Q&A: Marie Yovanovitch On Getting Caught Between Trump and Ukraine
The former ambassador explains how her firing by Trump was 'not normal,' and warns of Putin's 'obsession' with Ukraine
Marie Yovanovitch served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to other senior government positions during her 33-year diplomatic career. In 2019, President Donald Trump recalled her as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine after Rudy Giuliani and various Ukrainian officials believed that she was an obstacle to a campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to launch investigations into Hunter Biden, the son of Trump's expected 2020 presidential rival. After returning to Washington, she went on to testify in front of Congress in the first Trump impeachment.
She retired from the State Department in 2020 and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a non-resident fellow at Georgetown University. She is the author of a new book, Lessons from the Edge: A Memoir, which details her upbringing by parents who had fled the Nazis and the Soviets, her diplomatic career that included stints in Mogadishu and Moscow, and her unlikely role in Trump's first impeachment. Yovanovitch and I spoke over Zoom last week. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: You are a career Foreign Service officer. You were nominated and confirmed in 2016 to be Ambassador to Ukraine, which is your third ambassadorship. Like pretty much everyone, you're surprised when President Trump was elected. You initially think Kyiv is far away from Washington, and that you can carry on your mission without political interference. What was your mission and how long were you able to do your job?
Marie Yovanovitch: I actually think I was able to do my job until the very end until I was removed. We had a clear foreign policy consensus on Ukraine, pretty much since independence in 1991, where both Republicans and Democrats wanted to support a free and democratic Ukraine. From the beginning, Ukraine was requesting security assistance, help with governance and a market economy.
That's pretty much what we have always been trying to do in Ukraine, at the request of the Ukrainians. We did it because we thought it'd be good for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, but we also felt that a strong, secure Ukraine, one that is democratic and is open for business, was in our interests as well. Generally, democracies make better partners for the United States. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, and then starting war in the Donbas. We still had all those same goals.
But obviously, the focus on security assistance became even greater. In 2014, there was the Revolution of Dignity, in which Ukrainians wanted to live by the rule of law -- not wanting one rule for [former President Viktor] Yanukovych and his cronies and another rule for everybody else. Many of the reforms had languished along the way, so we really moved forward fast with reformers in the Ukrainian government. [President Petro] Poroshenko came in [in 2014] on a reform platform -- reformers, civil society and the international community were united.
When I arrived in 2016, the oligarchs and those who were not interested in reform had laid low because they weren't sure what was going to happen and they were afraid -- they could see the mood of the people. But when there weren't any arrests for past illegal actions, people started to become emboldened again. So, it became harder to move forward.
LJ: Let's unpack the circumstances of why you were forced to leave. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine, [Yuriy] Lutsenko, was being roundly criticized internationally for dragging his feet on corruption; and he was angry with you for refusing his efforts to meet with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And Mr. Lutsenko also knew that Rudy Giuliani wanted to undermine Joe Biden, so Lutsenko appealed to Giuliani, who concocted this tale that you had interfered in the 2016 election from Ukraine for Clinton and that you're an obstacle for these potential investigations into Hunter Biden? What were some of the warning signs that you're getting that this campaign was afoot?
MY: It was really like this fog around me where I could feel that there was something out there but it was hard to pin down. People in the U.S. would say, hey, this person has been asking whether you're doing a good job. In the life of an ambassador, the White House isn't following how ambassadors are doing, and for somebody in personnel the way he has to be asking that question, I wondered if they're thinking of replacing me. I never imagined what was really going on. What I thought was this was just a routine thing. We all know that presidents get to appoint their ambassadors, and they get to remove them, too. That is very normal in diplomatic life. This was coming from various sources -- lobbyists, and others. When I would go back to the State Department and the NSC, they would say, "No, no, we're not hearing anything like that, you're doing a good job."
Ironically, about a month before I was finally removed in 2019, I was asked to stay on for another year. There was this parallel track -- Fiona Hill famously called it the "domestic political errand," and we were doing foreign policy. But, never the twain shall meet -- until they did. Things became more clear to me at the end of 2018, when the Minister of Internal Affairs [Arsen Avakov], was really warning me that he was hearing that I was going to leave, and then in February, I got a very explicit warning from him that Lutsenko and Giuliani had combined forces to remove me.
LJ: It's interesting. You're hearing about this conspiracy from Ukrainian officials, and it's almost like they know more about it than the U.S. State Department.
MY: Yes, exactly.
The President personally was ready to hold up military assistance in pursuit of a personal favor to him. He was using his own office for his own personal and political gain, which is shocking. This is the sort of thing that you and I have seen in countries around the world. I never expected to see it in the United States.
LJ: In April 2019, you're called back to Washington, in the middle of the night. And you have this meeting with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and you write:
Since midsummer 2018, he explained, President Trump had been calling [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and demanding that I be pulled out of Ukraine…Every time Trump called, his concern was greater, and the concern never went back down to zero. This time the secretary had been unable to continue to protect me, so they had removed me from Ukraine to foreclose the possibility that I would be fired by tweet like Secretary of State Tillerson.
What was it like to hear the full backstory?
MY: I'm not sure it is the full backstory. I think we're going to continue to find out more with every book that comes out. But that's what the deputy secretary told me. It was really bizarre, but even in the moment -- I knew that this wasn't about protecting me. It was about protecting the president; it was about protecting Pompeo. Because as bizarre as all of the things had been around with the smear campaign, which was a real red flag, if the President of the United States had fired a mere Ambassador by tweet, again, clearly something else is going on. It's not normal.
LJ: You returned to the U.S. in May 2019. The Trump-Ukraine story is bubbling in Congress and the press. But on September 24, a call was released between Trump and Zelensky. Trump called you "bad news" and warned "She’s going to go through some things,” and Zelensky agreed with him "100%" and said you were a "bad ambassador.” How did you interpret that transcript?
