This week, Jeremi and Zachary are joined by Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to discuss the ways in which U.S. policy has evolved in the region surrounding Ukraine, and the ways people should understand the evolution of that policy for current challenges regarding Ukraine and Democratization in the region as a whole.
Zachary sets the scene with his poem: “Ode to President Zelensky”.
Marie Yovanovitch served as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine (2016-2019), the Republic of Armenia (2008-2011) and the Kyrgyz Republic (2005-2008). She also served as the Dean of the School of Language Studies at the Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State and as the Deputy Commandant and International Advisor at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, National Defense University. Earlier she served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, where she coordinated policy on European and global security issues. Before that, she was the bureau’s Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for issues related to the Nordic, Baltic, and Central European countries. Ambassador Yovanovitch is the author of a recent memoir: Lessons from the Edge.
This episode was mixed and mastered by Oscar Kitmanyen.
- Marie YovanovitchAuthor, Former U.S. Ambassador
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
- Zachary SuriPoet, Co-Host and Co-Producer of This is Democracy
This is Democracy – Episode 201: Marie Yovanovitch and U.S. Relations with Ukraine
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[00:00:25] Jeremi: Welcome to our new episode of this is democracy this week.
Uh, we have the great privilege of speaking with, uh, one of the most experienced, accomplished, and influential figures in American relations with, uh, Ukraine and the wider east European region. Uh, this is ambassador Maria Jovanovich, uh, she’s recently published a really stunning memoir that I. And everyone to read called lessons from the edge.
And we’ll talk about why it’s the edge, uh, for her. Uh, she is, uh, a long serving American ambassador. She was the U S ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019. Before that, uh, the ambassador to Armenia from 2008 to 2011. And before that, to the Kyrgyz Republic from 2005 to 2008, Also held many high ranking policy positions in the state department, in the building as people call it.
Uh, she served as principal, deputy assistant secretary for the bureau of European and Asian affairs. And there she coordinated European and global security issues. And before that she was the Bureau’s deputy assistant secretary responsible for issues related to the Nordic Baltic and central European countries.
So she has studied this region and worked in this region, uh, for quite a long time, since the late 1980s. And of course, this is the larger region surrounding, uh, the current war on Ukraine. So we’re going to talk to the ambassador about. Ways in which us policy has evolved in this region. And the ways we should understand the evolution of that policy for current challenges are surrounding Ukraine and democratization in the region as a whole, uh, ambassador.
Thank you for joining us today. Before we turn to our discussion, uh, of course we have our scene setting poem from Mr. Zachary Siri. What’s the title of your poems?
[00:02:22] Zachary: Oh to President Zelensky.
[00:02:25] Jeremi: Well, let’s hear the ode to President Zelensky
[00:02:29] Zachary: they say yours is a land of poetry, and I believe it because only the poet.
Now the plumber, the teacher, the students can walk in front of a tank. Can radio obscenity is two enemy from an aisle of snakes. They say yours is a land of poetry. You walk the streets, red-eyed in front of the palaces in the early Dawn hours, your smile feeding majestically into resolution. I would like to see the poetry of the child waiting in the Metro station for the bombs to fall.
I would like to see the poetry of the mother holding that child on the border, trying to cross into humanity. I would like to see the poetry of the father and his Malatov patrolling the streets of his city at Dawn. Maybe he runs into you because you are there too, and you are holding your child too, and you are waiting also to cross into humanity.
They say yours is land of poetry. And I remember it now, how they walked Kharkiv and took the lyrics from the city in snow, the city in snow that holds back in empire. Now the city in snow that holds your fate and its hands, the city in snow with a Misael hits the apartment block and you bow your head and pray.
They say yours is a land of poetry. I’d like to visit it someday and walk the streets that they did and hold the staircase banisters that they did running down to the bomb shelter at 4:00 AM when Kiev is bombed. And maybe I run into you because you were there too, and you are holding our child to, and you are waiting also to cross into Humana.
[00:04:17] Jeremi: That’s a very moving poem. Zachary, what is your poem about
[00:04:20] Zachary: my poem is really about the power of telling a story of humanitarian and humanist leadership, uh, in the midst of such inhuman violence.
[00:04:30] Jeremi: Well, I think that a is a, is a dark opening, but an opening, I think that that’s appropriate for our conversation today.
Uh, ambassador, how did you. Interested and involved. Uh, you talk about this in the first a hundred pages or so of your memoir. How did you get involved in this part of the world, which has such a long history of, uh, warfare. And if we might say so inhumane experiences between different societies.
[00:04:58] Marie Yovanovitch: Well, if I could just, um, echo your words of praise for the poem, because, and it directly relates to the answer I’m going to give you because, um, you know, there are big geopolitical events like war and famine and, um, all the things that we’re seeing now, but, uh, it all does boil down to our own humanity and individuals and how individuals deal with those things.
