Ambassador Bill Taylor on the U.S.-Ukraine relationship
Bill Taylor was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine twice — from 2006 to 2009, and 2019 to 2020.
“Ukraine has had six changes of president — back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” Taylor says. “A president from the east, followed by a president from the west, followed by a president from the east, followed by a president from the west.”
Much has changed in Washington, too.
“First time in, the military support was not that great,” Taylor says. “In 2014, it evolved into a very serious military effort, all the way till now where it is, you know — the spigot is wide open.”
Ambassador Taylor has witnessed the U.S.’s relationship with Ukraine from the Orange Revolution to Donald Trump’s so-called “perfect phone call” with Volodymyr Zelenskyy — all the way to Russia’s invasion.
Today, On Point: We’ll hear what that’s taught him.
Bill Taylor, vice president, Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He served as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv and as former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Today, we’re joined for the hour by Ambassador Bill Taylor. He served the United States for more than 50 years, first as a West Point cadet, then with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. His career later took him to NATO and the State Department.
He’s been appointed to posts by both Republicans and Democrats, by every U.S. president from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, including two periods as the U.S. top diplomat in Ukraine. First, from 2006 to 2009 as ambassador to Ukraine in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and then from 2019 to 2020 as Chargé d’Affaires, effectively acting ambassador, in the Trump administration.
As such, Bill Taylor has vivid and unique experience on what is now the military front lines of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and on the diplomatic and political front lines of Washington’s developing relationship with Kyiv. We’re privileged to have him here today. Ambassador Taylor, welcome.
BILL TAYLOR: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.
CHAKRABARTI: First, I understand that just three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, you were actually meeting, or you had a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Where did that meeting happen?
TAYLOR: In his office in Kyiv. Of course, the presidential administration is a big complex of buildings there in the center of Kyiv. Several of us were there to show support for Ukraine, and a couple of us sat down with President Zelenskyy at that time
CHAKRABARTI: To show support because there was already significant evidence of Russian military buildup on the border.
TAYLOR: Significant evidence in terms of about 120,000 Russian soldiers, around three of Ukraine’s borders, yes.
CHAKRABARTI: So you met with President Zelenskyy. And what did you talk about with him?
TAYLOR: We talked about the relationship of the United States. Again, we were there to demonstrate support. Our presence and anyone’s presence there, as we’ve seen lately, as a symbol, as a demonstration of strong support by just showing up. And that was why we were there. And so we had that conversation and he volunteered the good relationship he had with President Biden. And how much he appreciated the assistance that he was already getting.
He, of course, wanted more at the time. As you said, this is right at the end of January. So three weeks before the invasion, there was this discussion among Ukrainians, among Americans, Europeans, about how serious the threat of invasion was. President Biden and Americans more broadly were making the strong case that this was very serious, that it was imminent.
We even talked about imminent, and that became a word. Whereas President Zelenskyy saw the same intelligence, we were sharing intelligence very well, very fully, and he knew what he was up against. But he didn’t want panic. He didn’t want to panic the people of Ukraine. So his message was, Don’t panic. Get ready. And we had that conversation.
CHAKRABARTI: So his message to the Ukrainian people. But did he also tell you about whether Ukraine was making preparations for an invasion? And when you say imminent, did President Zelenskyy essentially make it clear that he believed that Russia was indeed going to invade?
TAYLOR: He did not make that case. He didn’t use the word imminent. This, I say, was an item of discussion between Americans and Ukrainians. The Americans thought it was imminent, although there was some backing down. We backed off of the word imminent in December. Out of deference to the Ukrainians sense that it was serious, but they didn’t want panic.
And so yes, we had that conversation, and exactly as you asked. He did describe the improvements that he was making and intended to make to his military. As an example, one of the things I remember very clearly him talking about is 100,000 more troops and doubling the pay for all of the military. So he had big plans.
CHAKRABARTI: So I understand a head of state’s desire not to panic their population, while sounds like preparing for, I’ll use the word imminent, because now we know what happened, invasion from a massive military power. What was President Zelenskyy’s demeanor like?
TAYLOR: Determined, I would say. Grim, focused. As you indicated in your introduction, I’d met him in 2019 just after he had been inaugurated, so I got there in June. He’d been inaugurated just a month before. I had good opportunity to have several conversations with him that summer through the fall. And at that time, he was also determined, really upbeat, really focused on those two main parts of his campaign, his platform, which was end the war on Ukrainian terms and fight the corruption, defeat the corruption.
And so at that time in 2019, he was optimistic, enthusiastic when I saw him. Then in January, at the end of January, three weeks before, as we now know, the invasion. It was a more sober President Zelenskyy. It was a more determined. It was closer to a wartime president. He had already stepped into that role, he has done it even more since then, as you’ve seen, as we’ve all seen. But he was moving into that wartime presidency role.
