Closer to a standstill on Ukraine: Time for Decision with Amb. Roman Popadiuk

August 29, 2022

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk, Graduate Center Ph.D. in political science, discusses US-Ukrainian relations and the current war on the International Horizons podcast.

Six months after Russia's attack on Ukraine, the country celebrated its Independence Day on August 24. The Russians seem to have expected that their conquest of Ukraine would be over quickly after a “shock and awe”-style assault, but instead the Ukrainians have held out unexpectedly against Russian power. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has now lasted over six months, with many thousands of people, soldiers and civilians, dead on both sides of the conflict, millions displaced, and no end in sight. What can we expect from the continuing Russia-Ukraine conflict?

We open this season of International Horizons with former US Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Popadiuk, who talked to Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the history of Ukrainian-US relations and how the Budapest Memorandum meant to protect Ukraine as it surrendered its nuclear arsenal failed to stop Russia. Ambassador Popadiuk recounts the Russians’ gains and setbacks during the invasion and how the conflict is approaching a standstill pending the outcome of negotiations. Finally, Ambassador Popadiuk underscores that the likelihood of nuclear escalation is very low, because it would bring new uncertainties for Russians that they cannot afford to have.

Subscribe to International Horizons on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:12

Six months after Russia's attack on Ukraine, the country celebrated its independence day on August 24. The Russians seem to have expected that their conquest of Ukraine would be over quickly after a “shock and awe”-style assault, but instead the Ukrainians have held out unexpectedly against Russian power. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has now lasted over six months, with many thousands of people; soldiers and civilians dead on both sides of the conflict, millions displaced and no end in sight. What can we expect from the Russia Ukraine conflict? 

John Torpey  00:48

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Our guest this week is Roman Popadiuk, who currently serves as president of the Diplomacy Center Foundation, a nonprofit engaged in a public private partnership with the US Department of State in building an American diplomacy Museum at the State Department. 

John Torpey  01:23

He's a retired member of the career Senior Foreign Service, most notably serving as the first US Ambassador to Ukraine in 1992-93 and as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary for Foreign Affairs under Presidents George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan. He also served as the executive director of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation at Texas A&M University and as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the World Affairs Councils of America. He is the author of The Leadership of George Bush and a co-author of Privileged and Confidential: the Secret History of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. He's a four time graduate of the City University of New York, with a BA from Hunter College, two Master's degrees and a PhD from the Graduate Center here at CUNY. Welcome to International Horizons, Ambassador Popadiuk. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  02:23

John, thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here with you today. 

John Torpey  02:26

Nice to have you. And with all that CUNY background we couldn't resist. Okay, so first, maybe a little bit about your background. I mean, I understand your family immigrated to New York, from Ukraine in the 1950s. And how has that experience affected your career? 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  02:43

Sure. I was born in 1950 and my family came to the United States in that year. Along with myself, obviously, and my older sister, we originally settled for a few months in Iowa. We had a family that sponsored us into the United States that was in Iowa on a farm. After a few months there, we then came to New York City, and I actually grew up in Brooklyn, New York. So I spent a good part of my life in Brooklyn, New York, and still have a lot of affinity for New York City and enjoy the city anytime I go to visit there. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  03:18

In terms of that background, you know, my parents were, you know --they passed, God rest their souls, but they were-- Ukrainian, obviously, Ukrainian background, and I was raised in Ukrainian background. And at home, I spoke Ukrainian as a youngster. And I think there were two influences that came to bear on my eventual career path. The first was obviously being an immigrant and being brought up in the culture and the language of my parents. I had an affinity for cultural diversity and learning about other systems: other political systems, other cultures, etc. But at the same time, discussing politics, and in particular international politics at the dinner table whenever we had an occasion to do so. And obviously, in that context, a lot of the focus was on Ukraine, the situation in Ukraine then during the Soviet period. So I grew up with the combination of a broader outlook in terms of the direction of international affairs as a career path.