How individuals leave. Through these crises, hopefully towards a, you know, a more positive future. So my parents grew up in this region. That’s where my roots are. My father was born in the Soviet union in 1921. He grew up in a, what was then you dislodge? Yeah. And I was taken prisoner of war by the Nazis, um, and, uh, lived, uh, uh, in, in, in wartime Paris after he escaped.
And, um, my mom was a half rush and she grew up as a stateless person because she was half Russian, uh, in Nazi Germany. Comfortable upbringing there. And they both saw all sorts of peripheric things and they both understood what it was to live under authoritarian regimes, where you are not free and where you are afraid.
And, um, You know, they met in Canada and made their way to the United States with me. And they were always grateful, uh, to have safe Harbor in the United States to be able to bring up my brother and I in a democracy where they could say what they wanted to say, where they could believe what they wanted to believe, go to church and worship and the way they wanted to worship.
Um, and they taught us not to take it for granted. And they also taught us, even though materially, we had very little, although we were very rich and the things that, that count, um, that we were fortunate, we were fortunate to be in the United States and to have all that opportunity and that we needed to give back.
And so, you know, I many detours in my life, as I’m sure there aren’t many of our listeners lives, but, uh, in my late twenties, um, I, uh, came back to an original idea that I had in my teens of joining the foreign service, working in the state department, working on foreign policy, marrying up my, um, My, uh, passion for history and politics and foreign policy and traveling.
And after all, this is a career that pays you to travel and, um, you know, how can you get right? And, um, and the idea of giving back to the American people who had given so much to our family. So, you know, that all kind of, um, kind of came together and I joined the. In 1986.
[00:07:45] Jeremi: And
I just want to highlight this.
You mentioned this in passing in your, in your memoir. Uh, but it’s important because, uh, many of my students are pursuing the same career path. Uh, the first time you took the foreign service exam, you did not pass correctly. And I only bring that up because that happens to a lot of my students as well. Uh, but yet obviously it didn’t stop you from having an incredible career.
[00:08:08] Marie Yovanovitch: Yeah, that’s right. So I didn’t pass the first time I took it again and I passed, um, I had a number of, uh, you know, stumbles, if not outright failures in the early part of my career where, you know, I wanted to do certain kinds of work. I wanted to do political analysis and reporting. I was not able to do that, even though I tried and various ways, you know, I persisted, I.
Volunteered. I did all sorts of things. Um, in the end, I was lucky enough to be a beneficiary of a class action lawsuit that had started decades before I joined the foreign service. The state department, uh, fought it for decades. Um, and eventually a court found that the state department was discriminating against women, um, in the exam, in the intake, in how they assigned people, their specialties in how they, um, Assigned people, their women, their jobs, and how they promoted them.
So across the board discrimination. And, um, I was fortunate enough to be one of 14 women who was offered a remedy in, um, 1992. And, uh, that really started me on my career for what I wanted to do. And I only bring this up. That persistence is really important, uh, in the face of setbacks and failure. But, you know, sometimes even persistence isn’t enough and, you know, maybe there are other remedies like the law, uh, to help us move our institutions along and make those institutions live up to our ideals.
[00:09:35] Jeremi: And just to, uh, add a little bit to that, and you talk about this in, in really interesting detail in your memoir. This was the lawsuit filed by, I believe Alison Palmer, uh, who was a generation, maybe two generations before you in the state department. Correct? Um, so, so how did you then come to, uh, your work, uh, in, in, uh, in Ukraine, which was actually, I think your first posting back to this region as a, as a DCM, if I’m not mistaken, right.
As basically the number two in the embassy there, how did that happen? Um,
[00:10:09] Marie Yovanovitch: well, I had served in, um, it was Pakistan on temporary duty. I served in Moscow for three years in the early 1990. Um, uh, you know, I was interested in the region and part because of my roots. Um, I had studied Russian in college again because of my roots, but it was also during the cold war.
So if you were interested in foreign policy, national security, um, Russian was a good language to have. Um, and you know, all of a sudden in 1991, I mean, I shouldn’t say all of a sudden, I mean, the decay was evident for decades, but the Soviet union fell apart. Um, there were, you know, instead of just one country, the Soviet union, there were 15 countries, all of which needed.
You know, new embassies and staffing and everything else. So there was a lot of opportunity for people who had studied the region or knew the language were interested in going. And, um, I, um, you know, uh, worked on. The area, both, you know, when I was in Russia, obviously, uh, from 1993 to 96, but also I came back to Washington and worked on that was the deputy director of the Russia desk.
And, um, um, worked with closely with the man who was eventually needed to ambassador to Ukraine. And he asked me to be his number two. And so I went out in 2001, um, and that was, uh, you know, A fascinating, fascinating period of time to be there.
[00:11:33] Jeremi: And what’s really interesting to me about that chapter. And it’s a long chapter in your memoir and it’s part of your background.