CHAKRABARTI: Ambassador, if I may ask, I wonder what your demeanor was like? I mean, did you think at that moment, put yourself back there when you were speaking with President Zelenskyy. Did you yourself think that Russia would indeed launch a full scale invasion on Ukraine?
TAYLOR: So I was asked this a lot, and I tried not to give a yes or no answer. I tried to say, you know, probabilities. However, my probabilities at the time which I am public I was public with, was 55-45 against an invasion. The 55% chance that Putin would recognize the costs to him, the cost to Russia, the cost to Russian people of such a blunder.
It was clear to me that this would be able under were he to invade, and I thought that he would recognize, that he would do that same cost-benefit calculation that most of us did and many of us did. And so, yes, I put it 55-45 against an invasion. Turns out it was greater than that. We know, as you just said, he invaded and he’s paying the price. Putin is paying the heavy price that we all saw.
CHAKRABARTI: Now when you say you were asked that by other journalists, reporters or were you asked that by President Zelenskyy?
TAYLOR: Journalists, reporters, I was on a couple of shows. I was asked that, I was not eager to go on the record, but there we are. And I can’t take it back.
CHAKRABARTI: OK. Well, no. I mean, I appreciate your candor about this. And, you know, as a person who has a long relationship with Ukraine, both sort of, of course, diplomatically and as a representative of the United States. But also, I mean, it’s fair to say you have a great affection for the country, is it not?
TAYLOR: It is fair to say, it is fair to say. I have many good friends, many good friends, Ukrainians, I have, with whom I’m in touch daily. I’m in touch this morning with one of my good friends since 2006, who’s now in the army. He’s on the front line, and he he’s sent me a couple of notes from the battlefield. … And many of the people that I worked with at the embassy, the Ukrainians that work at the embassy are phenomenal. They are the backbone of the embassy, like at all embassies. But Embassy Kyiv, it is a wonderful group of people that work there. So yes, I love those people.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you share what your friend told you this morning?
TAYLOR: Yes, he is concerned that the Russians are, as we see, as our intelligence shows as well, that the Russians are massing for a big offensive. He’s near Izyum, southwest of his home. And they are preparing for this massive invasion column of tanks moving down. He’s most concerned about aircraft. He’s most concerned about the Russian increasing the numbers of combat aircraft to support this offensive.
So he’s looking for those weapons that we’ve been talking about, that the Americans been talking about, that other European members of NATO have been talking about. He’s looking forward to the drones. That will be helpful. So he’s looking forward to the weapons coming in.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, ambassador for a decent part of the rest of the show, we’re going to go back in time and talk about your experience vis-a-vis U.S. diplomacy in Ukraine through a number of administrations. But we’ve got about a minute and a half left here in this first segment. And I wonder if you could describe to us, what do you think is at stake regarding what the future might bring for Ukraine? What’s at stake for Europe, for the global community?
TAYLOR: You’re right, it is a broad question and a lot’s at stake for the global community, for Europeans, for the United States and of course, for Ukraine. Ukraine’s important for several reasons. One is if we ever want to get back, if it is ever going to be possible to get back to some kind of order in Europe, some kind of rules-based order that nations respect each other’s sovereignty.
In order to get back to that, the Russians are going to have to get out of or be driven out of Ukraine. So getting back to that, we can talk more about that, I’m sure. But that will be important if we’re going to look forward, if we’re going to move forward in some kind of a peaceful order in Europe. And more broadly where disputes are not solved by force. That’s one of the main reasons that we cared. Not the only one, but we care a lot about Ukraine.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, this hour we’re speaking with Ambassador Bill Taylor. He served twice as the US’s top diplomat to Ukraine. We’ll talk a lot more when we come back about what that was like serving under various administrations. And also the path ahead, not just for the Biden administration, but for Europe as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re privileged to have Ambassador Bill Taylor with us. He served two stints as the U.S.’s top ambassador to Ukraine, and he’s currently vice president of Russia and Europe at the U.S. Peace Institute. And you know, Ambassador Taylor, I wish we had three or four hours here, because you’ve got quite a lengthy career I’d love to dive into. But let’s just jump to the first time that you served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, beginning in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Now, recently in the New York Times, Fiona Hill, of course, the renowned Russia expert and formerly the senior director of Russian and European affairs on the National Security Council in the Trump administration, she told the New York Times that there was a moment in the Bush administration where she was in the Oval Office and had a discussion with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. And told them that offering Ukraine and Georgia a membership path to NATO was going to be a problem. You were ambassador to Ukraine at that time. Did you see it similarly?
TAYLOR: I didn’t, actually. I supported the membership action plan, the first step in the process towards NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. And the reason is that it was not just that moment that we were looking at. Ukraine and other former Soviet states, and other former Warsaw Pact nations, knew and know Russian history. They knew Soviet history. They knew that Russia for centuries has been ruled by autocrats, by czars. They remember Joseph Stalin. It’s not just Putin, it’s not just Putin’s sense of grievance.
