April 22, 2022

Marie Yovanovitch

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch discusses Putin’s new offensive, Ukrainian resolve, and whether Russian atrocities are genocide. The impeachment witness analyzes Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and Biden’s response to the war.

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As Russia launches a new offensive, what’s at stake in Ukraine? This Week on Firing Line…

Yovanovitch: We are supporting Ukraine because it is in our national security interests. 

She’s a State Department veteran with more than three decades of experience. Marie Yovanovitch served in embassies from Mogadishu to Moscow, and then as an Ambassador three times over. She became the top diplomat in Ukraine in 2016 where she pushed for reform, but was targeted by a smear campaign and removed from her post by President Donald Trump in 2019.

TRUMP: I heard very, very bad things about her for a long period of time. 

Yovanovitch was a key witness in Trump’s first impeachment hearing.

SCHIFF: as we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter… 

YOVANOVITCH: it’s very intimidating.

As Putin continues his assault and Biden works with American allies to respond, what does Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch say now? 


HOOVER Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, welcome to Firing Line. 


YOVANOVITCH Thank you for having me. 


HOOVER You served in the Foreign Service for 33 years, including in Moscow, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Your years of service give you unique insights into Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. And just this week, Russia began a new offensive in the East. Will you take stock, Ambassador, of where the war stands right now? 


YOVANOVITCH Well, I think we’re in a new and dangerous phase of the war where the Russians have taken the last several weeks after the Ukrainians chased them out of their country and they are regrouping and rearming and repositioning. And Donbas is really taking a pounding. And I think what we’re expecting is a pretty major land war the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War Two. 


HOOVER Who is winning right now, Ambassador? 


YOVANOVITCH You know, I’m not sure that one can categorize it as winning and losing. I think that the Russians have embarked on a war of choice. And I think in response, the Ukrainians are fighting an existential fight. They are motivated, they are capable and they are not going to lose. 


HOOVER You have an extensive network of friends and contacts throughout the country from your two times that you served in Ukraine. What are you hearing from your friends and contacts right now? 


YOVANOVITCH Well, what I’m hearing increasingly over the last couple of weeks after we’ve seen, you know, the killings in Bucha, we’re seeing Mariupol just devastated. And my Ukrainian friends, I think all Ukrainians, are just increasingly angry. They are the ones who are encouraging me not to give up hope. They are the ones who are saying, we are fighting for our freedom. You know, and we’re fighting for your freedom, too, because this is about something bigger than just Ukraine. 


HOOVER In a speech last week, the CIA director, William Burns, warned that increasing desperation could prompt Putin to launch some sort of a nuclear attack. Burns reminded us that Russia’s military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons in order to de-escalate a conventional military threat. Do you think, knowing what you know about Putin, that he would escalate with nuclear weapons?


YOVANOVITCH Well, as Madeleine Albright used to say, hope is not a policy. And, you know, I hope that that is not the case. But I think what we’ve seen with Vladimir Putin over the years in his various wars – whether it is Syria, Chechnya, Ukraine, Georgia – that he doesn’t seem to have any limits to what he is willing to do. And the Russian military, as you said, it’s in their doctrine to use tactical nukes, escalation to de-escalate. So I certainly hope that we’re not going to see that. You know, it just doesn’t bear thinking about, really. 


HOOVER What should be done by the US and our allies if Russia does deploy tactical nuclear weapons? 


YOVANOVITCH President Biden has said that Russia would really regret it. And I hope that Vladimir Putin listens to those warnings. I wish I could tell you the perfect answer to a really difficult question of what should the right response be to using nuclear weapons. I hope what happens is that we are able to draw in the rest of the countries that are sitting on the fence now wondering who is going to win this war, that we are able to convince Europe to cut off the spigot to Russian energy, because that would really, really hurt Russia. 


HOOVER You worked closely with Joe Biden when he was the vice president of the United States and you were the American ambassador to Ukraine. And I’ve heard you say that he is walking a quote “very, very narrow path” trying to both support Ukraine and deter Russia, but without crossing a line that would broaden the war. So far, that hasn’t been enough to change Putin’s calculation or, frankly, meet President Zelensky’s pleas for assistance. What else should the White House be doing that might change the trajectory of this conflict? 