I didn’t know when you became famous later on. Uh, but w what was really interesting to me about it was you talk in depth about the problems of corruption and mismanagement in Ukraine. Uh, the, the efforts by the Ukrainians at times to cut. Um, misdeeds and things of that sort of it’s, it’s different, of course, from the image we want to tell ourselves about current Ukraine.
Um, so if you could just reflect on that, uh, because it will obviously be relevant when we talk about current events. So
[00:12:10] Marie Yovanovitch: all of the countries of the former Soviet union, the new countries, um, that emerged, um, you know, had the legacy of the Soviet union to deal with and corruption, flourishes in countries that.
Do not provide services to their people that do not govern well because, um, you know, the leaders are too busy stealing to, you know, actually fix roads or have good schools or good medical systems and everything else, but people are going to find a way. And that is, um, you know, and they’re watching, of course, the example of their leaders stealing.
You know, millions and billions. Um, and so they’re paying brides, uh, left right. And center, uh, to, you know, get that telephone. You know, this was back in the days of landlines, get that telephone installed called or electricity turned on or the right medication for their sick child in hospital. Um, because, you know, cause you’re gonna find a way to get at what you need.
Right. And so there, there is, there was in the Soviet union there, the system was corruption. And so when all of these countries emerged. It wasn’t like all of a sudden all of that went away. Um, so even as, um, you know, countries were trying to develop democracies, um, in what was formally a communist state, uh, trying to develop, um, you know, capitalism market economies in, you know, what was a demand, uh, uh, command, um, economy, um, you know, these legacy systems continue to flourish and as there were gaps in laws and regulations, and as there were opportunities.
Steel, you know, the, the, the, the young and the bold and the, um, very connected in the military, or especially in the security services, found ways to, um, you know, snag, um, the state, um, state owned properties that were being privatized because ordinary citizens didn’t understand the concept of privatization, the concept that, you know, a voucher for a part of a factory actually, Held real value.
Um, and so, um, there was, um, I’m not saying it was illegal, um, but you could certainly make a case that what was going on was deeply, um, unfair, uh, deeply immoral and, um, you know, kind of set the stage for ordinary citizens to say, well, gosh, If this is, if this is democracy, if this is the market economy, you can keep it.
And it was better, um, better in the old days, even as they were pocketing some of the really positive things that were happening in their countries, they would look back fondly, um, to the old days. And so, you know, fast forward to 2001, um, that was 10 years after independence and a whole new crew of, you know, 20 somethings, 30 somethings who had, um, you know, been educated, um, slightly after, um, after the fall apart of the Soviet union.
So not as indoctrinated, um, there, there was a whole class of civil society, activists that were, were coming in. And, uh, crucially investigative journalists and they were. You know, making inroads and, um, trying to set up the democracy that they knew Ukraine could be. And they were really active and really inspiring.
And, um, you know, it was just a flourishing of society even against, um, the, um, the entrenched interests that really didn’t want to move forward. Um, so, uh, that was something that I really admired and Ukrainians in 2001 to 2004, when I was there the first time. And the reason that I wanted to go back in 2016 after the revolution of dignity.
[00:15:52] Jeremi: And what role did you and others in the U S embassy and what w what role as a whole did us policy play in trying to counter corruption and support those, uh, heroic, uh, activists, uh, that you’ve just described? Uh, well, throughout the period, I mean, I’m actually thinking of your, your coverage and your memoir of your time and Ukraine also in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere.
And one of the reasons I asked the question is there’s often the criticism made that the United States didn’t do enough and that we contributed to corruption in the region.
[00:16:27] Marie Yovanovitch: Well, and I think, I think that that’s very valid criticism. Um, that certainly when I was in Ukraine the first time. Um, anti-corruption I mean, we, we could see the corruption, people talked about it, um, but it was not a part of, um, really or a big part, at least of our policy discussions with the premiums.
It was, um, not a par of our assistance programs to sort of have, um, anti-corruption programs. Programming. Uh, we could see it. Um, but it was like the elephant in the room that nobody, you know, we were all too polite to mention it. So we were working with Ukrainians to try to help them build a, um, a market economy.
And yet, you know, uh, the, the, the foundation of what should be a healthy thriving economy in a country that is relatively rich. Um, Was, uh, constantly being nibbled away by, um, by corruption. And so contrast that with, um, 2016, when I returned, where, when I presented my credentials to president Poroshenko, he raised the issue of corruption.
I mean, I think if we had talked to president Kuchma in 2001, that corruption, we would have been thrown out of the room, but civil society, the people of Ukraine. We’re the ones that we’re moving this agenda of anti-corruption forward over the years. And in 2014, um, they, uh, there was the revolution of dignity, which means, uh, I want to be treated with dignity.
I don’t want to have to pay bribes for something that is, you know, my do as a citizen of Ukraine. And, um, uh, you know, it was basically rule of law. We want to live under the rule of law. Be able to hold our leaders accountable when they steal from us and buy, you know, some accounts, um, by, uh, by some measures, um, president Yanukovych, who was the leader in 2014, he and his cronies stole $40 billion from UK.