John Torpey  04:30

Understood, makes a lot of sense, obviously. So, and that launched you on a diplomatic career and leading to you being present really at the highest levels of US foreign policy at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and soon thereafter, the time of Ukraine's independence. So, we're obviously eventually going to be talking about the war. So maybe you could talk about how you understand that period, the period of the early 90s, and the way it's shaped how things have gotten to their current paths, so to speak. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  05:09

Sure, there are two things that I would point to, John. One goes back to the original question you posed to me in terms of my background. As I mentioned, you know, my parents and I, and my oldest sister came to the States. And I have a younger sister who was born in the States. And as we used to, we'd like to say she was the first really American citizen. And having that background, as I mentioned to you, kind of focused me on that part of the world. And a lot of my studies were taken up in that. So I thought I had a pretty good understanding of that situation. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  05:41

In terms of what actually transpired, as a result of my presence in the Reagan and Bush administrations, during those days at the White House, I saw a lot that was developing. And I think that, while we fully realized that the Soviet Union was falling apart on those days in the late 80s and early 90s, we also had a number of concerns, I think. And here, I would point to the fact that the Soviet Union was a nuclear power, superpower. And you have to be very careful in terms of how you dealt directly on these issues, particularly when it was going through a major transformation internally and its political situation. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  06:23

The other thing that people tend to forget is that there was a need to continue working with the Soviet Union even as it was literally falling apart. And so one of the things I would point to is, of course, we needed to work with the terms of the Kuwait war, when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait and the United States got involved to expel him from Kuwait. So we needed cooperation, which was forthcoming in the UN, in that was very helpful for the policy to move forward. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  06:55

But at the same time, specifically, as regards the Soviet Union and its falling apart, we realized that we had to tread carefully enough as President Bush liked to say, "not to stick a finger in Gorbachev's eye." We saw the place falling apart, but we had to deal with it in a way that it would have its own pace and not have major ramifications, either bilaterally or for the region.

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  07:25

And so what we basically did is to develop the twofold policy. We focused on working with the center, mainly Moscow, but at the same time, we started extending our interests to the republics. Our policy was geared toward having the republics work out their relationship with the center; we didn't want to be seen as forcing some kind of policy choice on the republics. So while we worked with the center, namely Moscow, at the same time, we started working with the individual republics. But that relationship between the republics and the center is something they have to work out on their own.

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  08:07

But we all saw that the place was basically falling apart and moving toward a new kind of situation. What it would be and what at what time it would actually fall apart was anybody's guess. You know, as you look back in history, I think President Bush really played it very smartly. He worked with Gorbachev, we worked with the Soviet Union. At the same time, we worked with republics. And as you can see, the Soviet Union, passed into history peacefully, there was really no bloodshed, obviously, a few deaths in the Baltics during the course of this process, but no major bloodshed of conflict or anything of that nature. And I think that's a credit to not only President Bush's leadership, but the leadership of all the western states in terms of dealing with this historic transition toward a greater freedom for the individual republics of the former Soviet Union. 

John Torpey  08:22

Right. And just a correction. You just said the Baltics, there were some deaths in the Baltics. I think you meant the Balkans. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  09:15

No, no, the Baltics. When they were declaring independence in everything. There were, I think there might have been a few deaths there. 

John Torpey  09:24

Okay, yeah. Okay. I mean, obviously, I think of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which-- 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  09:30

Oh, yeah, I mean, that goes without saying. That's a whole different thing. I think there were a few you know, some minor skirmishes, conflicts. I don't know what kind of word we want to put on it. But if I remember correctly, there were a few deaths. I'm sure one of your listeners will correct the record. 

John Torpey  09:50

Yes. Yes. Not a problem. Both of us seem to be a little foggy on this. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  09:54

Well, yeah. This is what happens when you try to recall something from 30 or 40 years ago.

John Torpey  10:00

Exactly, no kidding. So you mentioned nuclear weapons, which obviously play a significant role in the security situation in the region that we're talking about. And I understand you helped to negotiate the Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine secure in exchange for turning over nuclear weapons, stationed on its soil, back to Russia. So could you talk about the significance of that now and how you look back on that in retrospect? 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  10:32

Sure. That's a very good question, John, and very pertinent one given the situation between Ukraine and Russia right now. For your listeners, you know, the Budapest memorandum, I started negotiating that with Ukrainians until the end of 1992. It was eventually signed in 1994. And the whole purpose of this was to have Ukraine move toward a non-nuclear status. As you recall, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine inherited a considerable number of missiles and tactical nuclear weapons, which were based in Ukraine, but they did not have operational control of it. So that's a whole different story. But we wanted to make sure those weapons were safely taken care of. And there will be no spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world, as you know, people using that as an example for acquiring nuclear weapons. So there was an incentive for the United States to get this nuclear weapons issue settled. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  11:32

So one of the things that Ukrainians obviously were very concerned about is, given the historic relationship between Ukraine and Russia and you see the war now, the Ukrainians were very insistent on getting some kind of security guarantees in return for giving up on nuclear weapons.