MY: I'll remind you that this was the so-called "perfect" phone call.
With Zelensky, I had met him a number of times; I had a perfectly normal relationship. I met with him the day before he was elected, where we went through the bilateral agenda and what we were hoping to accomplish with his new administration. (It was clear he was going to win in a landslide.) I know he's an actor, but I didn't see that there were any problems there at all. I interpreted Zelensky's comments as -- this is a president who has been in office about two months, talking to the most important man in the world, who is the head of his most important partner country, and he desperately needs certain things from this man. Like so many other world leaders and our own American leaders, he did what he thought he needed to do, which was toady up to Trump and tell Trump exactly what he wanted to hear.
With Trump, I was concerned because when Trump said "she's going to go through some things," I didn't know what that meant, but I knew it wasn't anything good. He had already removed me from my job. Did that mean there was going to be an investigation into the allegations that they had spewed out there in the smear campaign? Or, it wasn't a secret that I was considering retirement, would they take away my pension? I just didn't know what "she's going to go through some things" could mean, but it was frightening.
LJ: When you testified in front of the House Impeachment Committee publicly, President Trump tweeted about you, saying "Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch turned bad. She started off in Somalia. How did that go?" And [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff asked you to respond in real time and you said you didn't have to have that power. How did it feel to be tweeted about by the President, in real time when you had no opportunity to react to it?
MY: Clearly, I was startled. The worst part was in the seconds before Chairman Schiff started reading the tweet, because I didn't know what [Trump] was going to say. The anticipation of, what is he going to say, and how am I going to react? I'm trying to control myself, so that I'm not visibly displaying anger or hurt, just trying to remain professional and calm. Afterwards, I looked at the tape that night, and I actually did have a lot of emotions going across my face, but I did the best I could to maintain a calm facade.
We all want a ceasefire. We all want the dying and the killing to stop. But Ukrainians are also concerned that Putin will just leverage a ceasefire to do what he did after he lost the battle of Kyiv -- to regroup, rearm, reposition and go at it again.
LJ: President Trump held up that aid for 84 days in 2019. In 2022, Ukraine is facing a war of aggression against Russia. Were there any effects of that hold on on Ukraine's military readiness, and in 2022?
MY: I think the effects were probably more the signal that it sent to Russia that under Donald Trump, the United States was not a steadfast ally. The President personally was ready to hold up military assistance in pursuit of a personal favor to him. He was using his own office for his own personal and political gain, which is shocking. This is the sort of thing that you and I have seen in countries around the world. I never expected to see it in the United States.
LJ: Last week, the Senate unanimously confirmed career Foreign Service officer Bridget Brink to be the next ambassador to Ukraine. But you were the last Senate-confirmed ambassador and that gap lasted almost three years. What do you think it says to countries like Ukraine when the US has a three-year gap between having a full ambassador?
MY: We try to assure countries that this is sadly not unusual -- it's just process, and we still value that relationship. We've got a full team in place. The charge [d'affaires] is managing the relationship, but a lot of countries nevertheless, take umbrage because they want a full ambassador, who is not only appointed by the president, but confirmed by the Senate. That's an important thing, because it means that both branches of government are behind the ambassador.
LJ: On the war, what levers of diplomacy do you see that the U.S. or its partners can use to get Putin to stop? Is there anyone you see on the world stage as being able to influence Vladimir Putin?
MY: It's tricky, isn't it? We have a lot of levers, but I don't think Putin is ready for peace. Everything in life is about timing and personalities, and I think that Russia is not ready to concede anything yet. It doesn't appear at all likely that Russia can reach its maximum gain of taking over all of Ukraine. I'm not sure that Putin personally has actually given up on it. This is a man with strategic patience. If you consider that he went into Georgia in 2008, nothing much happened. He waited awhile and then he invaded Ukraine in 2014. I think the sanctions that we levied did stop him, but it wasn't enough. He waited eight years before he re-invaded. I think it's why the Ukrainians are quite concerned.
Understandably, they want a ceasefire. We all want a ceasefire. We all want the dying and the killing to stop. But they're also concerned that Putin will just leverage a ceasefire to do what he did after he lost the battle of Kyiv -- to regroup, rearm, reposition and go at it again. That might not be this year, or next year, it might be years down the road.
I think we need to keep on doing what we're doing, which is leveraging all our partnerships and alliances around the world. President Biden was just in Asia, and Ukraine and Russia were a part of the conversation. Many of the bilateral as well as multilateral discussions were trying to get India on the side of continuing with the sanctions, and also making it clear to fence sitter countries that the sanctions could affect them, if it's found that some of the things that are sanctioned for Russia come through their countries.
We just need to keep at it. We need to keep the focus, because this is a war about Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has an obsession about Ukraine and wanting to recreate the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union or whatever it is in his mad delusions, but he has said that he has other ambitions to countries further further west, including presumably NATO. He is intent on destroying the rules-based international order that was established after World War II. That system doesn't work for Vladimir Putin. He is looking for a system where might makes right, where he gets to throw his weight around and other countries, and weaker countries have to have to accept that. If that system prevails, that makes for a far less secure world for us. It makes for a less free world for us and certainly less prosperous world for us because it will affect our businesses and trade.
LJ: The Ukraine war appears fairly deadlocked at the moment. What are you looking at in Ukraine in the coming weeks and months?
MY: I hope that we are going to be able to continue to flow weapons systems to Ukraine with other allies and partners. And right, it does seem like there is a grind. Things are unpredictable, but I'm hoping that the Ukrainians can get the upper hand with our security assistance.
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