And, um, so that revolution, you know, there was for a basis for people being unhappy and, uh, when they were successful and, you know, chase Danica, vagina, the country, the new, um, president, president Poroshenko, even though he was an oligarchy himself, he came in on a platform of anti-corruption and, um, so it was the people, the actual.
The, um, the government itself without platform and crucially also the international community, uh, whether it was the international financial institutions, like the IMF or the world bank, uh, whether it was the EU, the us, others, um, we all kind of came together and. Um, there was a negotiation of what steps Ukraine was going to take on this anti-corruption move.
Um, and, um, the international community was willing to help fund it, help pay for it, support it. Um, but we, uh, were pretty tough. Um, and, uh, You know, told the Ukrainians that they needed to take certain steps and then we would provide, you know, the funding that, um, we were not willing to continue to pay, you know, sort of into a bottom back black hole of business as usual.
And even then with, you know, such momentum for the fight against corruption, uh, it was, it was. Um, because, you know, change is hard under any circumstances and you know, that is true when you grain just as is true in the United States and arguably the conditions there were harder in 2014.
[00:20:02] Zachary: And what role did Russia play at all of this?
I think, I think maybe a trend for many of our listeners. That’s, that’s the key question at the moment. Uh, how, how has Russia shaped this region, uh, in the year since 1991. And, and what role do you see it is playing at.
[00:20:20] Marie Yovanovitch: Yeah, well, so for the first 10 years of independence under president Yeltsin, um, Russia was, um, you know, working towards democracy, working towards, um, establishing a market economy.
We had a pretty good relationship with, with Russia. And crucially on important security issues, including nuclear issues, uh, which was, you know, I mean, this is going back a while, but you know, we were very concerned about loose nukes in, um, in Russia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan, uh, and, um, you know, we countries have the ability to safeguard.
Maintain them, because that requires a lot of money, a lot of sophistication, um, a lot of commitment, uh, when, you know, countries are, uh, you know, new countries and having to, um, a lot of other priorities as well. So we had a, um, you know, it’s, it’s hard to believe now, uh, given, you know, some of the propaganda that is being put out by, um, by Russia, but we had a really, um, A positive relationship with Russia.
And we worked very hard to include Russia and the international community, uh, president Clinton, um, invited. President Yeltsin to join the group of eight, um, which is, you know, it had been the group of seven, the seven largest economies in the world. Russia was not the eighth largest economy in the world, but we wanted them at the table.
We wanted to bring them in so that they would understand that working within the global, uh, rules-based system, uh, was an advantage, not just to us, but for Russia as well. And, uh, you know, it’s, it’s hard to believe, but, you know, Talking about maybe one day Russia joining the EU, even, even NATO. Uh, but when, um, and even Putin, uh, was talking in that way in, in the very, very beginning of, uh, his, uh, years in power.
Um, but, um, but then he took a very hard right turn, uh, over the, um, early two thousands, um, or the mid two thousands. And, um, you know, we can, we can see the. So, um, yeah, so that was, uh, that was really unfortunate.
[00:22:35] Jeremi: And an ambassador. I just want to ask you now, cause it’s a, it’s a question that comes up quite often.
Uh, do you think the expansion of NATO, um, alienated Russia?
[00:22:47] Marie Yovanovitch: Um, I actually think that’s a red hearing. Um, I think that, um, Russia uses it and, you know, certainly used it as a pretext to, uh, in Vade, um, uh, re invade, I should say Ukraine, uh, in. In February of this year, but I mean, look at all the things that, um, that Putin has said, you know, on the Eve of the war, um, where he thought, you know, be a couple of days and he would take even all of Ukraine.
Um, he was already setting his sights for countries for their west. Um, he has, uh, repeatedly talked about the internet. Order is something that, um, you know, is, is, is not, not a positive thing even though even Brusha benefits from it. And, um, he has just recently, uh, last week compared himself to Peter, the great and talk, talked about how he’s going to re absorb, um, uh, lands that that are Russian.
Um, I don’t think this really has, um, Much to do with, uh, with NATO. And I think it, it, it also bears repeating once again, that it’s not like NATO, uh, in the early 1990s was looking to expand and beat the drums and force other countries to join Hedo. Um, other countries asked to join NATO and they did it even at the time because they wanted security guarantees.
They remembered Russian history and Russia’s long history of invading their countries and they were not sanguine, uh, that, uh, the piece that we saw, uh, w mostly saw in the 1990s, at least in that part of Europe, um, Was going to last and, um, you know, now we’re looking at, uh, possibly another, um, enlargement of NATO with Sweden and Finland.
And again, why is that is precisely because of Russian. Um, you know, very thing that Putin, um, says he didn’t want on expansion of NATO. He’s getting because of the aggressive actions of, um, his country, right.
[00:24:59] Jeremi: I mean, in a certain way, uh, recent events. Uh, redeemed the arguments made by the poles and others for the necessity of NATO.
