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Former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch warns Putin will move west if he wins in Ukraine

Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in Nov. 15, 2019, prior to providing testimony at President Trump's first impeachment trial. "When I looked at the footage that night," she says, "I wasn't wearing a poker face. I had all of the emotions of, you know, surprise, anger and even a little bit of contempt. I actually rolled my eyes. I was really surprised that I couldn't control myself better."
Andrew Harrer
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Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in Nov. 15, 2019, prior to providing testimony at President Trump's first impeachment trial. "When I looked at the footage that night," she says, "I wasn't wearing a poker face. I had all of the emotions of, you know, surprise, anger and even a little bit of contempt. I actually rolled my eyes. I was really surprised that I couldn't control myself better."

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says Russia's invasion represents a "battle of freedom versus tyranny" — with implications that span the globe.

"The kind of world we're going to be living in, when this is all done, is being determined now," she says.

A career diplomat, Yovanovitch is familiar with the players and politics of both Russia and Ukraine. She says she used to view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "bully." Now, she sees him as a "war criminal" who is intent on reconstituting the Soviet Union. But, she adds, Putin seems to have underestimated the Ukrainian people and their military.

"The Ukrainian people are standing up and saying, 'This is not going to happen,' " she says. "I think [Putin] miscalculated how well his own military would do. And I think he certainly miscalculated the resolve of the West and that we would go to the assistance of Ukraine."

President Barack Obama nominated Yovanovitch to the Ukrainian ambassadorship in 2016, two years after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimea region. During the Trump presidency, however, Yovanovitch found herself in the crosshairs of the administration's efforts to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine. Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer at the time, accused her of being corrupt and working against the president, and Trump later went on to smear her on social media. Eventually she was abruptly removed from her post.

"The whole episode around me was so unusual and so wrong," Yovanovitch says. "It undermined our diplomacy, because if I could be sent out of post after a smear campaign perpetrated not only by the Ukrainians but by my own government, then the same thing could happen to others."

In 2019, Yovanovitch became one of the star witnesses during the inquiry that led to Trump's first impeachment, which revolved around his dealings with Ukraine. Though the State Department pressured her not to testify, she took the stand to detail the smear campaign and Giuliani's plot to oust her.

"It really felt like kind of the final break with the State Department," she says of her testimony during the impeachment inquiry. "But in the end, as I was thinking about this, it just felt and I knew that my greater obligation was to the Constitution. What Congress was asking me to do by testifying was a legal request, and it was wrong of the Trump administration to try to bar us from testifying."

Yovanovitch's new memoir is Lessons From the Edge.

Interview highlights

/ Mariner Books
Mariner Books

On what she's hearing from friends and colleagues in Ukraine right now

I'm hearing all sorts of things — their anger at Russia, their concerns for their children and the future. But most of all, what I'm hearing is their resolve that they are going to fight this and that they are going to win. And they're also asking for U.S. assistance, international assistance to beat back the Russians. ...

They view this, I think rightly so, as a campaign of extermination, exterminating Ukraine, exterminating the Ukrainian people. You've heard the things that Putin has said that Ukraine is not a country, the Ukrainian people are not a separate people from the Russians, and he is doing his best to eradicate the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian country, Ukrainian culture.

On the leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

They are being led by a president who has masterful communication skills and has really met his moment. Zelenskyy is a hero. As improbable as it was that a comedian became president, perhaps as improbable that that president becomes a really effective wartime hero, but the man has really met his moment.

On the possibility of the war spreading into Poland and further west

If [Putin] is successful in Ukraine, I think he will continue to move forward, maybe not immediately, because he's bitten off an awful lot with Ukraine. That's what the history shows us: where he invaded Georgia in 2008 and got away with it. He invaded Ukraine in 2014 and got away with it. And now, 2022, he's invading Ukraine again. And we need to make sure he doesn't get away with it, because if he does, then I think there is the likelihood that at some point he will continue moving west. ... I would add, though, that as we've seen as we are recording this on Monday, the [recent] attacks on a base just on the Polish border, there are always possibilities of miscalculation. And that's what makes this especially dangerous.

On part of what Putin got out of Trump

I think that while Trump was president, Putin probably was feeling that he was getting what he needed from the American president, both in terms of Trump's disdain for Ukraine as well as Trump's disdain for NATO, frankly. A number of senior people around Trump have said that if Trump had won a second term, it's unlikely that the U.S. would have stayed in NATO. So I think Putin was getting what he wanted from Trump and so no need to push in any other ways. When Biden was elected, clearly he knew that President Biden, who had been very active ... in supporting Ukraine when he was vice president, that he probably would not be as amenable to Russian influence in Ukraine, and so I think he looked for other means.

On learning that Giuliani was smearing her

Ukrainian officials mentioned this to me. I mean, not only mentioned — they took me aside, warned me about it, that I had to watch my back. ... I'd call back to Washington, official Washington, and they'd say, "Don't worry. You're doing a fine job." So what I hoped was that the rumors were exaggerated and that an outsider from the U.S. government could not bring down a U.S. ambassador. ... When I departed post so abruptly, it raised a lot of questions and everybody wondered what was going on, because they knew that the stated reasons were putting lipstick on a pig, to put it bluntly.

On being asked to pledge loyalty to Trump

It was just like, What do I do with this? I'm an American citizen. We don't pledge loyalty to an individual. We stopped that in 1776. For us, it's the Constitution. And so in the end, I did record two versions, but the one that we released to the Ukrainian public was mostly about Ukrainian elections that were within a week and the importance of free and fair elections, that sort of thing. And I talked about the importance of the Constitution to Americans. ... I have to say that that episode was an extremely distasteful one for me. [I felt] — I don't think "betrayed" is too strong a word — by the [State] Department.

On crying "hot, angry tears" when Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told her she was being removed from her post in Ukraine

I'm sure I was mildly embarrassed, but there were so many other emotions going on: anger, disbelief, worry about what this would mean for our Ukraine policy, for our diplomacy, our standing. There were so many other emotions going on. That embarrassment was down at the bottom of the heap. But the reason I wrote that passage is that women feel that it's unprofessional to cry, and I'm not saying that it's the best reaction. But when men shout, that's kind of accepted as a strong man expressing his views. When women cry, which is often the same emotion just expressed in a different way, that's unprofessional. I wrote that passage because I wanted women to know that it's OK, that sometimes you have to just own your emotions and keep on going with it.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

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