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  11:46

You know, everyone was reluctant to give a guarantee, because that's basically a binding treaty, kind of like along the NATO Article 5 lines. So what we finally settled with Ukrainians is we settled upon giving them what are called security assurances. And these assurances were given by the United Kingdom/Britain, Russia and the United States. China and France eventually joined this agreement also, though they modified some of the language in it. But anyway, basically, what it committed the signatories, Russia, Britain and the United States, was to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and not to use threats against Ukraine or economic coercion in the event of any kind of difficulties regarding the states, we go to the Security Council, I'm kind of summarizing. So it came to that. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  11:47

But the main thing, it wasn't an assurance, it wasn't a guarantee. On the basis of that Ukraine eventually did give up its nuclear weapons, as well as other issues that had to be settled in terms of, for example, getting compensated for the highly enriched uranium that was in the warheads, obviously, of the weapons.  

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  13:05

So Ukraine eventually signed this Budapest Memorandum and gave up these nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the memorandum came to be challenged in two regards. First in 2014, when Russia took parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, annexed Crimea. And then, of course, earlier this year, in February, when Russia actually invaded Ukraine all out in an effort to crush the country. And in neither situation did the Budapest Memorandum really come into play. And unfortunately, it's one of those historic situations where the intentions were very good, and the language is very strong. But, you know, Russia would not abide by that language, where unfortunately, there was nothing that the United States could do, or Britain or anyone else could do to enforce it, because it was basically an issue that you brought to the Security Council. And at that stage, you know, vetoes come into play and politics come into play. And, unfortunately, it was a well intentioned, I would say, agreement. Unfortunately, fell short of actual implementation.  

John Torpey  14:17

Right. And now we're in a hot war situation, and a situation that seems increasingly, from my perspective, to portend a long slog. I mean, so I'm very interested in kind of getting your assessment. I mean, some people think that the Russians will ramp up their attacks, and Putin is calling up more soldiers and that sort of thing. And of course, others have seen the heroic response to the Ukrainian population and military successes in various places and a lot of deaths on the Russian side. But, I'm curious what your assessment is. It seems to me that it increasingly looks like a stalemate that's going to drag on for a long time. I mean, I heard a discussion yesterday of Syria, which, you know, we're not in the Syria neighborhood yet, by a long stretch of course, but that kind of possibility seems so depressing to contemplate. So anyway, I'm curious how you assess the situation? 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  15:27

Sure. Very good question. I would agree with you and your term of calling it a stalemate almost to a certain extent, I'll get back to that. A little bit more open minded in terms of the timeframe with this. I don't think this is a slugfest that can go on for a long time. Let me just start off by saying that one of the biggest surprises of this conflict is the resistance of the Ukrainians and the resolve of the Ukrainians. No one expected that Ukraine would be able to stave off the Russian attack as well as it has. And that's unfortunate that the West didn't realize this.

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  16:10

There were two things that developed in Ukraine over the many years that really have given them that result outside their historical desire for independence and freedom. Ukrainians have a whole new generation of people that have arisen after independence, and they identify totally with Ukraine. And so their morale was very high to preserve their identity in the country. And of course, they were under attack, so they were the morale was very, very high. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  16:10

The other thing is something that I think the West, and the Russians in particular, didn't realize. While the Ukrainian military was fairly weak, and kind of not well structured prior to 2014. After the Russians invaded Eastern Ukraine and took, annexed Crimea back in 2014, Ukrainians really reorganized their military, and they have a fairly strong military. And people forget that they have a core group of people that used to rotate or serve in various peacekeeping roles outside the country. So they have combat experience. So the combination of morale and then the restructured military-- and restructured I mean, in the sense, they got a lot of training from Western countries, so they were well trained in terms of how to conduct conflicts of this nature --I would say, really surprised the Russians.  

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  17:33

And I would say, you know, there have been three conflicts here, John, basically. One was the Kiev, the original invasion, where they thought, the Russians thought, they could just walk in and take over Kiev and take over the country. The Ukrainians won that war, basically. They pushed back that convoy, they held the city and you can see every day on Zelenskyy, President Zelenskyy, is on YouTube or some kind of video, he's sending messages out. The second conflict is after the Russians got stopped in Kiev they moved toward eastern Ukraine, Donetsk, and started pushing forward, then they made some progress there, quite frankly. But right there, there seems to be a kind of a standstill at this stage of the game. And the third front, basically, is the one in southern Ukraine, a little north of Crimea, in Kherson, the city that they're fighting over right now, where the Ukrainians seem to be making some inroads to be pushing to the Russians back.