It’s it seems to me, um, I wanted us to, to get back to, uh, your time then as ambassador to Ukraine, which began in 2016, this was your second tour of duty there. You had been, uh, in the embassy earlier. Um, when you returned as ambassador, and this is obviously when, uh, things become very quickly complicated with the new Trump administration.
What, what were your main goals? What were you working on in Ukraine in that period as ambassador?
[00:25:34] Marie Yovanovitch: Yeah, so, um, I we’re policy towards Ukraine hasn’t really changed since, um, 1991, when Ukraine gained independence, uh, you know, it sort of, uh, You know, three, three legs of the stool. The first is, um, security, a security partnership.
The second is, um, a, uh, an economic relationship, uh, and the third is a political relationship. And, um, you know, we worked with Ukraine as we did with Russia and other countries of the former Soviet union to help them, um, build up their, um, build up their security. Um, So that, uh, you know, one of the things that we look for in our security partners is interoperability and, uh, an ability to do, you know, when, when we have goals in common, whether it’s against terrorists or pirates, or, you know, other missions around the world, That we can work with other countries and make it a, um, you know, a multi partnership, um, sort of, um, sort of a thing.
Um, so we, we worked with, um, with, uh, with Ukraine on that, um, and also trying to help them reform their military. So it wasn’t the kind of top-down heavy. Corrupt institution that you can see in Russia. Um, but more of a modern military that relies on, uh, non-commissioned officers that is more flexible where procurements are overseen by, um, You know, by the legislature, um, that are transparent so that there is less opportunity for graft and corruption.
Um, on the political side, uh, the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian government, since the very first days said that they wanted to become a democracy. We thought that that would be good for Ukraine that, you know, most people, um, you know, whether it’s in the U S or in Ukraine or someplace else, they don’t talk about.
To live in a democracy as though they were a bunch of political scientists in classroom, they talk about wanting to have opportunity to wan wanting to live in security, wanting to have, um, uh, good jobs so they can take care of their families. So that. Wanting, uh, you know, the government to provide services so that their kids can get a good education and a good job later on.
Um, and they want, um, accountability so that if they don’t like their mayor or their president, they can throw the bomb out and, you know, elect somebody else. Instead, that’s the model. And, um, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best one out there. And so I, um, you know, we thought that would be good for Ukraine and we definitely thought it would be good for the United States because is make better partners for the United States.
Um, period, paragraph we have, uh, you know, we share values, but democracies are generally. Uh, also more stable and more stable in, um, in their, uh, in their region. And then of course the important, uh, commercial and economic relationship, Ukraine’s a huge country with a huge market and lots of resources. And so we saw a lot of opportunity for American business, um, creating jobs in America, creating profits in America.
And so we wanted to build up those, um, those relations. Um, but that also depended on rule of law so that when, um, when American companies are in Ukraine on, they know that they can rely on the rules as Britain, uh, that the court system is, um, a, an open one and a fair one. And. Judicial opinions or not, um, based on payment, um, by one of the other parties.
So we had a pretty big agenda with Ukraine and it has continued with bipartisan support since, um, since, uh, 1991. Now with the revolution in 2014, The revolution of dignity, which really kind of, jump-started a lot of reforms because it was coming directly. That desire was coming directly from the people.
Um, we, you know, really jump-started again, um, you know, our efforts to help the Ukrainians. And so I think that was, um, that was an important.
[00:29:49] Jeremi: And what happened then as you’re pursuing this, uh, agenda, which sounds, um, vital and reasonable and appropriate, uh, an agenda for basic, uh, building democratic institutions and creating the foundations for a better partnership between the United States and Ukraine.
What happened with the Trump administration to undermine your efforts?
[00:30:12] Marie Yovanovitch: Well, The crazy thing is the, um, the official, um, us foreign policy. In other words, Trump’s foreign policy did not change over that time. I mean, if you, if you look at, um, statements made and everything else, but there was. An undercurrent that perhaps president Trump himself was not completely comfortable with that.
Given his statements about Russia, about Putin, about Crimea being a part of Russia and on and on. Um, but the actual policy didn’t change. And in fact, it was strengthened in, in one way. President Trump agreed to send, you know, after about a year, uh, he agreed to say javelins, um, those anti-tank missiles to, um, to Ukraine for the first time something the Obama administration had refused to do.
So ironically, on the one hand, um, you know, the policy was, was good and we worked continuing to implement it and going full force. And it had, as I said, bipartisan support on this. Um, but you know, there were, you know, there were always, there was always kind of, we were always wondering, you know, when would the next shoe drop from president Trump?
And then, uh, you know, in 2018 I was starting to hear rumblings, um, that. You know, maybe I might be replaced. And at the end of 2018, I was told by a cabinet, a Ukrainian cabinet member that, um, that in fact there was a plan to do this, that, uh, a corrupt prosecutor in England, Cinco, uh, was working with Americans, um, to get rid of.
