Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

Last week’s Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent resistance efforts by Ukrainian defenders of their homeland was neither unexpected nor particularly surprising to members of the Mississippi State University students and faculty who heard now-prophetic warnings of just such actions from former Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly during an August 2016 visit to Mississippi that brought the diplomat to the MSU campus.

While in Mississippi, Chaly met with then-Gov. Phil Bryant and the leadership of the Mississippi Development Authority in addition to other groups and individuals in the state. A major wheat producing country, Mississippi officials saw opportunities to assist Ukraine in modernizing and expanding their own agricultural industry and imports of Mississippi crops.

Chaly spoke at MSU as part of the nonpartisan Global Engagement Lecture Series and followed his lecture with a moderated question-and-answer series with MSU students. During that session, Chaly said: “Everything in this world is connected now. If you are secure today, it does not mean you will be secure forever.”

The diplomat told the MSU audience of his considerable fears over the tense relationship that existed between Russia and Ukraine following the 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, saying: “Ukrainians understand that we must keep the future of our country in our own hands.”

A former advisor to three Ukrainian presidents, Chaly is a veteran diplomat who has served at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government in various capacities since the early 1990s. With a scholarly background in international relations and history, Chaly has experience in leading Ukraine’s national defense and security, foreign affairs and both the executive and parliamentary branches of the nation’s government.

At the pinnacle of his service, Chaly served as Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. and to Antigua and Barbuda and to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and was Ukraine’s observer to the Organization of American States (OAS).

But Chaly’s tenure included sharp criticism of then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Three weeks prior to his MSU visit, Chaly wrote in an opinion piece for the centrist independent Washington newspaper The Hill on Aug. 4, 2016:

“Recent comments by Republican nominee Donald Trump about the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea — occupied by Russia since March 2014 — have raised serious concerns in Kyiv and beyond Ukraine. Many in Ukraine are unsure what to think since Trump’s comments stand in sharp contrast to the Republican party platform. Since the Russian aggression, there has been bipartisan support for U.S. sanctions against Russia, and for such sanctions to remain in place until the territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored. Efforts to enhance Ukraine’s defense capacity are supported across the aisle, as well, to ensure that Ukraine becomes strong enough to deter Russia’s aggression.

“Even if Trump’s comments are only speculative, and do not really reflect a future foreign policy, they call for appeasement of an aggressor and support the violation of a sovereign country’s territorial integrity and another’s breach of international law. In the eyes of the world, such comments seem alien to a country seen by partners as a strong defender of democracy and international order,” Chaly wrote in the essay that ultimately cost him his ambassador’s post.

After Trump’s election in the 2016 race, Ukraine was forced to backtrack as President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed Chaly from his diplomatic post. Later that year, the Trump White House dismissed the then-U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch over allegations that she tried to “undermine” Trump and that she interfered with efforts to investigate then-former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

The political morass of U.S.-Ukrainian relations over the last decade makes Clary’s controversial 2016 essay even more prophetic and foreboding moving forward.

Clary observed: “Russia did enter Ukraine in 2014 and would undoubtedly keep on invading should the position of the most important global actors be favorable or neutral, or one of appeasement, and should Ukraine not continue enhancing its defense potential. Right now, Russia is flexing its muscles, building military capacity and testing state-of-the-art weapons in the Ukrainian Donbas.”