112 Ukraine TV channel’s Elina Beketova talked to Roman Popadiuk, the first United States Ambassador to Ukraine under George H.W. Bush, from 1992 to 1993.
The series of interviews 112 International Insight introduces the viewpoint of influential Western experts, who are the source of a new, fresh point of view, different from the one of the Ukrainian experts, who usually comment on the current situation
In August of 1991 you worked as Deputy Assistant to the President George H.W. Bush, do you remember what was the overall American perception of Ukraine becoming independent? Was the American authority ready to it?
"Yes, I would say shortly to the point that the United States government was ready to accept and it was looking forward to Ukraine’s independence. Let me give you a context, in which this whole process was taking place. You have to realize that at a time the Soviet Union was gradually coming apart on the scenes and there was a lot of debate within the Soviet Union what kind of entity would exit that process, how the Soviet Union would change, as you recall, there were negotiations for the new Union treaty. To make a very long story short – United States government operated two levels – one with the central government in Moscow, and it was also extending its contacts and relationship with the individual republics. Outside of that, we felt, it was not for the United States to get involved in the internal situation of the discussions between republics and the Center regarding the Union treaty and the future, and we left that to the negotiations between the individual republics and the Center. In that context, there was a feeling in the White house – and I remember specifically, in the National Security Council – it was the question of time when Ukraine would declare independence and become independent. So, there was the general feeling that the Soviet Union and the way it existed, and the way we (this thing) had known it for many decades, and it had existed it was falling apart, there would be a new entity, or entities, (this thing) emerging out of that. We were leaving it obviously to the relationships among those entities, about what these relationships would be, and there was a feeling that Ukraine would evolve as the independent country. And there was the general feeling, in short, that, yes, Ukraine would move towards independency."
So basically, the answer, is yes, that everyone felt that Ukraine would become independent, but was the American authority ready for it in August, 1991?
"Yes, we were ready for it in the sense Ukraine becoming independent. As I mention, for a while before it, in August 1991, the White House was already excepting the fact that Ukraine was moving towards the Independence. So there was a feeling that Ukraine would become independent. Whether or not anyone foresaw the attempted coup against Gorbachov, no one really foresaw that kinds of events. The general feeling at the end was that yes, Ukraine was moving towards Independence. And the United States was preparing to deal with that situation."
Did Ukraine have a clear strategy for state development in the first years of Independence? What were the requirements for the United States?
"Well, as you recall the President recognizing of the Ukrainian independence in the December 25, 1991, in the address to the American people, he said we would accept Ukraine and Ukraine’s independence, and our relationships with Ukraine, and 5 other republics, and there were many republics, there were some issues, that still needed to be resolved before we recognize those other remaining republics. We move very quickly to have relationships with Ukraine right after the Soviet Union fell apart on December 25. By May I had been not only nominated but confirmed by the US Senate to become the first US ambassador. In June, 1992, I was already in place, in Kyiv, and as you recall the previous month and day, of 1992, the president Kravchuk made a visit to Washington to make sure, relationships got off on very smooth and positive side. Already you can see that 6-month period between December 1991, and June 1992, there was a process from both sides, the U.S side and Ukrainian side, to make sure that relationships got off on the smooth and positive floating and that indicates from the US side that US was ready and willing to accept Ukrainian independence and to work with Ukraine."
As you mentioned you were the first ambassador, to Ukraine, did you know how to build these American-Ukrainian relationships?
"That’s a very good question – and that was a very challenging question. Any time the Ambassador arrives at post, there are a number of issues you have to deal with, and the most generic issue is of course maintaining the bilateral relationships between your country and the host country. The issue of Ukraine – there was a number of challenges, establishing the infrastructure of the U.S. Embassy, and Ukraine – that was obviously the new country and new US presence – we have to establish the infrastructure within the country. We had to deal with the Ukrainian government in terms of developing its own infrastructure. The foreign industry was under the step in Ukraine, a lot of government offices was still under step. It was unclear how they would be operating. So a lot of that had to be developed in Ukrainian side, and we had to operate in that kind of the environment. So, yes, it was a little bit of a difficult situation in terms of the early days, but I thought that everything went very smoothly and we had a very good cooperation from the State Department in terms of getting our needs in Kyiv. We had very good cooperation with the Ukrainian government, and meeting those needs. And the Ukrainian government under the circumstances did everything it could to move forward. I worked very closely with President Kravchuk at that time and President Kravchuk was very dedicated to Ukraine’s independency. From the Ukrainian side I can’t speak, for the Ukrainians, but my observations for the Ukrainians – one of the key thing president Kravchuk wanted to accomplish was to gain a recognition of Ukraine overseas as an independent separate country. He did a lot of outreach to foreign countries. And the foreign ministry did a lot of reaching – in terms of establishing the relationships and it was very important for Ukraine to let the international community know that Ukraine was independent country and standing on its two feet.