And, you know, when I would go back to Washington, my part of Washington official professional Washington, they were like, no, that’s crazy. You’re doing a great job. And in fact, in February, I was asked to stay on for another year. Um, but, um, but there was a parallel track that Giuliani. And, um, they were, um, working a deal with the Ukrainians to see if they could get dirt on the Biden family, um, that would, uh, perhaps embarrass them and, um, be advantageous to Trump and a possible, um, presidential, um, um, Match up in our presidential elections.
And part of the quid pro quo was, uh, I know that Poroshenko wanted Trump to endorse him for president, but I think lutsenko wanted me out of the country because he did not like me. And he did not like, um, the efforts of the U S embassy to fulfill our, uh, us policy goals, but also Ukrainian policy goals to fight.
Correct. And ultimately, uh, those two were successful in having me removed from Ukraine. And I just like to make one other point about that while that was, you know, obviously deeply, deeply distressing for me. Um, um, It, it, it went well beyond me because, you know, as we know, presidents are, you know, if it is in their mandate, they get to name ambassadors, they get to remove ambassadors.
But what happened with me was there was a whole, um, publicly orchestrated campaign to accuse me of all sorts of wrongdoing. Um, and then ostensibly, that was the reason that, um, I was pulled out post when there was no necessity for anything like that. Um, Trump could have removed me. Um, without making it a big public deal.
So anybody paying attention, um, knew that there was something else going on. It wasn’t entirely clear what was going on, but they knew something else was going on. But the effect on our national security was greater because bad actors, whether it’s private actors in the United States like Giuliani and his cohort, or, um, corrupt actors abroad.
They could see that if there was an ambassador or somebody else that was making life uncomfortable for them, they could cut a deal. They could find what was advantageous to president Trump personally, and possibly, um, possibly get that person removed. Um, you know, when they are actually implementing us foreign policy, And, um, I think that sent a shiver of fear, uh, through many of my colleagues and probably a shiver of hope, uh, you know, Pope, uh, through, uh, many bag, bad actors around the world.
It was, it was extremely dangerous, uh, for our national
[00:34:36] Jeremi: security. Well, and it’s very hard to, um, convince countries to make the hard choices about abandoning corruption and implementing democratic systems when, when we’re acting in corrupt ways, ourselves. Right. So, how did these challenges from the Trump administration not only undermine us foreign policy?
What, what effect did they have on this new government? Under president Solinski.
[00:35:04] Marie Yovanovitch: You know, president’s Linsky his background, as you know, is using actor and a comedian, a very accomplished businessman. He had, uh, set up a multi-million dollar production company based on, you know, his own talents and the talents of his friends from Creevy Brie, the area he’s from. And, but he was not an a politician and he didn’t, um, you know, know how the levers of government worked.
And, um, so, uh, that’s what the Ukrainian people wanted. They, they voted for him as the protest vote against Poroshenko, who they felt, um, you know, hadn’t accomplished enough in six years and was getting too, uh, too comfortable. So they voted Wolinsky in, um, with 73%, uh, of, of, of the. And, um, you know, Zelenskyi was, um, moving forward with his agenda, trying to end the war and Ukraine, uh, um, in the Donbass, uh, as well as ending corruption, that, that, that was, those were the two points of his platform with, um, you know, mixed success.
I mean, he was really struggling his. Popularity ratings were in the thirties, um, on February 23rd, um, then the Russians invaded and he became, you know, the Winston Churchill of our time in camouflage. And, um, you know, now he’s at 94% popularity rating and you know, it makes me wonder who, uh, who are the other 6%.
Exactly. Um, but I think. You know, going back to your question, uh, he had no experience in government, no experience with, um, you know, foreign policy, national security, uh, in a country that was very challenged on. And so, uh, you know, his, uh, he had a couple of congratulatory phone calls with Trump, and then he had the, the fateful important phone call trumped up the perfect phone call in July of 2019.
There. Zelensky his mission was to get Trump to approve another order of javelins. Those anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Uh, this is something that. Funded by the U S Congress. Um, but, um, as, as we now know, uh, the president, uh, president Trump was, uh, holding, holding that up. And so he, you know, he was on a mission to establish a good relationship with his most important counterpart meter.
Um, and also specifically to, uh, to get those javelins released and Trump, uh, for his part, um, was also on a mission he wanted to get Zelensky to, um, Institute, um, Investigations into the Biden family, um, to benefit himself personally and politically, uh, this is not a mission on behalf of the American people.
He was using his office to benefit himself. Uh, that’s something that, you know, I’ve seen and we’ve all seen in other countries. I never expected to see it in the United States. And so, you know, there’s the Lensky, uh, as you know, a new, a new president, um, I can only imagine what was going through his head.
Talking on, um, you know, his, his side of the Atlantic during those conversations. Um, and I think, you know, there there’s, uh, an interview which he gave either in September or October of that year, where he basically said he doesn’t trust any foreign power. And I think you can draw a straight line from that conversation with Trump to that comment by, by.
