U.S.-Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s
This moment is one of four in a series about Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. relations in a world of post-Ukrainian independence. The series, “From 1991 to 2022: Russia, U.S., and Ukraine Relations,” explores how the post-Soviet Union era presented unique challenges to each nation’s foreign policy. The reignited tensions between Russia and Ukraine pose important questions about how the nations’ histories inform the conflict today. The four moments in the series— U.S.-Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s, Russia-Ukraine Tensions, Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era, and Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship —seek to shed light on the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine by examining its history.
Recent events in Ukraine have made it more than obvious that Russia is changing its foreign policy footing, seeking expansion and world influence once again. However, first-person oral history evidence indicates that this is a process that began almost as soon as the collapse of the Soviet Union. From 1993 to 1998, William Green Miller was the United States Ambassador to Ukraine, serving through numerous challenges, including nuclear disarmament, after a long and storied career. In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see U.S., Russian, and Ukrainian grand strategy collide even as Ambassador Miller walks the tightrope of keeping close personal relationships with geopolitical adversaries.
After having worked in the American Committee for U.S.–Soviet Relations and the high-octane field of staffing the Senate, Ambassador Miller was a man uniquely suited to wade into the difficult situation in Ukraine during the 1990s. As the Soviet Union dissolved into fifteen independent states, Ukraine was left in a difficult position of dealing with its new Russian neighbor, the boisterous economic conditions of the time, and numerous internal challenges. As a legacy of its Soviet past, Ukraine also became one of the few nations to have a nuclear arsenal, as well as one of the even fewer to give it up. His narrative here tells a tale of two world powers—one rapidly losing its influence and weight on the international stage—in competition for the fate of Ukraine, a conflict that still echoes in the present.
Drafted by Hawkins Nessler
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William Green Miller’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on February 10, 2003.
“I made it a point to spend considerable time with the Russian ambassador.”
Q: Well, now, when you were there, what was the role of the Soviet embassy? Were they trying to …?
Q: I mean the Russian embassy. What were your relations, and was the feeling at that time that they were trying to bring Ukraine back into the fold?
MILLER: Yes, I made it a point to spend considerable time with the Russian ambassador, the two ambassadors that were there when I was in Kyiv. The first was a man named Shmolyakov, who was a Ukrainian by birth. We became good friends. His wife was very pleasant, and he and his family were courteous and welcome. We did a lot of things together. He was very sympathetic to Ukraine. He was in an interesting position. The “near abroad” policy of Russia that Ukraine should be a part of Russia was certainly something he believed in, but the intensity of his Ukrainian nationalist feeling any sympathy perhaps was even stronger.
Our physical presence, in the form of many frequent visits by our leaders from President Clinton and Vice President Gore on down—members of Congress, prominent figures from the private world, overwhelmed anything that the Russians were doing. This personal effort by our national leadership made a huge difference, and we had a tremendous influence as a result. Initially, the Ukrainian government was completely in congruence with us on arms control, and sort of our discussions were very helpful to each other, and we did a lot together.
“A wonderful complication.”
Yuri Dubinin was sent from Moscow to attempt to lessen American influence. There was great concern in Moscow that the Americans were too influential in Kyiv, that I was too influential, and that this massive personal presence of Americans should be countered. Yuri Dubinin, had been ambassador here in Washington during the Gorbachev perestroika era. Dubinin was a very polished diplomat, five or ten years younger than Anatoly Dobrynin who had served for 23 years in Washington during the Cold War. Dubinin had also served in Madrid and Paris. He was very intelligent, adroit, and adaptable. We were good friends in Washington. I had done many exchanges of officials and prominent citizens from our respective countries, things with his help when I was president of the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations, and when he was involved in bringing cultural groups and prominent Soviet officials to the United States. I recall our working together successfully to get the Donetsk Ballet troupe into the United States for performances in Baltimore and Washington in the face of very complicated visa and financial problems. The visit of the Donetsk Ballet was a great initial success.
During the time Dubinin was ambassador in Washington, Andrei Sakharov, in 1988, came on his first trip to the United States after being released from exile in Gorky by Gorbachev. Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner came for lectures at the Academy of Sciences, dinner at Ted Kennedy’s house, and visits to the Hill. There were human rights protests outside the Soviet Embassy. As I was one of the hosts for his visit to the United States, Dubinin asked for my help in getting Sakharov to come for a meeting at the Soviet Embassy. Dubinin was sympathetic to most human rights issues, and I helped him a little bit with this awkward problem of a human rights demonstration held outside his embassy to the extent that I was able to persuade the blockade to be lifted so that the Sakharov delegation was allowed to enter the Embassy. Dubinin and I worked together to make Sakharov’s trip to Washington as much a success as possible, even though there were demonstrations in front of the embassy at Sakharov Plaza. In the end, Sakharov agreed to go to the embassy, and in doing so greeted the demonstrators, agreed with their grievances and went into the embassy which was giving a reception in his honor, a wonderful complication.