YOVANOVITCH Well, I understand from the readout of the phone call that President Biden had this week with other other leaders in the alliance that more sanctions are going to be coming down the path. And I think there’s probably going to be additional security assistance as well. And I think right now it’s down to timing. Because we could have the perfect assistance package, security assistance package, and it gets there in three months. It needs to be there now. 


HOOVER Throughout the buildup of the invasion, the Biden administration was clear that it was not going to consider a direct military intervention. Now, you have warned that taking options off the table could be interpreted as a sign of weakness by Putin. Would it have been better to leave some ambiguity about the United States’s possible response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine? 


YOVANOVITCH I’m not sure to what extent Putin is looking at us and what we’re doing and what we’re not doing. We are carefully calibrating everything we do. We’ve got, you know, loads of lawyers from every agency looking at, you know, what is escalatory and what might, you know, set Putin off. But I don’t think Putin is playing in that same ballpark that we are. He is looking not at what we say, he’s looking at what we do. And that is why the security assistance we’re sending, the sanctions, is so important. 


HOOVER Are there things you think that could have been done earlier, though, might deterrence have worked if we had taken different actions? 


YOVANOVITCH I think, you know, it’s clear now that we should have provided them with Javelin missiles, anti-tank missiles, early on. By the time we gave the– or provided those anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainians, it felt like it was a little too little, too late, although it was important that they were delivered. And then, of course, during the Trump administration, the Javelins got caught up in President Trump’s own desire to have a– get a personal favor, a political favor from a foreign leader, in this case Zelensky. And so that delivery was held up, the second delivery was held up in the Trump administration. I think, you know, had we provided weapons earlier on in this administration, I think that would have sent a signal. But, again, I think that Putin miscalculated fundamentally, that he thought the West was weak. He did not think that President Biden and other leaders would be able to unite and unite strongly. Putin thought his own military was effective and strong, and he fundamentally does not understand Ukraine and the Ukrainians and that he may think they’re not a country, but in fact they know they are and they are demonstrating it every day. 


HOOVER You have just mentioned Putin’s many miscalculations. Do you think because of those miscalculations, that Putin’s end game has changed in any way? 


YOVANOVITCH Well, you know, it’s hard to know what’s in Putin’s head. But it’s my own belief that if he’s successful in the Donbas, he will keep on going. Because I think that he wants to recreate –  you know, whether you call it the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union – he wants to bring those newly independent countries, the former Soviet republics, back into the fold. He told us as much when, you know, on the eve of the war back in February. And I think he means it. And I think that we need to take that threat seriously, because if Putin prevails we are going back to a world where might makes right. That is not good for America. It would make us less secure, it will make us less prosperous and it will make us less free. 

HOOVER In an interview last week, former President Donald Trump described Russia’s war in Ukraine as a quote “genocide,” using language that matches President Biden’s. Now, there are people who have pushed back on this characterization because the designation of genocide requires legal review. French President Macron has resisted using that word. And as ambassador in Armenia, you actually had some experience with how delicate this terminology can be. From your diplomatic work, and based on what we’ve seen in cities like Mariupol and Bucha, are Presidents Trump and Biden correct to be using the language of genocide? 


YOVANOVITCH I think that, you know, as a Supreme Court judge said about a different set of issues, we know it when we see it, right? I mean, we can feel it. And we’re seeing it, you know, whether it’s online or in photos or on our TV screens. And it sure feels like genocide, I think, to ordinary people. You’re absolutely right that there will be endless legal reviews and they will come up with a decision in a number of years. But I think for ordinary people, you know, people like you and me, that’s what it looks like, that’s what it feels like. It probably is. 


HOOVER As a diplomat you have lived and worked in several parts of the world, and you document many of those experiences in your new memoir,  “Lessons from the Edge.” And when you departed Kyiv in May 2019, after being recalled as the ambassador by the Trump administration, you planned to tell your staff in a farewell, quote, “I love Ukraine. That’s why I came back.” But you write in your book that you were too emotional to get those words out. It’s clear that you saw promise there for a new democracy. What was it about Ukraine and the people of Ukraine that you think has unified them in defiance to Vladimir Putin? 


YOVANOVITCH I mean, Ukrainians are unruly and they don’t want anybody telling them what to do. They certainly don’t want Americans to tell them what to do. But they really don’t want Russians to tell them what to do. And we’re seeing that now. I really see the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, you know, the protest candidate, the comedian who plays, you know, this accidental president. And he, you know, didn’t have much of a campaign, but people knew him. He was in their living rooms through his TV series. They loved him as a comedian. And they entrusted him with the presidency. And you know, there was a lot of skepticism, certainly the elites in Ukraine and around the world. But I think we are now seeing why they trusted him and that their trust has been rewarded. 


