Roman Popadiuk, 1st US ambassador to Ukraine: ‘I think we handled it wrong from the get-go’

That was how Popadiuk, born in Austria to displaced Ukrainians who later immigrated to the United States, in 1992 became the first US ambassador to Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The experience placed him at the foundation of relations between the two nations for three decades prior to today’s allied efforts to help Ukraine defend against Russian aggression.

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’. “

a doctorate in international affairs and a foreign service exam later, he ended up assigned to a nonpolitical job in President Ronald Reagan’s White House. Press Secretary Larry Speakes ended up making Popadiuk his deputy for international affairs, a post he held in the next administration until Bush sent him to kyiv.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the US turned diplomatic attention to Russia to foster economic modernization and security cooperation with its former Cold War adversary. Former Soviet republics like Ukraine, says Popadiuk, did not get enough

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.

Other mistakes followed, stemming largely from the drive to maintain a positive relationship between the United States and Russia. President George W. Bush, who said he had searched Vladimir Putin’s soul, reacted cautiously to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. President Barack Obama, who sought a “reset” with the Kremlin, did the same after that Russia seize Crimea from Ukraine.

“Both administrations did not realize the threat,” concludes Popadiuk.

President Donald Trump has exacerbated the internal divisions that Putin has counted on to weaken the US response to his aggression. That included Trump’s own indictment for his attempt to squeeze Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for political favors.
But Popadiuk doesn’t think Trump’s presidency has fundamentally affected Putin’s calculations. Nor does he blame President Bill Clinton’s support for expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Ukraine, among other Eastern European nations.
Russia’s historical desire to control Ukraine, he explains, runs deeper than any of these developments. That is why he blames President Joe Biden, who released so much accurate intelligence about Putin’s intent before the war, for not acting on it by preemptively providing more military aid.

“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.

But Popadiuk says the allied response remains too constrained by fears of nuclear escalation. NATO has not transferred old Soviet warplanes 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 catastrophic 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 Ukrainian civilians have grown more savage as its military falls short of its targets. Last week there was a missile attack on a train station in Kramatorsk, as well as attacks on hospitals and executions in the streets of Bucha.

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.”

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