In this February 29, 2008, file photo, Roman Popadiuk is seen during the William Waldo Cameron Forum on Public Affairs at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
CNN  — 

Ukraine’s first President, waiting to see America’s 41st, chatted with a White House press aide – in Ukrainian. George H.W. Bush’s deputy secretary of state didn’t need to hear more.

“I know where I’m sending you,” Lawrence Eagleburger told the press aide, Roman Popadiuk.

That’s how Popadiuk, born in Austria to displaced Ukrainians who then immigrated to America, in 1992 became the first US ambassador to Ukraine following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The experience placed him on the ground floor of relations between the two nations over three decades preceding today’s allied efforts to help Ukraine fend off Russian aggression.

And he offers a blunt verdict on the US government’s performance during that time: “I think we handled it wrong from the get-go.”

RELATED: Everything you need to know about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

That’s not a partisan statement. Popadiuk spent his career not as a political appointee but as a foreign service officer. He has a quintessentially American story.

His family, assisted by a Catholic charity, ended up in Brooklyn after a brief stint on an Iowa farm. In 1959, when Popadiuk was 9 years old, an immigration official handed him a citizenship certificate for his adopted country just before Thanksgiving.

“He said, ‘Do you like turkey?’ ” Popadiuk recalls with a chuckle. ” ‘You’re an American.’ “

A Ph.D. in international affairs and a foreign service exam later, he wound up detailed to a nonpolitical job in President Ronald Reagan