KYIV, Ukraine — Leonid Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union and served as its first president, died Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said. He was 88.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid tribute to Kravchuk, calling him not just a historical figure but "a man who knew how to find wise words and to say them so that all Ukrainians would hear them."
Zelenskyy said Kravchuk died Tuesday but gave no details of the circumstances. He had been in poor health and underwent a heart operation last year.
Kravchuk led Ukraine as its Communist Party boss in the waning years of the Soviet Union, and played a pivotal role in the demise of the USSR before holding the Ukrainian presidency from 1991 through 1994.
He was a driving force in Ukraine's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and later that year joined with the leaders of Russia and Belarus to sign an agreement on Dec. 8, 1991, which formally declared that the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
As president, Kravchuk agreed to transfer remaining Soviet nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory to Russian control, in a deal backed by the United States.
He lost the 1994 presidential election to former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma. In 2020 he returned to politics to try to negotiate a settlement as part of a "contact group" for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists had fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on Twitter that with Kravchuk's signature to the December 1991 agreement disbanding the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire disintegrated."
"Thank you for the peaceful renewal of our Independence. We're defending it now with weapons in our hands," Reznikov wrote Tuesday.
Kravchuk's death comes a week after that of the first president of post-Soviet Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, who died aged 87 following treatment for COVID-19, according to his wife.
Since Shushkevich's death, Kravchuk was the last survivor of the three leaders who signed the 1991 deal. Russian President Boris Yeltsin died in 2007 aged 76.
Since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and threw its weight behind the 2014 separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to cast doubt on Ukraine's statehood and falsely portray the country as an artificial construct of Communist rule — rhetoric that paved the way for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In a televised address Feb. 21, three days before the invasion, Putin blamed "historic, strategic mistakes" by Communist leaders for having led to the collapse of the Soviet state. Ukraine "turned to us for financial support many times from the very moment they declared independence," Putin said in an apparent reference to Kravchuk's time in office.
Some participants in the historic Dec. 8 meeting at a hunting lodge in the Belovezha forest, in what is now Belarus, pointed to Kravchuk as having played the main role in the demise of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine had declared its sovereignty after an August coup by hardline Communist Party members weakened Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's authority. A week before the Belovezha agreement, Kravchuk was elected president of Ukraine in a vote that also overwhelmingly approved its independence from Moscow.
Participants in the Belovezha talks said Kravchuk rejected any efforts to keep the Soviet Union going with reforms.
"Kravchuk was focused on Ukraine's independence," Belarusian leader Shushkevich, who took part in the talks and signed the deal, told The Associated Press in an interview last year. "He was proud that Ukraine declared its independence in a referendum and he was elected president on Dec. 1, 1991."
Zelenskyy said Kravchuk's ability to speak to Ukrainians was particularly important in "difficult, crisis moments, when the future of the whole country may depend on the courage of one man."
Zelenskyy's own communication skills and decision to remain in Kyiv when it came under Russian attack have helped make him a strong wartime leader.
Noting that Kravchuk had lived through World War II and the occupation, Zelenskyy said he knew the price of freedom and with all his heart wanted peace for Ukraine. I am sure that we will accomplish this. We will achieve our victory and our peace."