Marie Yovanovitch on Trump, Putin, Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s courage and the future of democracy
If Carl von Clausewitz‘s famous maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means holds some truth, then the border zone between the two — the pathway into war, or the way around it — is where the mysterious art of diplomacy is practiced.
Marie Yovanovitch is a lifelong diplomat. She had spent her entire career representing American “soft power” in a variety of challenging contexts and under presidents of both parties, right up to the point when she abruptly and unexpectedly became a household name. As U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019, Yovanovitch became an important supporting player in Donald Trump’s first impeachment, as the principal target of a smear campaign that even now, three years later, is too convoluted and nonsensical to be easily explained.
The short version — which isn’t all that short — is that Rudy Giuliani, the very definition of an unreliable narrator, became obsessed with Yovanovitch and decided to blame her for the fact that his attempts to dig up dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden in Ukraine were going nowhere. Along the way, Giuliani and a number of his dubious associates tried to concoct a conspiracy theory linking the Ukrainian government to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, in a transparent and idiotic attempt to deflect attention from Robert Mueller’s report and the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia.
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In her new memoir “Lessons From the Edge,” a rich and interesting career history that covers much more than her disastrous Trump entanglement, Yovanovitch makes a convincing case that she knew virtually nothing about Giuliani’s Ukraine skulduggery or about Hunter Biden’s admittedly shady business dealings there. She was taken completely by surprise, she reports, to get star billing in Trump’s infamous “perfect” phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, then Ukraine’s brand new president.
What seems clear to me, after reading her book and speaking with her by Zoom for half an hour, is that Yovanovitch is exactly the sort of person Trump and his minions identified with the “deep state” — a judicious, cerebral rule-follower who saw herself as serving a long-term narrative of “American interests” that was largely independent of politics, and had only incrementally shifted from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama. In a sense, they were correct to see her as an enemy: Yovanovitch makes clear in her memoir that she came to understand the Trump administration as an Americanized version of the blatantly corrupt power politics she had observed for years as a senior diplomat in Ukraine, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.
Another reason Yovanovitch’s story is fascinating now, of course, is because of how it may have shaped what has happened since. In the historical rear-view mirror, the events that linked Trump, Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin in 2019 are now shaped by the far more traumatic events of 2022, which have thrust Zelenskyy onto the world stage and made Putin appear alternately more malicious and more delusional than ever before.
As you might expect, Marie Yovanovitch measures her words carefully, and expresses disagreement in tones of studied quietness. She knows both Ukraine and Russia well, and says that while she could see these events taking shape well ahead of time, like most of us she did not believe things would go so bad so quickly. She told me I was welcome to call her Masha — she was born in Canada to Russian-émigré parents — but I don’t believe I ever did. As Donald Trump found out, this is not a person to be taken lightly.
We have to start with a subject that can only be difficult for you. Personally and professionally, you have ties to both Russia and Ukraine that go pretty deep. At the risk of sounding like an interviewer on “The View,” what has this been like for you personally?
It’s hard to find the right words. Initially, it’s hard to believe that we are now one month into this war of choice. There is no reason for this war. Ukraine was not a threat to Russia, and yet here we are. And 30 days later, here we are. Originally, when the invasion first started, I was using the words “unimaginable,“ “devastating,“ etc. Now that just seems so trite.
Originally, I thought, “Oh my God, everybody I know has got a target on their back.” But it turns out that everybody in Ukraine now has a target on their back. Whether you are six months old or 60 years old, you have a target on your back. We can see this indiscriminate killing and targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. It’s devastating. And obviously devastating, most of all, to the people of Ukraine.
From your knowledge of both of these nations and the time you’ve spent in both of them, did you see this coming? Did you think it was likely to get this bad?
While I was in Ukraine — and of course I left in 2019 — I did not believe that Vladimir Putin wanted to, so to speak, own Ukraine. I thought he wanted to destabilize Ukraine, so that it would not be a reliable partner for the West. He was doing that with his — I mean, it was a hot war in the Donbas region. Every couple of days, another civilian or soldier would die. It was a hot war, even though it was not a headline in the United States. There were cyber attacks. There were assassinations of high-level individuals. There was all sorts of economic punishment, during those eight years. I thought that was probably going to be enough for Putin.
I did feel that Putin would probably become aggressive again, because that has been his pattern with Georgia in 2008, in 2014 with the first invasion of Ukraine, and then now. But I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that it would be Ukraine. But then, in the fall of 2021, when we started seeing the encirclement of Ukraine by Russian forces, and of course the Biden administration started releasing intelligence, in what I considered to be just a brilliant move, well, it started becoming apparent that there would be an invasion. But even in February, I did not think that he was going to try to take the whole country. I did not think that, but here we are.
