. “Putin’s main idea is to go back to how it was in 1997,” he said. The Russian leader wants Eastern Europe divorced from NATO so those countries can be free from the alliance that keeps them safe. But doing so would inevitably involve the United States.

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Which is why “this is all about protecting security in the people of Utah, as well,” he said, “because what we fight for in Ukraine is to make sure that Russia is not imposing its chaos, imposing its brutality, (and that it) does not influence policies and security arrangements for any other country of the world.”

Yushchenko said if the war has served any good purpose, it is to make Putin’s aims clear. “It took the war in Ukraine to make Europeans sober about Putin’s influence,” he said.

At the start of the war, I wrote about why it should matter to Americans. Ukraine, I noted, had hardly been a model democracy. In the post-Soviet period, it struggled against corruption. 

Little of this seems to matter anymore as we watch the nation fight gallantly against an enemy that now has been accused of hundreds of war crimes

Yushchenko is clear that he won’t support any compromise solution at all. He said the world should not allow Russia to continue as it is after the conflict ends, otherwise the world would never be secure.

Right now, it’s hard to see an ending the way he envisions it. But one thing is clear. The free world can’t afford to be anything but fully committed in its support of the Ukrainian struggle.