Roman Popadiuk, first US ambassador to Ukraine: ‘I think we’

Similarly, Popadiuk, born to Ukrainians displaced in Austria, became the first US ambassador to Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992. Experience in the three decades preceding today’s Allied efforts to help Ukraine deal with Russian aggression placed them at the heart of relations between the two countries.

And he gives a clear take on the performance of the US government during that time: “I think we handled it the wrong way from the start.”

This is not a biased statement. Popadiuk did not spend his career as a political appointee but as a Foreign Service officer. He has a quintessential American story.

His family, aided by a Catholic charity, ended up in Brooklyn after a brief stint on an Iowa farm. In 1959, when Popadiuk was 9 years old, an immigration officer gave him a certificate of citizenship for his adopted country just before Thanksgiving.

“He said, ‘Do you like turkey?’ Popadiuk recalls with a laugh. “‘You are an American.’ ,

a Ph.D. In international affairs and later on a Foreign Service exam, he elaborated on a non-political job in President Ronald Reagan’s White House. Press Secretary Larry Speaks made Popadiuk his deputy for international affairs, a job he held in the next administration until Bush sent him to Kyiv.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the US drew diplomatic attention from its former Cold War adversary to Russia to encourage economic modernization and security cooperation. Former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Popadiuk says, didn’t get nearly enough

As ambassador, he initiated discussions on what became known as the Budapest Memorandum. Under its terms, Ukraine surrendered a large nuclear arsenal within its borders in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the US and Britain.

Ukraine’s concession was less than eye-popping, as Russia maintained a nuclear launch code for those weapons. But Popadiuk says the new government in Kyiv should have received more US economic and military aid.

2008 Georgia Russia conflict fast facts
Other errors followed, largely fueled by the impulse to maintain positive US-Russia relations. President George W. Bush, who famously said he had seen the spirit of Vladimir Putin, reacted cautiously to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. President Barack Obama, who sought a “reset” with the Kremlin, did the same after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine.

“Both administrations failed to realize the danger,” concluded Popadiuk.

President Donald Trump has escalated domestic divisions that Putin has counted to undermine America’s response to his aggression. It also included Trump’s own impeachment over his attempt to squeeze Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky for political gains.
But Popadiuk doesn’t think Trump’s presidency has fundamentally affected Putin’s calculations. Nor does he blame President Bill Clinton’s support for the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Ukraine, among other countries in Eastern Europe.
Russia’s historical desire to control Ukraine, he points out, goes deeper than all those events. That’s why he blames President Joe Biden, who released so much accurate intelligence about Putin’s intentions before the war, because he hadn’t acted on it by providing more military aid than before.

“If you knew they were going to attack Ukraine, why didn’t you give them everything they needed ahead of time?” Popadiuk says. “We needed to get ahead of him.”

The bravery of Ukrainian soldiers and their own incompetence has taken Putin by surprise. So have Biden and his European counterparts maintaining unity.

But Popadiuk says the response is too constrained by the fear of nuclear escalation. NATO did not transfer older Soviet fighter planes to Ukraine, for example, to avoid the possibility of Russia attacking the transfer and forcing a NATO response.

“We have let Putin define the rules of the game,” he explains, instead of making the risk of a disastrous exchange the burden of the Russian leader.

What is NATO and why hasn't it imposed a no-fly zone in Ukraine?
Russia’s attacks on citizens of Ukraine have become more brutal as its military falls short of its objectives. On top of attacks on hospitals and hangings on the streets of Buka last week, a missile attack hit a train station in Kramatorsk.

The more they are, the harder it is to test allied resistance to a direct confrontation with Russia through steps such as a no-fly zone imposed by NATO.

“There should be a red line for the West,” says Popadiuk.

An ugly ending is already for sure. This would be distasteful, he fears, that stopping the conflict would eventually require recognizing Russian control over Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.

At 71 years old, Popadiuk has long been removed from any active role in foreign policy. He retired ten years ago as diplomat-in-residence at the George H.W. Bush Foundation, which, like Bush’s presidential library, houses Texas A&M University.

Popadiuk knows for sure that, whatever the US and its European allies do, Ukrainians will never stop defending their country.

“It’s about a cultural war of existence for Ukrainians,” he says. “If anyone stands up, that fight will continue.”


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