Leonid Kravchuk, who as the first popularly elected president of Ukraine shepherded it out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and signed off on giving up the country’s nuclear arsenal, died on 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. Mr. Kravchuk’s health had declined last year, when he underwent heart surgery and then spent an extended period in intensive care.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Kravchuk was a leader of Ukraine’s Communist Party and later effectively led the country itself. A longtime ideologue, he was committed to quashing any burgeoning nationalism.
However, as an experienced statesman with a knack for well-timed evolution, he saw the winds of change in the late 1980s and eventually took up the mantle for independence.
He quit the Communist Party in 1991, after hardliners attempted a coup against the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. That December, he was elected president in a landslide victory in independent Ukraine’s first popular election. “Ukraine has been born,” he exulted.
Days after his election, he signed a multinational agreement that formally declared the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mr. Kravchuk was its last surviving signatory — Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia died in 2007 and Stanislav Shushkevich of Byelorussia, who became the first leader of independent Belarus, died last week at age 87.
Mr. Kravchuk’s death comes as the nation he helped establish is locked in a potentially 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, vowing that the country would succeed in securing that peace.
The Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, saluted Mr. Kravchuk on Twitter for disintegrating the “Evil Empire,” and thanked him for the country’s independence. “We’re defending it now with weapons in our hands,” he said.
None of those weapons are nuclear, because Mr. Kravchuk agreed to relinquish the arsenal Ukraine had inherited from the Soviets in exchange for security guarantees. At the time, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear power in the world, and that deal is now the source of some regret.
Mr. Kravchuk established a peaceful transfer of power in Ukraine after losing the 1994 presidential election.
He remained involved with the country’s fight to maintain its sovereignty. In 2020, Mr. Zelensky appointed him to represent Ukraine in the Trilateral Contact Group, which was formed in 2014 with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the hopes of finding a diplomatic end to conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia used elements of that conflict to justify his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Leonid Makarovich Kravchuk was born on Jan. 10, 1934, in the village of Velyky Zhityn, in the Rivne region. The son of a farmer who was killed in World War II, he went to a vocational school before studying Marxist political economy at Kyiv University. He graduated at 24 and became a political economy teacher in Chernovtsy, in southwest Ukraine, before entering politics.
He is survived by his wife, Antonina, who also taught political economy at Kyiv University, and their son and grandsons.
Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, was one of many prominent Ukrainians who saluted Mr. Kravchuk on Tuesday and praised his love of Ukraine.
“We are still fighting for our independence and freedom,” Mr. Klitschko wrote on Telegram, adding, “But we will preserve the sovereignty and freedom we gained more than 30 years ago!”