HOOVER I mean, you overlapped with Ukrainian President Zelensky as he turned, as you mentioned, from comedy to politics and exceeded the expectations of many leaders, not just in Ukraine, but around the world. You’ve called that transformation remarkable and said that, you know, you’ve even referred to him as the Churchill of our time. What is it about his leadership that has made it so successful in this moment? 


YOVANOVITCH He comes across as a man of the people. And he’s doing what the people of Ukraine are doing. He is staying. I mean, here is a man who is fighting for his country. And people recognize that. They recognize it in Ukraine and they recognize it around the world. And I think you see the response. There’s the raw courage, but there’s also, you know, just the extraordinary communication skills where he knows what to say to his own people. But moreover, he knows what to say to foreign audiences as well. You know, when he talked to the British parliament, he echoed Churchill’s remarks. When he talked to our own Congress he talked about 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. And he does it in a respectful and historical way. But he also isn’t afraid to goad people a little and really challenged them to – our leaders, I mean – challenge them to live up to their ideals. 


HOOVER President Trump has claimed that this invasion quote never would have happened in the Trump administration. I’ve heard that you have also suggested that Putin might not have gone to war if Trump was still in office. And you said quote, you don’t need to go to war if you’re getting everything you want through other means. Tell me what you meant by that. 


YOVANOVITCH Trump was very dismissive of NATO – I mean, dismissive, it’s obviously a diplomatic word – very critical of NATO, critical of our allies. And his close associates, including John Bolton, have said that if he had won a second term, he would have pulled us out of NATO. I mean, why go to war with Vladimir Putin if the United States is going to present kind of the corpse of NATO on a silver platter? You don’t need to do that. 


HOOVER I mean, how do you think the invasion would have been different if Trump had remained as president? 


YOVANOVITCH I think that Trump would have provided Putin with enough of what he wanted that perhaps he wouldn’t have invaded. 


HOOVER If Trump had had a second term and you think that Putin wouldn’t have invaded because of that, what would Ukraine look like? 


YOVANOVITCH We are now getting into– You know, this is why diplomats are told never to answer theoretical questions. So we’re getting into areas of– you know, I mean, it’s a hypothetical question, right? I don’t know what Trump would have done, and I don’t know what Putin would have done. But I can’t see Trump, President Trump standing up for Ukraine the way President Biden is right now. 


HOOVER You testified during President Trump’s first impeachment, and you’ve said that the call between President Trump and Zelensky, quote, sent a signal to authoritarian leaders around the world, certainly including Putin, that they could cut deals with the former administration. Given everything that’s happened since the first impeachment, and since that initial call between President Trump and President Zelenksy, how do you reflect on those moments given what’s happened to Ukraine now? 


YOVANOVITCH  It’s just really painful for me to think about how we should have been reaching out a hand to a young and untried president, President Zelensky in this case. And instead the president of the United States was holding up military assistance, asking for “a favor though,” a personal favor from a foreign leader to aid him in his own election campaign. I mean, it really weakened the United States. But it also to certain extent weakened Ukraine as well, where instead of us providing that stalwart support, we were using Ukraine as a pawn. And I think that was very damaging all the way round. 


HOOVER Of the widespread smear campaign that you experienced before you were recalled as ambassador, you write, quote, “This was something as new as it was threatening. Corrupt actors in Ukraine were colluding with corrupt actors in the United States, and they were successfully influencing our government and our people. It was a shock made all the more devastating by the fact that rather than stopping it, people close to the president of the United States were aiding and abetting the effort.” You know, Rudy Giuliani was a key part of that smear campaign against you. What are the consequences of a private citizen influencing the president of the United States and the highest levels of U.S. policy, like the appointment of a U.S. ambassador? 


YOVANOVITCH Well, I think, you know, my understanding is that there are a number of cases pending against Rudy Giuliani and I hope that justice is done. 


HOOVER Was a new precedent set in that experience?


YOVANOVITCH Well. I think that, you know, in the end, what happened is there was an accountability of sorts, because it all became public. And I think that there are many reasons why President Trump was not reelected. But I think that a portion of it has to do with Rudy Giuliani and how he, he and his advice, helped the president not only be, you know, impeached once, but frankly impeached twice. So, you know, I think there is some justice there. 