No, this is what Russia is. And has been, and it’s been aggressive. It’s been oppressive. It’s been acquisitive. It is expansive. So these nations applied for NATO membership. And Poland and Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic and Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, they all recognize it wasn’t just the moment that they were fearful of. It was the history. It was Russia as it is, and as it has been, that they were worried about and they wanted to be a member of NATO.
And we said yes. And Ukraine and Georgia made the same calculation, and they applied. And President Bush, just exactly as you said, came through Kyiv. Met with the president, the prime minister. People in the streets talked and went on to Bucharest. By the way, President Bush is the last sitting president of the United States to show up in Kyiv. That was when I was there in 2008, then he went on to Bucharest, where exactly what you just said. That is, they decided not to give the NATO nations and NATO heads of state, decided not to give a membership action.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to talk more about that Bucharest summit, because that was the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. First of all, were you there as well?
TAYLOR: I was not. I stayed in Kyiv. I stayed in Kyiv. As I say, President Bush and his whole team, Condi Rice was the secretary of state and Steve Hadley was the national security advisor. And others came through, again, to meet the Ukrainians so that they could go to Bucharest and make the case for NATO’s membership. And I stayed in Kyiv. They went on to Bucharest.
CHAKRABARTI: So we have some tape from when President George W. Bush talked about Ukraine again at the April 2008 NATO summit, and here is what he said.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH [Archival Tape]: Ukraine now seeks to deepen its cooperation with the NATO alliance through a membership action plan. Your nation has made a bold decision and the United States strongly supports your request. In Bucharest this week, I will continue to make America’s position clear. We support map for Ukraine and Georgia. Helping Ukraine move toward NATO membership is in the interest of every member in the alliance and will help advance security and freedom in this region and around the world.
CHAKRABARTI: President George W. Bush. And I made an error a second ago, that was the president speaking in Kyiv just before he went to the NATO summit in Bucharest. And what’s fascinating to me, Ambassador Taylor, is that NATO summit, a few days later, was the first time Vladimir Putin attended a NATO summit. And there, later in April in Bucharest, Putin said, quote: ‘As for the policy of expanding the alliance, we have been attentively watching your discussion yesterday.’
And he called any NATO expansion a direct threat. And then on the sidelines of what was happening at the summit in Bucharest, the then Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko was quoted as saying, quote: ‘Georgia and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake, which would have most serious consequences for Pan European security.’ How is this reverberating with you and the U.S. diplomatic corps in Kyiv at the time?
TAYLOR: Well in Kyiv at the time, we were supportive, as was the leadership of Ukraine. So the president, President Yushchenko, was very supportive of membership action plan for Kyiv and we supported this, as President Bush described, the U.S. position. And that was certainly our position in the embassy. This was not without controversy at the time. I imagine that if you had taken, and people did, polls of Ukrainians, they would have been less than 50% support for NATO’s membership at that time.
NATO membership for Ukraine is a controversial subject. That said, the president was clearly in favor of it. President Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president was, the United States, was other members of NATO were as well. The Poles, the Baltic states. There was good support, the Brits. So there was support for this. And as we know now, in my view, we should have done it then. We would not be in this war today. We would not have this invasion today had we offered a membership action plan to Ukraine then.
CHAKRABARTI: Because four months after that 2008 NATO summit, Russian troops, as you well know, launched an attack on the South Ossetia region of Georgia, right?
That was only a five day incursion, but there was a Russian military presence there, at least across a large chunk of Georgian territory, for quite some time. So you can see that two ways, right? As you just said, had NATO expansion been accelerated into Ukraine and Georgia, perhaps Putin wouldn’t have even attacked Georgia.
But on the other hand, perhaps it would have also accelerated his aggressiveness about his posture, especially regarding Ukraine. Now what I really want to know, is at this time, the secretary of state was Condoleezza Rice. Her academic expertise was about the Soviet Union. So her understanding of the Soviets in Russia was quite deep. I’m wondering if you had ever had any conversations with Secretary Rice about what Putin might do if NATO were to expand into Georgia and Ukraine. Did you have any conversations with her about that?
TAYLOR: We talked briefly, certainly on that trip. As a matter of fact, we talked on that trip, as well as with her previous deputy and then national security advisor Steve Hadley, about this. And they’re clear-eyed. They were clear-eyed and are clear-eyed about Russia and about Putin. But Meghna, you’re exactly right.
When the NATO summit in Bucharest that spring of 2008 declined to give a membership action plan to Ukraine and Georgia, four months later, the Russians invaded. just exactly what you said. invaded Georgia. Because they noticed, they saw, they observed, they concluded that the West, that NATO, the United States was not going to support Georgia and Ukraine. So they took that message. And as we know, in 2014, they invaded Ukraine. First in Crimea and then in Donbas. So the Russians noticed.
