In the autumn of 2012 while I was working at the Los Angeles Times, I spent a week in Ukraine as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department. I was there for the opening of an exhibit of my political cartoons at a Kyiv museum and to speak before various groups in the city, including librarians, journalists, schoolchildren and university students.

The memory of engaging with that last group, in particular, has stayed with me ever since. They were journalism students, mostly female and, in appearance, interchangeable with a bunch of kids you might see at a California beach or shopping mall. Talking with them, I found their aspirations were also the same as most young Americans. They wanted opportunities for careers, they wanted to travel, they wanted to be able to speak freely, to publish the truth and live lives unconstricted by an overbearing government or the weight of history.

At the time, the dream of those young Ukrainians was that their country would orient toward the modern, liberal societies of Europe and break from the old ties with retrograde Russia. In 2012, that dream was illusory. The Ukrainian government was in the hands of well-tailored goons closely aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The country’s independent press was hemmed in and marginalized; autocracy was gaining on democracy.

Not long after, an uprising drove Putin’s puppets from power and, in the years since, Ukrainians have worked, in fits and starts, to establish permanent democratic institutions and orient their country toward the West.

This has not pleased Putin, and he has engineered political subversion and military incursions – including the occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine – in an attempt to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit. Now, 100,000 Russian troops stand on the border, prepared for an invasion and American and European leaders are scrambling to devise a strategy to persuade Putin he should call them off.

If you wonder what is at stake in Ukraine, just think of those students. In the 10 years that have passed since I met them, most have likely launched careers in the news media and played their part in moving their homeland toward freedom. It would be a monumental tragedy if a thug and pariah like Putin is allowed to crush their dream under his homicidal, kleptocratic boot heel.

The world has suffered repeatedly over the centuries from the depredations of power-hungry men like Putin. This is the 21st century. It should not happen again.

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