“I think this is proof of how valuable it is to know people well as human beings.”
Getting it Done with Kindness
A few years later, I met Dubinin in Moscow when he was serving in the foreign ministry and I was working as President of the International Foundation. In 1995, Dubinin was assigned to Kyiv. As soon as he arrived, I, of course, had a dinner for him, a private dinner, and we fully discussed our separate purposes and came to a clear understanding of what our mutual purposes were. Having Dubinin sent to Kyiv was helpful, to me. Because of our personal friendship, I may have blunted what he might have done if someone else were ambassador. Because we were friends, and he never used any of the harsh language that Soviet ambassadors tend to use, and he would never do anything affecting our official relations without telling me first, if it might have an impact on our personal relationship. I think this is proof of how valuable it is to know people well as human beings, even those who hold opposing views over the years. If you have a decent human relationship, you can get far more done.
For me, the Russian factor was manageable. I went to Moscow on occasion, to see friends, and many of them were the authors and proponents of the near abroad policy in the Russian policy world. I think that kind of involvement, as with Ambassador Dubinin, softened what they might have been able to do otherwise. It certainly gave me an understanding of what they had in mind, what their long-term interests were. They haven’t changed. They believe Ukraine should be a part of Russia. As good friends as they are on a personal plane, they very much regretted my role in Ukraine and told me so.
“‘What is NATO?’”
The NATO Issue
Q: During the time you were there, did membership in NATO, or other countries’ membership in NATO, was this at all a factor?
MILLER: Yes, the NATO issue is very important. The initial thinking of most Ukrainian politicians, between 1993–1995 was that the Warsaw Pact was finished, let’s get rid of that. OSCE is the right framework for a new European security organization. It puts everyone on the same starting point, with decent values, agreed human rights, none of the formal legacy of the horrible past, elimination of a fear of military invasion or intervention. The OSCE option was rejected by the West. How to recast NATO for the post Cold War world became our introspection as a political and policy matter in Washington and throughout the West. Should NATO disband or should we expand? This was the debate from ’93 to ’95. Before the decision to expand NATO to the East was made, as an interim measure, Partnership for Peace, a Clinton invention, a Bill Perry invention, was created to provide an active means of working together with states from the former Warsaw Pact.
Q: The secretary of defense.
MILLER: Yes, Partnership for Peace made eminent sense, and worked very well, because it allowed each country to do its own thing, at its own pace, without putting a great strain on their capabilities. They could come into a viable security arrangement right away, which Partnership for Peace was, without the requirements of NATO membership that were imposed on the Western European nations. But the idea of a new security partnership was the focus of serious security discussions, “What is the meaning of partnership?” And this idea of partnership was running concomitant to “What is NATO?” NATO was no longer forces assembled for a massive war of armies on the north German plain, because there are no forces on the other side. If NATO is dissolved, what are we going to do with 20 tank divisions of main battle tanks, and 20 infantry divisions, what about U.S. basing in Germany? Where should forces be deployed, for what purposes and what kinds of forces? So there was a huge debate in Brussels, particularly, and in all the capitals of the West. Of course the bureaucracy of Brussels wanted to continue NATO. It was their life’s work. They weren’t sure that Russia would remain a weak power and that it wouldn’t become once again a power with imperial ambitions and become once again a threat to the West and world peace.
“The keep NATO and expand it” point of view triumphed in 1995. “We will keep the core because we can’t trust the Russians, and we’ll expand, certainly, to include Poland and Czechia. We’ll bring the border right up to the old Soviet Union. We’ll absorb the Warsaw Pact.” So that was the ’95 decision.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
William & Mary, Goethe Institute, Oxford, Harvard
Joined Foreign Service 1959
Iran, Vice Consul and Political Officer 1959–1965
State Department Executive Secretariat 1966–1967
Post Resignation activities:
Chief of Staff, Senate Select Committee 1972–1976
Senatorial Intelligence Oversight Committee 1976–1981
American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations 1986–1992
Ambassador to Ukraine 1993–1998