CHAKRABARTI: And I mean, one would think also that hopefully the international community would notice that Vladimir Putin was willing to make good on his promises about aggression towards these countries. And so let’s move forward a little bit into the Obama administration.
TAYLOR: … Could I just do one thing before we move forward into the Obama administration? Because at that same Bucharest summit, President Putin leaned over to President Bush and said famously, You know, George, Ukraine is not really a nation.
Putin never thought that Ukraine was a sovereign people, a sovereign nation. And we see that today. We see that today in his actions. He just thinks Ukraine is really just part of Russia, so he’ll just absorb it. So I didn’t want to go too far past that Bucharest summit, because that’s where we really heard what President Putin thought about Ukraine.
CHAKRABARTI: So that’s a really important point, ambassador, because then it actually makes the question I was about to ask you about the Obama administration that much more urgent. Because publicly in reporting and statements, et cetera, administration members across different presidents consistently say that the United States has been a consistent supporter of Ukraine.
But I really want to understand the truth behind that language because if my recollection is accurate. The Obama administration was reluctant to provide lethal support to the Ukrainians, even after, as we just talked about, Russia showed it was willing to send troops into Georgia. What do you think about that?
TAYLOR: That was a mistake. The Obama administration made a mistake not providing those weapons and other weapons, but certainly those lethal weapons. And the specific weapons we had in mind at the time, of course, were the javelins. We now know about the Javelin anti-tank missiles. But at the time, that was the question. At the time, so in 2015, 2016, when the discussion, the debate, the question came up, what kind of support should we provide to the Ukrainians, because they’d been invaded?
The Russians had invaded first in Crimea and then in Donbas in 2014, and we were supporting them, the Obama administration was indeed supporting them. That was not the issue. The question was whether or not to provide lethal weapons, and the concern, apparently right at the top of the Obama administration, was provoking Russia. In my view, that was a mistake. I mean, they didn’t need provocation. They were already invading. And so we should have provided those weapons. We’re now providing them in a great stream, in a mammoth stream. The question is, is it in time?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, but to be clear, you were outside of government at this period of time. But it seems to me that you were sufficiently alarmed by the possibility of Russian aggression that you joined some other former ambassadors, right, and urged the Obama administration to provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine. Were you heard? Sounds like you were heard?
TAYLOR: I think so. I know we were heard because we sat down in many offices in the State Department and the Pentagon and had this conversation. And I will tell you that this position that we were advocating, a couple of my colleagues, former ambassadors as well to Ukraine, we were arguing in favor of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Because they’d been invaded.
And let’s be clear, they had already been invaded in 2014 and they were trying to defend themselves. And we were making the case for providing these and we got a very positive reception. We heard from most of the people we talked to in State Department, Defense Department, the NSC, that they supported that. But there was reluctance again right at the top to provide these weapons for fear of provocation.
CHAKRABARTI: Ambassador Taylor, you’ve said right at the top a couple of times, is it fair to say that from your experience, the U.S. support for any particular country, but in this case, Ukraine, because you served as the nation’s representative to Ukraine, was and is heavily influenced by the president of the United States’ particular and personal approach to U.S. Ukraine relations?
TAYLOR: Well, what I would say is certainly the president has a big influence, no matter which president. I mean, you’ve quoted President Bush already, we’ve talked about President Obama’s influence on some decisions. We know you’re about to ask some other questions, I suspect, about the role of other presidents. And so there’s no doubt that the president’s view of a nation and in this case Ukraine, has an influence. But let me just say that the strong support for Ukraine in U.S. administration after U.S. administration has been consistent, has been consistent.
And that strong support, by the way, has been not just administration after administration but in the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats. It has been consistent. And so yes, the president’s view has a role, but it’s reinforced in most cases, not all, by the position of the government and, indeed, reflecting the people of the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: I’m glad you brought up Congress, by the way, because of course, Congress actually plays a huge role in all this, being the body that approves how the U.S. supports nations like Ukraine. But ambassador, if I might just push a little bit on this. Because I mean, the Obama example does make me wonder. OK, consistent support for nonlethal support.
But what does it tell you that in the moment when, as you just pointed out, Russia had already invaded Crimea. Several years before that, the incursion into Georgia. That perhaps in that time of need, let alone now, the administration was unwilling to provide lethal support, to push back or to prepare Ukraine for what might come next. Was that a mistake? Was it not as consistent support as people talk about?
TAYLOR: It was consistent support. However, it didn’t go the full level. It didn’t get to the level of lethal weapons, and that it should have. Yes.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Ambassador Bill Taylor, stand by for just a moment. We’ll talk a lot more, not just about the administration that followed Barack Obama, but about the future of Ukraine and the United States.
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