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  18:00

Now, to make a long story short, given the morale and given the strength of the Ukrainian military, can the Ukrainians defeat the Russians? No, I don't think so in military conflict. I don't really think they can defeat them. The manpower and equipment that the Russians have is way too much to able to be constantly fighting. But they have been able to fight them to a standstill, basically. And I think what you're going to see is basically a continuation of this kind of standstill, kind of what I like to refer to as a frozen conflict, expanded frozen conflict, at this stage of the game.  

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  19:00

I think the determining factor of which side starts giving into possible peace negotiations is going to be the cost benefit analysis. And I think this falls mostly on the Russian side; the Ukrainians will continue to fight and they're made that clear because they're fighting for the territory. For the Russians, the cost benefit analysis falls into two categories. First, in terms of personnel and materiel, they're losing a lot of materiel, they're also losing a lot of personnel. Some estimates by the Ukrainians are that up to 45,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded. That's a considerable number of forces. And Putin, of course, is faced with the option: do you continue with what you have in hand or do you start mobilizing forces? And the mobilization, when he himself has not declared a war, puts them in a political bind back home. So he's going to be limited in that sense, and he's already starting to run out of a lot of highly technical missiles. So that's one cost benefit for him. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  19:04

The other one is going to be if the Ukrainians are able to push back a little bit, or hold the line, you're in a slugfest, and you're not able to give up any territory. But if the Russians feel that they're going to be losing territory, or they can't move territory further, for the West take more time, there's a chance that they will open the door to negotiations. In other words, if the Russians are starting to lose territory, or they can't gain any more territory, and at the same time, obviously, they're losing personnel and materiel, they will look for a way to bring the conflict to an end and freeze it in place. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  20:42

Now, that's not a benefit to either side. It's more of a benefit to the Russians, though, for the simple reason the Russians will hold on to more territory. Right now, the Russians have about 20% of Ukraine's territory. So that's quite a long chunk of real estate that they're holding on to. And so that's something that they will be holding on to, and I'm assuming they obviously would like to continue to hold on to. So basically, what I would see in this current situation is a frozen conflict along the lines of a Minsk 3 -for lack of a better terminology-  where the people will try to negotiate, but the negotiations will basically be for ceasefire lines, return of prisoners of war, humanitarian corridors. I think it'll be along those lines. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  21:34

And the seriousness of any kind of negotiation for territory is not going to be there. Ukrainians will want territory, the Russians will not want to give the territory back and we'll be stuck in this kind of frozen conflict, which then allows the Russians to regroup and possibly continue to come back at some later date. That's unfortunate. I'm sorry, that's a little bit of a longer answer but I'd be more happy to get into a little bit more specifics, if you want to continue this part of the conversation. 

John Torpey  22:00

Well, I guess I mean, since that's, this is, of course, all speculation about where things are going to go. But to get back maybe to the roots of the conflict. I mean, obviously, many people regarded this as a matter of Russia's insistence that it was being encroached upon by NATO, and that Ukraine was going to join the NATO team, and further, you know, hem in the Russian security kind of situation. And so one of the things I guess that puzzles me is the extent to which, you know, the war has become a kind of proxy war between the United States and Russia.

John Torpey  22:40

But it seems as if implicitly, certain lines have been drawn that the Russians will not, you know, even by mistake, or by supposed mistake, drop a missile in Poland, or elsewhere in NATO territory. Of course, already, there's, you know, in Scandinavia, the Baltics there's moves towards incorporating more countries into NATO as a result of this conflict. But the Russians have sort of said, "well, we're gonna let the Americans supply the Ukrainians and they're doing the fighting, but the United States and Europe to a lesser extent supply the ammunition." And so it's, it seems like it's kind of a proxy war. And it does seem to me in a sense to further this notion that this is going to take a long time to play itself out. I mean, how much are there any negotiations going on of any kind, of any seriousness at this point? 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  23:45

Yeah, yeah. Those are all very good points and questions, John. Let me just say this, in terms of the duration of this conflict, nobody knows. My estimate is that in the next few months, you're going to see some movement towards some kind of discussion on the peace table, because I don't think the Russians will be able to sustain this type of conflict for a long time without drawing on resources that start raising eyebrows back home. And so I think Putin is going to be in a situation where he's going to have to reach out. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  24:19

Having said that, there are a number of peace negotiation processes in place. President Macron of France has tried to get something started. And the Turks themselves have been very much engaged in getting, trying to get the Ukranians to the table and the Russians to the table on peace negotiations. And it was the Turks that actually helped negotiate the release of grain for the startup shipment of grain from Ukraine. So there is a process that's ongoing.