[00:38:41] Jeremi: Did the actions taken by the Trump administration in removing you in trying to bullies the Lensky into turning over dirt on Joe Biden’s family. Did those actions encourage the Russian invasion?
[00:39:00] Marie Yovanovitch: I think it did because I think that, um, not only Putin, but perhaps other authoritarian leaders, I mean, they, they, they, they drew solace from, uh, that, uh, the transcript that that was released and, you know, just all the other signals that, that Trump was sending about grain. Uh, I mean, I think it was clear to the Ukrainians who were always worried about where they stood, not necessarily with.
But with the president of the United States. Um, and, um, and I think the same thing is true for Putin. I mean, he, he could see that, um, Trump, um, very much admired. And, um, you know, saw Ukraine as the weaker, uh, power and one, not really, um, I think, uh, worthy of his Trump’s Trump’s attention. And so I think it enabled, um, Putin to get away with stuff.
And I’ll give you an example, um, in November of 2018, uh, Russia. Broadened the war in Ukraine to the Naval domain. Russia sees three Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors and, uh, international waters. Um, the weekend after Thanksgiving. And Trump would not allow the state department and certainly did not issue one itself, did not issue a statement of any kind.
I mean, this is the sort of thing that would be routine. Um, and, uh, you know, it’s a signal to a country like Russia that we’re watching. This is not okay. You need to deescalate, um, while you still can, while you’re in international waters and can let those vessels go. But. Radio silence crickets from the United States.
And I’m sure the Russians were well aware that there was lots of phone calls back and forth, um, on the U S side. And that, um, you know, there, there was no acquiescence from, from the U S you know, 24 hours later, um, after the Russians are already told those that. Back to Russia. Um, Nikki Haley, um, went way beyond her, officially sanctioned talking points at the UN to condemn Russian actions, but it was too late.
And, um, you know, people forget about that. And I think, um, they forget about the fact that. Uh, you know, the U S was thinking about, you know, what else can our response be? And we came up with a couple of steps, including sending warships to the black sea. This is something we do routinely, uh, whether it’s in the Taiwan, straits, other parts of the world and black sea.
And we do it to signal that, um, commercial, uh, lanes are open for, um, for. For, you know, other, other vessels, uh, that we have an interest in, um, in, in, in that, that, that this is vitally important navigation, free navigation of the seas. And so it was announced, um, and, and president Trump saw it on CNN and, uh, I mean he had a grade to it, but then he saw it on CNN and he worried that, um, Putin would like it.
And he can’t. These scent, these kinds of actions send signals, not only to the Ukrainians, but to the Russians as well.
[00:42:13] Jeremi: Do you think that, um, the Biden administration has been able to, um, fix this problem? Have we now reached a point where, where we’ve overcome those, those, um, challenges or is the legacy still strong?
[00:42:29] Marie Yovanovitch: Well, I think that the Biden administration has done a really good job, a really good job in very, very difficult circumstances of trying to navigate what is a very narrow channel, um, between, um, on the one hand supporting Ukraine, deterring Russia, and reinforcing the Eastern flank. And on the other hand, um, You know, not widening the war.
Nobody wants a war with Russia and Russia knows that. And Russia is trying to deter us in all sorts of ways, including reminding, uh, in a very, um, irresponsible way that they are a nuclear power and they could use their nuclear way if, if, if provoked. And, um, so I think, you know, this is not a static. You know the answer to your question?
Uh, it it’s, it’s hard to answer it because it’s not a static situation. So on the one hand, I think Putin was surprised by the resolve of the United States, by the ability of NATO and the other Western countries to unify by, you know, the remarkable, um, fight back from not just the Ukrainian military, but the Ukrainian people and Zalinsky his leadership.
Um, so, you know, That was, that was all good. But you know, now we’re heading into month four and, um, you know, um, the attention is, is drifting. Um, people wonder how long this is going to last. What’s going to be the cost to us. And I think what we need to remember is that, yes, this is a war about Ukraine. I mean, Putin, no question has an obsession about.
And returning it to mother Russia, but it is also about something bigger, which is, this is a war on, on Europe. Um, Putin has made that clear and I think if he’s successful in the dome boss, he’s gonna wait and see if he can continue pushing west. Um, and if he can’t do it immediately, he will wait and he will regroup.
That’s been his pattern over time with Georgia in 20 2008. Ukraine for the first time in 2014, he will do this again. He’s told us that he has beams beyond Ukraine and that the international order is one of the, you know, one of the targets in his sites. And so I think we need to take him at his word if who is successful, not only will he continue, maybe not this year, maybe in 10 years.
Um, maybe in five years. But other autocrats will be emboldened because they will see that countries can get away with, with, um, imposing force on their neighbors, their weaker neighbors, and, um, you know, that creates a world. Is far more dangerous for us, the international rules-based order. Um, you know, there’s a reason that countries, including the Soviet union came together after world war II, um, to sort of try to set up principles like sovereignty and non-use of force or the threat of force or the inviolability of borders and the institutions to help us manage them and the treaties and agreements.