That’s an interesting point about U.S. strategy. It seemed as if Antony Blinken or someone close to him had the idea that by revealing information about Russian movements — that maybe otherwise you wouldn’t — they were hoping to limit Putin’s options. Is that a correct interpretation?
That’s how I would interpret it. I think that there’s some belief that it set Putin back, in terms of the timeline of the invasion and various other things. Even now, when the Biden administration is releasing information that there could be a false flag operation around a possible chemical weapons attack by Russia, that has to make them think. It’s not as smooth as I think Vladimir Putin would have liked.
Yeah, it’s not going smoothly, to put it mildly. Are you surprised by the difficulty that the Russian military seems to have had? And on the other side, are you surprised by the fierce resistance from the Ukrainians?
When I was in government, we always used to talk about how we needed to remember the Russians are not 10 feet tall. Nevertheless, I certainly thought that they had been spending the last 20 years investing in their military and honing their capabilities. I thought they were far more capable than what we are seeing right now. I think some military experts had predicted that the corruption, the lack of leadership, the lack of reforms in the Russian military would lead to, if not the results we’re seeing now, at least not the kinds of successes that Putin had imagined.
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But I am surprised by the incompetence, basically. Not just on the military side, where they don’t demonstrate the kind of tactics that you would expect in a modern military, but also the logistics. I think it was Napoleon who said that an army marches on its stomach. These guys, their stomachs seem to be somewhere in Moscow, as they are trying to attack Ukraine.
As far as the Ukrainians are concerned, I knew they were going to fight back. As you probably know, I spent six years in Ukraine, first in the early 2000s and then again from 2016 to 2019, as ambassador. The Ukrainians love their freedom. They are unruly. They are fighters. They don’t want us to tell them what to do, and they certainly don’t want the Russians to tell them what to do! So I knew they were going to fight back.
But I have to say, the uncommon courage that they are showing is remarkable. I think it’s inspiring for the whole world. It’s obviously Zelenskyy at the top, reflecting that Ukrainian spirit, but also binding his nation together, uniting them in this common cause and inspiring them, but also inspiring the world. But you also have the little grandmothers who are making Molotov cocktails: They’re ready for the Russian soldiers to come to their village! Yeah, that’s the Ukraine I know, the Ukrainian people I know.
Obviously no one, and especially not you, would have wished this on the Ukrainian nation or the Ukrainian people. But it seems like one of the ironies here is that Putin has created a level of social and political unity in Ukraine that did not exist previous to this. Is there some truth to that?
I think that is absolutely right. He managed to do that in 2014, too, with the first invasion. I was really struck when I came to Ukraine two years later, after a pause of a number of years, how proud people were of their country. I mean, Ukraine is an enormous country. And while there are regional differences, for sure, nevertheless, people saw themselves as part of one united Ukraine, which wasn’t necessarily the case before.
Vladimir Putin had a lot to do with it, and that’s not the only thing he’s managed to accomplish. He has managed to kick–start NATO, an organization that many felt had seen better days. President Biden was just at NATO, and a number of deliverables or agreements have just been announced. It’s ironic. All the things that Putin says he wants, he’s getting the exact opposite. He’s getting more NATO, not less. He’s getting a nationalistic Ukraine, not a supplicant country that is bowing down to Russia.
Yeah. The law of unintended consequences seems to be in full effect. That’s also true with President Zelenskyy, who has become an international hero. It might sound demeaning to call him a celebrity, but it’s true. I know you didn’t work closely with him, but I don’t have the sense that his presidency was an unqualified success up to this point.
No, I think that’s right. Even before this invasion, Ukraine had a lot of challenges, as many countries do. It‘s still a developing democracy, a developing market economy. Obviously, they were fighting this war on their eastern border. There were a lot of challenges. They were trying to move forward on reform and so forth, but it’s always hard. It’s hard for us, in the United States, to reform. Nobody does it, unless there’s some sort of a crisis.
So, I think you’re right that Zelenskyy, as his predecessors did, had challenges in governing and producing the kinds of results that the people of Ukraine want to see.
I don’t believe you know Vladimir Putin personally, but you spent a good deal of time in Russia earlier in your career. Where do you fall in terms of interpreting him? There’s the notion that he has become irrational and hot-headed, and there’s the argument that he is a rational actor, who is pursuing logical aims according to his understanding of the world.
That is such a hard question for me to answer, because some days I’m in one camp and other days, I’m in the other. But I do think that he has his own worldview, incorrect though it may be, in terms of the history of the last several hundred years, and of the modern era as well. I think he misrepresents that. I think he’s wrong in many of his conclusions. I mean, it’s just ahistorical, the sorts of things that he talks about. But if that is your context and you are an autocrat and you pretty much have squashed all the opposition or jailed them or driven them out of the country, then you’re probably not getting great facts.