HOOVER As a Foreign Service officer of 33 years, you write quite a bit about the State Department. And in your book you also write a bit about Secretary Pompeo, who was the secretary of state at the time you were recalled back to Washington from Ukraine. You write “I wondered to myself how the department had come to such a state. I found myself wondering too how it would survive the betrayals of the Pompeo years.” Can you describe some of those betrayals? 


YOVANOVITCH So Secretary Pompeo is a super smart guy. I mean, he graduated first in West Point. He knew better. He knew better than to politicize the State Department. And yet that’s exactly what he did. And, you know, I think back to this famous quote that politics should stop at the water’s edge. That we can, you know, in our big, brawling democracy, we can disagree about stuff. But when it comes to our national security, we should be speaking with one united American voice. And I think Pompeo did a lot to undermine that principle, and I think it’s damaging. 


HOOVER Was that his only betrayal? 


YOVANOVITCH Well, I mean, how much time do we have? I think it’s well known that he is an ambitious man. And so the State Department, it appeared to many of us, was only a stepping stone to the next big job. that he was using the State Department to further his own political ambitions. And again, I think the State Department should be above politics. It pretty much always has that in the past. And I think we need to get it back into that lane. And I think, you know, this administration is trying to do that. 


HOOVER It is well known that he is ambitious. And it’s also well known that Secretary Pompeo is looking quite seriously at a run for the presidency. What are your thoughts about his potential candidacy for the presidency? 

YOVANOVITCH: Running the United States government is an even bigger job than running the State Department, and I would say that he was not a success as secretary of state. So I certainly wouldn’t want to entrust the presidency to Secretary Pompeo.

HOOVER You just said he was not a success. Do you care to elaborate on that? 


YOVANOVITCH When I look at how he undermined the institution that he was in charge of. You know, and I think back to President Trump where he made some snide joke about the deep state over at the State Department, implying that we were not loyal to the United States government or certainly not to him.


TRUMP 3/20/20: You know what I’d like to do? I’d like him to go back to the State Department, or as they call it, the “deep state” department… 


YOVANOVITCH: And Secretary Pompeo, who is the head of the State Department, snickered. He stood there and snickered. You know, that’s not leadership. I mean, I don’t think Pompeo was unique in pandering to the president, but when we choose our elected leaders, we want profiles in courage. We want people who are ethical and have integrity and show real leadership skills, and I didn’t see that in Secretary Pompeo when he was running the State Department. 


HOOVER  One more last one about NATO. As you and I both know, the debate over NATO is not new. In 1987, in fact, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, William F. Buckley Jr. hosted a program that was called “Pull Out of NATO?” Question mark. Professor Melvyn Krauss argued that NATO had made the West weaker, not stronger, by encouraging European allies to depend on us for their own defense. Take a look at this. 


KRAUSS I am very concerned that we have made allies into weak allies. We know what the status quo has given us. It has given us peace, but it also has given us a demoralization and a crippling of our allies where we have to do more and more and more against the Soviets. And quite frankly, I feel that we’re spread too thin. 


HOOVER I wonder if, given your diplomatic experience in Europe and in Eastern Europe in particular, do you agree that it is important for NATO to continue in its peacekeeping function? 


YOVANOVITCH Well, why mess with success? I mean, there’s always been a debate about NATO. But I think NATO has proven to be the most successful defense pact in the history of the world. And the reason that it is so successful is that it is based on shared values.


HOOVER You have spoken and written about the need to tend to democracies and to cultivate them in order to avoid complacency. If Americans are taking democracy for granted today, what is your prescription for how we fix it? 


YOVANOVITCH I think we all need to become more involved in our communities and in political life. I mean, you know, the founders back in the day, they never imagined that there would be a political class and the rest of us would do other stuff. They were imagining that people would rotate in and out of Congress and in other other parts of politics. I’m not sure that that is completely realistic. But I do think that having more people involved you know, educated and involved. And that’s, you know, going back to the importance of a free press, because without having that kind of information freely available for citizens, it’s hard to have a fully functioning democracy. 


HOOVER Well, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, you have served our democracy for 33 years, and we are grateful for civil servants like you for your sacrifice. And I’m grateful for your time here on Firing Line. Thank you so much. 


YOVANOVITCH Thank you for having me.