Um, To, um, you know, give us the guidelines for how to do all of this over the last, you know, 70 plus years we have been. And when I say we, I don’t just mean the us. I think this includes Russia as well. We have been more secure, more prosperous. Maybe this part doesn’t include Russia and more free. And if Putin is allowed to set the terms of what international engagement looks like post February 20, It is going to be a far more dangerous, far, less prosperous world for all.
[00:46:15] Jeremi: We always like to close ambassador with some, uh, hopeful, um, thoughts, uh, drawing on this history and you shared so much with us. We, we haven’t talked very much about your personal ordeal, uh, testifying during the impeachment hearings. Again, and I hope our readers will, will read that it was a very, very moving part of your book for me.
Uh, but I do want us to try to close on a somewhat hopeful note, um, from your long experience that you’ve shared a little bit of with us right here. Uh, what are the opportunities we have going forward? What have we learned in the last 30 years that can, can help us to do better, uh, in this region, in the region around Ukraine and in a broader sense, your, your final.
Chapter of your memoir, uh, refers to the foreign service and your career, uh, as the best America has to offer, what w what is the best we have to offer going forward?
[00:47:14] Marie Yovanovitch: Well, and it’s not just us, but, you know, I look at the people of Ukraine who I think surprised the world. Um, they didn’t surprise me because I know them, but, um, you know, they, um, they, they want to.
Live in a free country. I mean, they’re fighting on giving everything. They’ve got to fight for their country to fight for their families, to fight for their freedom, to fight for our freedom. Um, that gives me a lot of hope. I mean, I, you know, I think of how many conversations I’ve had with people and continue to have with people who, um, you know, based politically don’t think.
You know, some of these countries should have the right to, uh, determine their own futures, that they are smaller countries and, you know, our, our, um, bigger issues, um, you know, we need to deal with the bigger powers and, um, Uh, countries like Ukraine, uh, need to kind of put up because they must, um, and the Ukrainian people will simply not tolerate that.
Even if Selenski, um, we’re sign an agreement with everything that Putin wanted. I mean, first of all, you know, just given the 20 14, 20 15 agreements, why do we even think you would think would honor those agreements, but so. Ukrainian people they believe in self-determination and they want to be free. And, um, you know, we started this program about, um, poetry and to Russia, Chenko the, the most famous, the most beloved Ukrainian PO poet said fight on and you will prevail.
And that is what the Ukrainian people are doing. And when I look at our own country, whether it’s foreign service officers, civil servants, military people, all of whom, everybody who was asked to testify, even in the face of their, um, agency and the white house, telling them not to testify, um, decided that their.
That there greater loyalty was to the constitution, not to an individual. And, um, and I think that should give the American people hope. And I think, you know, about the pandemic and how. You know, so many people kept, kept the country going, uh, you know, whether it was medical workers, whether it was emergency workers, whether it was food, deliverers, teachers, others doing the right thing because, um, because we needed them.
And so that’s the sort of thing that gives me hope. I do believe that we have grave challenges in the United States. Um, and, um, we need to meet them head on and everybody needs to do their part. But when I look around it, And when I know some of you know, that I work with students as well and, and talk to students who are ready to get in there and, uh, you know, we’re idealistic and you know, we’re going to fix the mess that my generation has made.
Um, you know, that gives me a lot of hope about the.
[00:50:09] Jeremi: Zachary. What do you think? You know, I
[00:50:12] Zachary: think there’s a lot of hope out there too. I think that we’ve all been inspired by the, the, the force of will and the determination of, of the Ukrainian people. Um, and I think, uh, as the ambassador said, we need to, we need to not look up.
We need to keep looking and we need to, we need to keep paying attention because whether we like it or not, this fight is going to continue for a long time. And, uh, we have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t forget, uh, the heroism that we’ve seen, but also that we’re able to, to challenge to channel, uh, some of those, that same idealism and that.
[00:50:48] Jeremi: Spirit right. As an, as in the past, we can often remember who we are by looking at our activities and our relationships with societies abroad and find inspiration indeed, as your, as your poem referred to as, as well. Um, I think it’s also always crucial that we bring a longer historical perspective and, and ambassador ambassador Jovanovich I think, uh, your memoir and your discussion today share with us not only your personal experience, but uh, 35 40 years of history in this region, a history that’s crucial to understanding how we’ve come to this moment we are today, but also to see the possibilities that the power, as you said, at the very beginning of our show, ambassador, the power of individuals and the, the ways in which individuals can indeed change the world around them and inspire others around them as well.
And that’s part of the story of, of Eastern Europe after. After the end of the Soviet union, just as also the tragedies we’re witnessing are part of that history as well. Uh, ambassador, thank you so much for joining us, uh, this week and Zachary, thank you for your poem as always. And most of all, thank you to our loyal listeners for joining us for this episode of this is democracy.
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