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  24:48

In terms of your point about whether this is a proxy war, look, I don't see it as a proxy war; I don't think anyone would regard it as a proxy war. I would have to caveat that and say there's obviously some benefit --if you could say there's a benefit in any war, there's no benefit, no one's condoning war --but the United States is able to learn probably a lot about the technology of inferring about Russian equipment, their tactics and fighting, and at the same time, it's depleting the Russian forces as well as their materiel. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  25:23

So there are costs, there are benefits to the western side in terms of the war situation. But as a proxy war, I don't think so because you have to look at the start of this. It was the United States that was strongly against getting this war started. I mean, we threatened sanctions, we kept talking about the dire consequences of sanctions. And when the war started, we offered Zelenskyy a ride out of the country for lack of a better term. And as you recall, his famous line was "I don't need a ride; I need ammunition." So I don't think there was any desire for, obviously no one wants a war. But I don't think the United States saw this as a way to get into a proxy war with Russia. 

John Torpey  25:55

Yeah, I didn't mean to suggest that this was something that the United States was spoiling for, so to speak. But then it sort of became that kind of situation. And I mean, one of the things, again, that struck me is the degree to which NATO/the United States were reluctant to, as you say, provide air support. To get involved in anything that might be regarded as a kind of aggressive posture. And similarly, Putin, I mean, there was a lot of concern at the beginning about the Russians using atomic and other kinds of weapons of mass destruction. And I don't know, it seems to me, I don't follow this as closely as you surely do. But it seems to me that that kind of discussion has at least gone into abeyance. I don't know that people are no longer concerned about it. But I mean, there's always the concern, it seems to me, that if Putin is politically pushed into a corner in some way that he feels like he can't afford not to win this adventure, because it will mean the collapse of his political support back home, then he might do something that could be you know, disastrous. And of course, now everybody's focused on this Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and what might happen there? So maybe you could speak to that a little? 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  26:07

At the same time, you have to realize that for a proxy war to have been successful, you'd have to put all your forces in play as much as possible. And the West has been reluctant. Remember the big debate over whether or not to provide air support to Ukraine. And when Poland wanted to provide the jets, and then we kind of balked on that, and that was pulled back. So while we are providing a lot of equipment to Ukraine, a lot of it has been provided too late and too little. And so it's almost in a situation where we're not providing enough for Ukraine to win the war. We're just providing enough for the war for them to defend themselves. So in that kind of situation, I would say it's way shorter of anything that one would consider a proxy war.

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  28:17

Sure. Yeah, I think one of the go to the heart of your question, I think one of the issues is that the West has kind of got itself into a situation where no one sees an exit. The West doesn't have an exit strategy, nor can it and Ukraine doesn't have an exit strategy short of victory. And that's not going to be possible. The only one that can have an exit strategy and who controls the narrative is Putin, as I mentioned earlier, he's gonna have to weigh the cost benefit analysis. And he's not there yet, although I think he's getting to that point or fairly, fairly soon. 

Ambassador Roman Popadiuk  28:51

In terms of the tactical nuclear weapons early on in the conflict, as you rightly pointed out, Putin alluded to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, if he felt threatened or if the West got involved, or we were providing some kind of assistance to Ukraine, I forget his exact language. I've been a little bit more skeptical about this, John, because even though he is an authoritarian ruler, when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons, I doubt that anyone sitting around him would be very open to that kind of suggestion. You know, ratcheting this up to a tactical nuclear weapons situation, raises the bar considerably for the ruling circles in Moscow as well. And so I don't see Putin as being in a position where he can just snap his fingers and say, "let's launch some nuclear weapons." I think the people around him will say, "Well, wait a minute, you know, this is getting a little bit out of hand. We're getting to the point where if we start doing this, we don't know what the response will be, and what our next step will be. And so let's not go that way." So I think in certain ways his hands are tied as well in that respect. And he's limited to what he's doing right now. And that's why I think at the same time, as a result of that, over the next few months, fairly soon I hope, he'll be pushed into a position where he'll be more than willing to sit down and have discussions with the Ukrainians. 

John Torpey  30:24

Well, I think I'll characterize that as an optimistic outlook on what's going to happen. And, I don't mean it's unrealistic. I just mean, it's optimistic. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. That's it for today's episode. I want to thank Ambassador Roman Popadiuk for sharing both his experiences as the United States first ambassador to Ukraine and his insights into US-Ukrainian relations in light of the Russian invasion and ongoing war. 

John Torpey  30:53

Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Merrill Sovner for her production assistance, Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance and to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks very much for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.