If 26 years ago you were told that Crimea annexation and Russian aggression on Donbass would happen, could you believe in it?
"I couldn’t believe in it for the simple reason – let me backtrack why I say that. When Ukraine became independent, there were a lot of people that were very skeptical about Ukraine, being capable of surviving, they pointed out to what they considered “ethnic tensions”, “geographic tensions”, “Russian pressure on Ukraine”. And if you recall – there were elements in the U.S government that would predict Ukraine would turn apart because of such conflicts. And then of course, in the early days there were the Russian nationalists that were calling for greater autonomy, and even freedom to Crimea. I mention this because if Ukraine were left to its own devices, it was able to solve these issues, during my time there was some concerns, about Crimea, there were some dissatisfaction in Crimea, but Ukraine was able to solve this issues on its own. What happened now – I mean, in the last 3-4 years, Russia became physically involved by sending its own troops into Crimea, by sending its troops to the Eastern Ukraine, became physically involved and militarily involved to undermine Ukraine’s independence. Going back to 26 years, no one could foresaw such kind of the development, because the Russian government was moving toward a market economy, toward a more democracy. Under president Yeltsin it was trying to become integrated into the world community. You have a different type of government in Russia now - the President Putin. There is an effort to expand on Russian nationalism, to bring back what Putin sees the glory days of the Soviet Union which means trying to emphasize Russian power overseas, and unfortunately this also pertains to Ukraine. Russia desires to maintain influence on Ukraine. So the changing of government in Russia was something no one could foreseeing and that kind of changes leads to this kinds of policy. I just want to end this on this particular issue – you have to recall that back in December 1991, there was a referendum in Ukraine, regarding Independence, and over 80% of Ukrainian people voted in favor of independence. And this included ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine, and the majority of ethnic Russians in Crimea – all voted in favor of Ukrainian independence because they felt that they and their children had a greater chance for economic and the political growth in independent Ukraine than under the old soviet system, or under Russian influence. That is very important – and I say that to underline my point that Ukraine’s current situation would not exist if they hadn’t been the direct Russian meddling and sending troops into Ukraine and that is a result of the type of the government that is in the place in Russia currently."
Ukraine and the US nowadays – with the new U.S. special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker, visits of such respected people as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, can Ukraine expect more financial aid and getting the lethal weapons from the States?
"That’s a question I don’t know the direct answer in terms of the weapons. But I can tell you this. The secretary Tillerson has appointed Ambassador Volker to serve as a representative to Ukraine, that a positive indication of the US government supporting people and the Ukrainian government. Mr. Volker is dealing not only with the Ukrainian officials, but also with Russian officials, as well as our European allies – this shows as a clear indication of the United States wants to bring this conflict to the peaceful settlement, and in a way it would favor Ukraine, obviously, in the sense that Ukraine’s territorial integrity would be maintained and Ukraine can continue developing as an independent country. In terms of the weapons, there is a movement on the Hill, as you know, there are reports from the State Department and the Defense Department leaning towards providing the defensive weapons as far as I know, no decisions have been made. There is strong case that has been made on the Hill, of big providing the defensive weapons to Ukraine. Those weapons could be very instrumental to Ukraine. While Ukraine cannot defeat Russia in all that war, there are two elements as providing great defensive weapons to Ukraine, number one is that it raises the cost to the Russians in case they would like to continue any kind of the aggression against Ukraine, and it can make them think twice about further encouragements. The other thing is their support of any separatists that may be in Eastern Ukraine. The other thing is negotiations, they give the Ukrainian side more credibility and strength, to sit at the negotiations table and to be able to get the military support – that you have strength on your side, undermines the Ukrainians at the negotiating table. I think, for those two reasons it is very important for the US government to provide this defensive military equipment. I don’t know at this stage where this process is going, but this is something that has been debated here in the United States government."
I know that it is very difficult to forecast the decision – but do you think the US will eventually give the lethal weapons or not?
"Well, that’s again, Elina, you are asking me to forecast the future. I don’t know.. If I were to make this decision, I would make this decision in favor of Ukraine and sending this military weapons, for the reasons I have already outlined. But in terms of my guessing which way it will go – I don’t know. My hope is that we move in that direction though."