Ex-U.S. diplomat to Ukraine sees Russian war ending in stalemate; Putin will claim win

·6 min read
Diplomacy Center Foundation

His native language is Ukrainian, he was the first U.S. ambassador to the infant nation, and Roman Popadiuk cannot say he saw this coming.

He is also not surprised that Russia invaded.

“What I saw (back then) was a lot of concern over the potential pressure from Russia, and that was in the uppermost minds of Ukrainians,” Popadiuk said. “When (Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk) visited the White House in 1992, one of the main topics he raised was fears of Russia and its pressure to unbalance Ukraine’s independence.

“In terms of a massive war, I did not foresee that for a variety of reasons.”

It’s 30 years later, and Russia is involved in a massive war with Ukraine.

On Monday afternoon at the Fort Worth Club, Popadiuk will join U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, for a Q&A with Kasey Pipes of the local consulting firm, Highwater Strategies.

Pipes, who worked in D.C. for years and served as a communications and policy advisor under President George W. Bush, will act as the event’s moderator.

Williams is expected to address the two Ukraine-related aid packages that were passed by Congress this spring; the first was for $14 billion, and this most recent is for $40 billion.

Popadiuk will speak on the situation in the Ukraine, which is now into its third month.

On Friday, he spoke to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about his thoughts on the war.

Star-Telegram: Do you think world leaders are scared of Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Roman Popadiuk: I wouldn’t say they are scared of him. You hear, or read, Putin is sick. He’s deranged. Or he has imperial ambitions. My own feeling is that Russia has a strong authoritarian tradition, and whether it’s Putin in there or not, you’d have an authoritarian system.

Russians see themselves as a messianic type of a country, and they are the protectors of the orthodox faith.

The more territory they held, the safer they felt. I see them as a pendulum. You have the era of Peter the Great, and it was open, and then it goes back and forth. (Former Soviet premier) Gorbachev was the beginning of a new era, and then it’s Putin.

Eventually it will wind up in the middle, but we’re not there yet.

S-T: How do you see this war with the Ukraine ending?

RP: What I foresee happening is Ukraine putting up a good fight, and they will fight to a stalemate. Once the cost-benefit analysis hurts, and Putin can’t move in further, then he will declare victory and it will be a frozen conflict.

Now, what are the ramifications for the ruling circle there? He could get to a point where he might not be able to survive that.

But he will want to claim that he achieved some of his goals of reuniting lost territory to Russia.

S-T: The history of Russian leadership says this will not end well for Putin; do you think this will end well for him?

RP: He has a few things going against him, starting with his age. He’s nearing his 70s. Irrespective of if he declares victory, I think the isolation from the rest of the world will continue to work against Russia, and the punishment will be that he has to be replaced.

This is very hypothetical; the inner circle might let him declare victory, and he will be replaced. I think, politically, they won’t be able to sustain with him in office. It’s how the world treats Russia, and businesses, and if they return; quite frankly I don’t think sanctions will be lifted, and that will be his problem.

S-T: For people who are too young to remember the Great Wars, or even the Cold War, were we seduced into thinking that with all technology, access to travel and information, that these types of wars were relics of the past?

RP: I am a realist when it comes to international politics. If anything we got blinded by the development of trade across international lines, the spread of democracy, and technology.

When communism fell, the view of Russia was it had turned the corner and that this was the chance for reform. And we had to deal with Russia and help her out because, if it worked, it would help the rest of the region.

So we dealt with them to strengthen all of the countries around Russia, so if Russia should not stay on the democratic path the surrounding region would be stable and able to stand on its own.

S-T: Did you ever meet Putin?

RP: No, I never did.

S-T: According to people familiar with him, his rise to his current position caught everyone off guard; that leaders familiar with him didn’t think much of him. Is that a fair assessment?

RP: Well, I have dealt with a lot of KGB guys and he fits the classic mold. As a KGB operative, you don’t want to stand out. You want to be effective but don’t leave fingerprints. That’s the rationale of a spy operative, and that’s what he did.

S-T: It would appear that the initial anger over this invasion has faded, and we have “moved on” so to speak. Do you think that was a part of Putin’s strategy?

RP: As an authoritarian state, and a KGB operative, he knows people’s patience fails over time. He can wait people out. I don’t know if that was deliberate, and he will wait these guys out. Time is on his side; in the West, you can turn on any news channel, and the amount of coverage has diminished. It’s still there, but not like it was.

S-T: There is a prevailing thought that one of the reasons why Russians have dealt with Putin for so long is they remember life like before him; that life, in Russia, with Putin as the leader is better, so he stays.

RP: That’s true on two levels. The oligarchs are better off with him than not. He helped make them.

In Russia, he garnered control of the political system, and then he could manipulate the economic system. He was smart; he could control the oligarchs so they owe a lot of success to him, which is why they are willing to wait this out with him.

And, if you ask most Russians in general, they would say they had a better lifestyle than the previously.

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