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There’s been much made in the press recently that the minister of defense and the head of the military have not been seen in a couple of weeks. What does that mean? Are they on the outs? Does it just mean they’re in the bunker, redoing war plans? I mean, who knows? But my guess is that Putin was being told that his military could take Kyiv in a couple of days. Clearly that was not right. So he’s getting bad information. He’s probably very angry. And none of that is a good combination, especially when he’s hinting at the fact that Russia is a nuclear power. For every other country in the world, that’s a taboo. It’s not part of the arsenal of war. But with Russia, it’s part of their military doctrine, and those hints are very frightening.
A friend of mine who’s a historian thinks it’s possible that within Putin’s regime there’s actually less internal dialogue and discussion than there was during the Soviet period, except maybe under Stalin. Most of the time, there was at least an inner circle, the Politburo, where there was some degree of disagreement and debate. Putin doesn’t appear to permit anything like that.
Yeah. As you know, I’m no longer working for the U.S. government, so I don’t have the information that maybe others might have. But it seems to me that his close-in people, who have been with him since his KGB days, since his time in Petersburg, all moved to Moscow in the early Kremlin days. They’ve been together for over 30 years. Most of them are not only intelligence, but counterintelligence. That is a very special breed of people because they’re paid to be paranoid, right? They’re paid to look for the plots. So that probably also informs their worldview. It’s unclear to me to what extent they have open discussions and can tell the boss the truth, so he can make better decisions. But one hint that we got was the national security council meeting that was videotaped and then released, where Putin was dealing with his colleagues like a teacher addressing schoolboys and humiliating some of them, in a very public way.
To me, what was interesting was: This was a taped session. They could have cleaned that up, but they didn’t. That was what Putin wanted to send out to the world. I think he made it very clear that there was one person making the decisions and that the other people in the room were really nervous, at a minimum. Some people were afraid.
One central current in your book, and you express this very judiciously, is the idea that the kinds of political, governmental, social and cultural problems that you encountered in former Soviet nations — systemic corruption, to put it bluntly — began to crop up in the United States during the latter part of your career, as if it were a virus or an infection that started to spread.
Yeah. I mean, when I returned to the United States, fast forward to the July 2019 “perfect“ telephone call between President Zelenskyy and President Trump. That transcript was released in September, which was when I found out that I featured in that phone call. That is so unusual, I can’t even tell you. I featured in it in a particularly disturbing way, but even worse was the fact that the president of the United States was clearly trading on his office and his influence and holding up an arms shipment in order to get a personal or political favor from another country.
That sent a signal around the world, that this is a guy who’s trading on his office. I’d seen that in other countries, but I never thought I would see it in the United States. That doesn’t mean that I’ve agreed with every decision that our presidents have made over time. Far from it. But even when I disagreed, I didn’t think that people were doing it for some personal reason.
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I think that’s the foremost thing, because that is such a betrayal of the American people. We should be able to expect that when we elect a president, that individual is working on our behalf, for our national security, not for his or her own interests. So that was really disturbing. And then just the verbal attacks on journalists, the scapegoating of minorities and women, just so much of the rhetoric was really disturbing to me.
And then we had our presidential elections, where the president of the United States refused to accept the results and actively worked with others to try to reverse those results. I want to say culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection, except I think some people are still trying to reverse the results. I never thought I would see anything like that in the United States, never. So yeah, I think our democracy has challenges. We need to work hard to defend it and tend to it, if we are going to preserve it.
Is there a feedback loop operating in the world around that issue? There’s a lot of tension around democracy, and whether it actually still works. There are segments of the American right who have allied themselves with Putin, even if they’ve backed away from that recently. There’s a sense that democracy and capitalism no longer have to be linked, for example, and that democracy has degraded in many places.
To a certain extent, yes, I think that’s true. But I just take issue with the premise, and probably you do as well, because I think that democracy obviously is not a perfect system. No system is. Some clever person said democracy is the worst system in the world, except for all the others.
All you need to do is look at the Ukrainian people. They have a choice to follow the Russian model or to follow the European model. They have repeatedly made the choice of turning to Europe. Because they don’t think about it, and I think most Americans don’t think about it, in terms of democracy, capitalism, the rule of law. Those are important terms, but I mean, in my everyday life, I want a good job. I want my kids to have prospects. I want to live in peace. I don’t want to have to give the policemen a bribe just so I can keep driving down the road.
That’s what the Ukrainian people want. They look at Russia, and they’re not seeing any of that for themselves. They look to the West, and they see some real prospects for themselves and for their children. I think if you ask ordinary people, that’s what they want. I think that democracy and capitalism actually do provide the best results, over time, for the most people.
