And he offers a resounding verdict on the US government’s performance during that time: “I think we mishandled it from the beginning.”
That is not a partisan statement. Popadiuk spent his career not as a political appointee but as a foreign service officer. He has a quintessential American story.
His family, assisted 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 presented him with a certificate of citizenship from his adopted country just before the Thanksgiving Day.
“He said, ‘Do you like turkey?’ ” Popadiuk recalls with a smile. ” ‘You are American’. “
As ambassador, he initiated discussions on what became known as the Budapest Memorandum. Under its terms, Ukraine handed over a large nuclear arsenal within its borders in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States and Britain.
Ukraine’s concession was less than it seemed, as Russia had retained the nuclear launch codes for those weapons. But Popadiuk says the fledgling kyiv government should have received more economic and military aid from the United States.
“Both administrations did not realize the threat,” concludes Popadiuk.
“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 Ukraine’s soldiers and the ineptitude of his own appear to have caught Putin by surprise. So has the unity that Biden and his European counterparts have maintained.
“We have let Putin define the rules of the game,” he explains, instead of making the risk of a catastrophic exchange the burden of the Russian leader.
The more they happen, the harsher the test of Allied resistance to direct confrontation with Russia through steps like a NATO-enforced no-fly zone.
“There has to be a red line for the West,” says Popadiuk. The goal is to impose a price high enough to change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis.
An ugly end is already assured. Unpleasant as it is, he fears stopping the conflict will eventually require recognizing Russian control over Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.
At 71, Popadiuk has long been out of any active role in foreign policy. He retired ten years ago as diplomat-in-residence at the George HW Bush Foundation, which like the Bush presidential library is at Texas A&M University.
What Popadiuk knows for sure is that whatever the United States and its European allies do, the Ukrainians will not stop defending their country.
“This is a culture war of survival for the Ukrainians,” he says. “If there is one standing, that fight will continue.”