Former US Ambassador Yovanovitch on how Russia's aggression has changed the U.S.

22 September, 06:20 PM
Former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (Photo:NDU Audio Visual via Flickr)

Former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (Photo:NDU Audio Visual via Flickr)

The former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, looks out the window at rainy Kyiv with a smile. She came here after a break of several years, at the invitation of the 17th annual meeting of the Yalta European Strategy (YES), which was held in Kyiv on September 9-10 with the support of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation.

Jovanovich admits to the NV that she missed Ukraine, the country where she spent a particularly notable portion of her life – and a rather difficult one. Yovanovitch was ambassador during a tense period in U.S.-Ukraine relations, provoked by the dirty struggle of former U.S. President Donald Trump against his political opponents. Yovanovitch remained true to the principles of democracy, however, despite open criticism of her work by the then-president, reputational smears against her, and her subsequent resignation. She even testified during Trump’s impeachment.

Video of day

Today, Yovanovitch is a lecturer at the prestigious U.S. School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Back in Kyiv for the summit, she gladly answered NV’s questions.

NV: There are more talks now about the use of nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine. Do you think there are any benefits for Russia to use them, or is it still blackmail?

Yovanovitch: Russia has a traditional tool for intimidating the world - chemical and nuclear weapons. People of a very high status in Russia promise to use it, from time to time, but they haven’t done so yet. They also understand that the use of such weapons would take the war to a completely different level of escalation and the consequences of that will be harsh, as President Biden has stated. It is unlikely that Russia is interested in this today. Russia is a constant threat, but it is unlikely that it is ready to worsen its position so rapidly.

NV: What are the stakes for the U.S. and the world in this war that Russia is waging in Ukraine?

Yovanovitch: Americans are electing their representatives to the Senate this fall, and they don’t necessarily think about Ukraine and the war, as the importance of this issue in everyday life is not always obvious. But, at the same time, this is the main international security problem faced not only by Ukraine, but also by the United States and the whole world. For Ukrainians, the main existential question is whether we ourselves will survive. Will the nation survive in this war? But for Americans, the question should be a serious one as well. Will we keep our world in some semblance of order, or will a possible Russian victory deprive us of any of the rules on which this world was built? The entire order of world relations that we’ve grown accustomed to will disappear if Russia wins. Those who don’t consider the war in Ukraine worthy of attention, are they ready to live in a world where Putin and his kind win? I definitely wouldn't want that. It will not be easy not only for Ukrainians, but also for Europeans, Americans, and any other democracies. Therefore, it is important for Americans and Europeans to support Ukraine, not only because Ukrainians fight bravely and do their job well. We support Ukraine because these are smart and far-sighted actions to protect not just Ukrainian national security, but also our own national security. We must understand this.

NV: The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Zaluzhnyi, in his article on the war in Ukraine, called the main, almost existential value of the current Russian regime impunity - the ability to commit crime without punishment. And we see that the Russian dictator is actively cultivating this value. Do you agree with this?

Yovanovitch: I believe that responsibility for this wild, cruel, and unjust war should be borne by the political leaders of Russia, and the Russian military, for carrying out this war. If a war criminal is not held accountable for what he has done, this will be an invitation to many others to do the same.

NV: Let's talk about Donald Trump: in your opinion, did his presidency and the international policy pursued by him played a role in the fact that Russia assessed the possibility of U.S. support for Ukraine as low and began preparations for a large-scale war a few years ago?

Yovanovitch: Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States, but U.S. international policy towards Ukraine, even during his presidency, was a consistent continuation of President Obama's policy towards Ukraine. However, there were also implicit latent messages from President Trump personally that he likes Russia, likes its President Vladimir Putin. He admires him. In addition, he did not feel much sympathy for Ukraine, and although this was not spelled out in his official policy, those around him felt it, and Putin, no doubt, felt and understood that too. He understood that under Trump, no new consequences are expected for the occupation of Crimea and part of Donbas. This was a certain message that Trump sent by his behavior to Putin. Now the situation is different, Joe Biden's policy regarding the war in Ukraine and the occupation of its territory is extremely clear, so I think there is not even a hint of U.S. inactivity and indifference left.

NV: How can the election campaign affect U.S. military and economic assistance to Ukraine?

Yovanovitch: Like any country, we have a domestic policy, and the issues of this domestic policy will concern Americans in the most of all. We are talking about inflation, unemployment, and a very painful social issue in the abortion ban. It is unlikely that events in Ukraine will become the top topic of these elections, but if you look at the opinion polls that have been conducted over the past month, Americans are still actively supporting Ukraine in this war. And our politicians look at these figures when they decide to provide assistance to Ukraine, and they have not changed much yet, so America continues to support Ukraine.

NV: So, there is no fatigue on Ukraine, which people like to talk about, yet?

Yovanovitch: You need to understand that news in the United States has the nature of a cycle. In January, February, March, April, news from Ukraine occupied the top slot, then apparently there was some getting used to it, but for those people who understand the real stakes of this war, nothing has changed. This news remains a priority as we understand that Ukraine needs support to win. In addition, we can all see what a brilliant communicator President Zelenskyy has been, and he is very effective in bringing information about what is happening in Ukraine to people outside of it. Other Ukrainian politicians, representatives of Ukrainian civil society are visible and constantly present in American media.

NV: We see that a number of European countries are experiencing crises of liberal democracy, for example, Hungary, Slovakia, France. In these countries, the number of people with right-wing radical sentiments is growing. How noticeable is this crisis in the US?

Yovanovitch: I think we are facing a similar challenge in the U.S. When people stormed the Capitol building, it looked like a picture from a horror movie. It was a truly horrific event and I have never seen anything like it while living in the U.S. What I have come to understand, after many years in a diplomatic career, is the importance of institutions. That’s why we try to support not individuals in developing democracies, but the institutions so that they remain strong, independent, and  consistent with the values of the country. I am a child of immigrants in the USA. My parents migrated to America, and they believed in the country in the way that only immigrants can believe in it. They knew what it meant to live in a totalitarian state and have no freedom. For a long time, I took this freedom for granted. We really are very used to it in the USA as something that exists and that you don’t have to fight for. But now I understand that I and every citizen of America must help and support our democracy every day, in acts big and small.

NV: America didn’t immediately begin to supply HIMARS Multiple Launch Rocket Systems to Ukraine. This happened after four months of the full-scale war in Ukraine, in which the Ukrainian army stood and held back the enemy. What do arms supplies to Ukraine depend on today?

Yovanovitch: It was an unpredictable year. If you had told me a year ago that Russia would attack the whole country of Ukraine at once, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that the Ukrainians would start reclaiming their lands, I would have believed you without a doubt. If you had told me then that for six months the Ukrainian troops wouldn’t just courageously hold out in this war, but would push the enemy out of the country as swiftly as they did near Kharkiv, I would be very surprised. If you told me that the international community would find a way to unite under President Biden, and told me exactly what kind of assistance the United States would provide to Ukraine, I would again be very surprised. Because the thing sthat we started to do weeks after the start of the war were unthinkable for the pre-war period. And I think the U.S. has done a very good job of supporting Ukraine on both security and economic issues.

And yes, we must give more. We must give everything that Ukraine needs today.

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Google News

Ukraine Today
Fresh daily newsletter covering the top headlines and developments in Ukraine
Daily at 9am EST
Show more news