Did the U.S. Drop the Ball on Ukraine?

Former Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Popadiuk says the U.S. "should have recognized the strategic importance of the situation."

Looking ahead: Popadiuk (©2014 Richard A. Bloom)

Few Americans know Ukraine more intimately than Roman Popadiuk, the first U.S. ambassador sent there after the country became independent in 1991. Popadiuk's parents were Ukrainians who were taken from their homeland by the Nazis to do forced labor. Popadiuk was born in 1950 in a displaced-persons camp in Austria and moved with his family to the U.S. when he was 7 months old. Before serving as ambassador in 1992 and '93 in Kiev, he was a member of the Foreign Service and worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses as a press officer. He currently is a principal in Washington with Bingham Consulting. Still deeply involved in Ukrainian issues, he fielded questions from National Journal on Monday. Edited excerpts follow.

Is there a danger that when the dust settles, Ukraine will no longer exist as a single country? How do you unite a country when half want to look to Europe and half want to look to Russia and all the elections since 1991 have shown this split?

Like any society, Ukraine has its differences regarding values, goals, and political views, but left to their own devices, Ukrainians have been able to deal with these differences. It is worth remembering two points: In the 1991 independence referendum, approximately 91 percent of Ukrainians, including a majority of ethnic Russians, voted for independence. Also, during the early years of independence there were nationalist circles in Russia and in Crimea that unsuccessfully sought a union of Crimea with Russia. More currently, during the Maidan revolution, there were no rumblings of separatism in eastern Ukraine or Crimea. It is only when Russia militarily intervened in Crimea and sent in instigators that the current troubles arose.

Could the United States have headed off the current crisis with different policies?

There are two parts to this question. What we see now is an unraveling of U.S. and Western policy toward Russia. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a belief that working closely with Russia would help Moscow become more democratic and lead to a market economy, both of which would make Russia more stable and a positive force in the international community. Furthermore, there was a belief that as Russia developed along these lines, it would lose its imperial past and have a positive influence on the other former republics. What was forgotten in this mix is that Russia emerged out of the breakup of the Soviet Union as a large state with its own national interests.

As to the current situation in Ukraine, the U.S. should have recognized the strategic importance of the situation and worked closely with the European Union as Ukraine was negotiating the association agreement.

How do you assess the Obama administration's performance? What should be the next steps?

Our discussions with our European allies are most important, since for any diplomatic pressure and sanctions to work, it is important that there be a unified stance. Given the circumstances, the administration is doing the best that it can, and it is important that we find additional pressure points that we can use against Russia.

What is the worst-case scenario and how worried are you about that? What is the likeliest outcome?

There are any number of scenarios. The most obvious and preferred one is for Russia to stop its anti-Ukraine activities and respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Outside of this, there are three basic scenarios: Russia takes Crimea; Russia takes Crimea and eastern Ukraine; and Russia takes all of Ukraine. The latter two are unlikely since it will involve open Russian military action, and Ukraine has stated that it will fight.

No one has a crystal ball, but it would appear that from Russia's perspective, a Crimea which has greater autonomy and a larger Russian military presence would be the sensible goal. Such a situation would give Russia a potential role and pressure point in Ukraine's politics. But Russia has already signaled that it will annex Crimea, so the chances of such a solution appear to have diminished. However, some variant of this scenario — one that limits Ukraine's role in Crimea and augments Russia's — is still possible.