You mention some misgivings about the creation of the oligarch class under the Yeltsin government in Russia. In the mid-1990s, massive amounts of capital was allowed to flow upward very quickly, creating a class of essentially unaccountable ultra-rich people who had immense power in society. I’m not saying that I know what could have been done differently. You would know better than I. But the U.S. rode along with that, in the interests of keeping Yeltsin in power, and I would say the effects have been disastrous. I mean, that set the table for Vladimir Putin and the Russia we see today. Do you disagree with that?
Yeah, I don’t disagree. Well, I think that the Russian government asked us to help them, back in the days of the early 1990s, set up a market economy. So we did the best that we could, but everything had to be done at the same time. You’re literally flying the plane while you’re fixing the engine and also the wings and everything else. So it was inevitable that some things were going to go wrong.
In the early 1990s, the choice seemed to be between Yeltsin, a reformer, somebody the U.S. had a good relationship with and who seemed sober-minded about his nuclear arsenal — those were all very important issues — and in the period that you talked about, in the 1996 elections, Yeltsin looked like he was going to lose to Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate.
And then they cooked up this deal with the very, very wealthy businessmen, the oligarchs, although that term was not common yet. The oligarchs gave the government money and in exchange they got shares of government-controlled companies. It was supposed to be a temporary thing, loans for shares. But of course, the oligarchs kept those shares and owned those companies, which they got for a song. It was the further rape of the Russian people, in my opinion.
Should we have criticized Yeltsin really harshly, and maybe given Zyuganov, the Communist, a leg up? I mean, I was so junior, I wasn’t aware of any of these conversations. But I think there must have been a decision that we weren’t going to go there. I do wonder whether there was some narrow lane we could have found, where we could have noted our concern.
Maybe that was done privately, behind closed doors. Honestly, when people are talking about their political survival, as Yeltsin was at that time, I’m not sure how successful we would have been, had we said something publicly. I think the West, and especially the United States, did lose some credibility there, as people found out about this deal that was cooked up. So yeah, I mean, that was a really sordid episode. It built the foundation for many things that were to come.
One of Putin’s principal complaints, which gets echoed by critics of U.S. policy both on the left and the right, is about the eastward expansion of NATO. As I’m sure you’re aware, this was controversial from the start. There were some old-guard foreign policy people in the U.S. who argued that it was a mistake to push NATO further east than Germany, and that it was likely to lead to future conflict with Russia. Do you think there are valid reasons now to question that policy?
No, actually I don’t. I mean, obviously one can always review history and draw certain conclusions and so forth. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, I don’t recall it as being super controversial. In fact, a number of people were talking about Russia ultimately joining NATO. This was a demand-driven enlargement. The Poles and others came knocking on NATO’s door. It wasn’t like we were looking for countries to join NATO at all. It was an engine, along with EU membership, for building up those economies, building up those democracies and building up their security as well. I think there were a lot of benefits to enlargement.
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And then in the mid-2000s, Putin started this revisionist history: The breakup of the Soviet Union was the biggest disaster, etc., etc. When I look back at the 1990s, and I was there for some of it, the Russian people were getting the lion’s share of the attention. The other countries were all complaining, because the lion’s share of these pots of money was going to Russia. President Clinton brought Russia into the G7, making it the G8. We had the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which set up a special partnership for Russia in the 1990s.
I mean, there’s a lot to look back on, where we were trying to reach out a hand to Russia, and Yeltsin was actually clasping that hand, to try to bring them in to the community of nations in an important way. It’s a big country. It’s a nuclear country. It has lots of potential. We were hoping that by bringing them in, they would see how they could develop further.
That’s the last point I want to make: It’s true that the U.S. is a powerful country, and we have a lot of influence in the world. But citizens of other countries and leadership of other countries, they have agency. We tend to look at things, understandably, as, “What did the U.S. do during this time period? Was it our fault? Could we have done something different?” All of which is legitimate, but I think certainly a country like Russia has agency. It can choose its own path.
We’ve been doing a couple of thought experiments here. So here’s another one for you. If NATO had withered or if NATO had said to Poland and other entrants, “No, sorry, doors are closed,” do we imagine that right now Putin would be this pussycat who was all about love and flowers and being a good member of the international community? I don’t think so. I think he would have come to this anyway, that Ukraine is not a real country and the Ukrainians are just little Russians. I think he would’ve gotten his way, one way or the other.
How much does Putin really represent Russia? You must have thought about this question.
Yeah. This is not universally shared, but I believe that Russia is an historically expansionist country. We’ve seen that over the centuries. I think Putin is in that tradition, of trying to rebuild, whether it’s the Soviet Union or the Russian empire or whatever you want to call it. But everything that I’m hearing from friends or friends of friends in Russia, is that people don’t want this. They think of Ukrainians as fellow Slavs, as brother Slavs, and they don’t want this war.