The rise and fall of Marie Yovanovitch, ambassador to Ukraine

Tetiana Yakunova for The Washington Post
7 min

It’s hard to remember now that before the Ukraine war there was the Ukraine impeachment scandal. If the war is a tale of heroism, the scandal was a tawdry mess — in which a newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky was shaken down by President Donald Trump for political dirt in exchange for the weapons that we see now he needed desperately to fight Russia.

The noblest characters in the impeachment melodrama were the State Department Foreign Service officers who tried to represent the United States honorably in Ukraine. Chief among them was Marie Yovanovitch, our ambassador in Kyiv, who was summarily fired by Trump in April 2019. The reason, we later learned, was that her straight-arrow diplomacy had gotten in the way of the machinations of Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani.

Yovanovitch became a momentary celebrity during the impeachment hearings. She displayed the cool professionalism of a career diplomat drawn into the grotesque vortex of the Trump White House. This decency was set in relief by Trump’s cheap Twitter attack as she began her testimony: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”

When Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, read that snide tweet to Yovanovitch, she somehow managed a self-effacing, diplomatic answer: “I don’t think I have such powers. Not in Mogadishu, Somalia. Not in other places.”

Yovanovitch has now written a subtle and engaging memoir, “Lessons From the Edge.” Though it converges on her unwanted moment of national notoriety, the freshest part is the narrative of her rise through the Foreign Service to become America’s ambassador in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and finally Ukraine.

Being an American career diplomat is a thankless job, even in the best of times. The fancy positions, at home and abroad, go to political appointees who are sometimes stunningly unqualified, and not just in the Trump administration. The State Department’s bureaucracy can be obtuse, Congress is a relentless meddler and special pleader, and host governments make demands that America often can’t or shouldn’t fulfill.

Yovanovitch describes herself as “an introvert by nature,” and living under the State Department canopy seemed to suit her. A single woman raised by Russian immigrant parents, she spent the later years of her career accompanied by her mother, “Mama,” who was as unflappable as her ambassador daughter.

Yovanovitch liked hard assignments in rough, corruption-plagued countries where the American ideal really was a beacon. In Somalia, she “felt like a character in a Graham Greene novel.” She was pursued by an amorous nephew of the country’s president while fending off “brazen . . . acts of petty corruption” as she managed the embassy motor pool and other first-assignment administrative tasks. In post-communist Russia, she watched the rise of the oligarchs, as “insiders and crooks were able to game the system and scoop up sovereign assets.”

During a first tour in Kyiv as deputy chief of mission, she encountered another set of “newly minted oligarchs” and the government’s system of “telephone justice,” whereby politicians “picked up the phone and told prosecutors and judges what to do.” That initial assignment forearmed her for what she would encounter later when she returned as ambassador in 2016.

Her first post as ambassador was in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, truly “the back of beyond,” in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase. This, too, was a lawless place, run by local crime bosses who tried to shake down the American ambassador and everyone else. Yovanovitch learned to stand her ground. Meeting with the president, “I bluntly told him that international donors and investors wouldn’t put their money into a country run by criminals.”

A stint as ambassador to Armenia left her wondering why President Barack Obama caved to Turkish pressure and reversed a campaign promise to recognize the 1915 genocide of Armenians by the Ottomans. “The cognitive dissonance of our policy exacted an emotional price on me,” she writes. “We are, after all, a nation not just of interests but of values.”

All these assignments helped prepare Yovanovitch for her posting to Kyiv as ambassador. Corruption remained endemic there. The country had a ravenous array of oligarchs, who, unlike those in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, hadn’t been cowed into political submission. Yovanovitch tried to identify honest government officials and business executives and assist them.

She also tried to help Ukraine cope with Russia’s aggression. Putin’s forces had seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Yovanovitch worked with Kurt Volker, Trump’s special emissary, to try to implement the 2014-15 Minsk Agreements and stabilize the Russian-dominated enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk. Trump had little use for Ukraine. Yovanovitch writes that he told visiting President Petro Poroshenko in June 2017 that “Crimea was Russian, as the locals spoke Russian.” To his credit, Trump agreed to send the Ukrainians Javelin antitank missiles.

Yovanovitch, “a rules-follower to the core,” as she describes herself, had no idea what was coming her way. She was wandering into a political jungle with the guileless good will of a career civil servant. Her good-government efforts were upsetting the oligarchs and their political friends in America. Her nemesis, though she was oblivious, was Giuliani, who knew Ukraine because he had done business there.

Giuliani was using his Ukrainian contacts to search for dirt on Joe Biden, the likely Democratic candidate against Trump in 2020. Yovanovitch’s fatal error may have been to refuse a visa for a “corrupt” former prosecutor general named Viktor Shokin. Unbeknown to her, Shokin wanted the visa to travel to New York to dish dirt to Giuliani.

Yovanovitch describes her ambassadorial demise as beginning with the Trump circle leaking its displeasure with her and culminating in articles in the Hill falsely accusing her of sabotaging a supposed “anti-corruption crusader” named Yuri Lutsenko. Lutsenko had been feeding information to Giuliani for his dossier on Biden and his son Hunter, who had worked for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma that had been accused of corrupt practices. Yovanovitch’s career, built so carefully over so many years of difficult postings, suddenly unraveled. She was summoned home and removed as ambassador, at Trump’s insistence.

The misdeeds of Trump and Giuliani are so well known that reading about them once more is like reliving a bad dream. What’s more troubling in this narrative is the behavior of some top State Department officials — the people who should have protected a brave, hard-working ambassador.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo caved to White House pressure even as he was issuing a grandiose “ethos statement” calling on his underlings to display “uncompromising personal and professional integrity.” Later, Pompeo tried to suppress testimony by Yovanovitch and other State Department officers before Schiff’s committee. David Hale, undersecretary for political affairs and a distinguished career officer, suggested that Yovanovitch save herself by writing a letter “expressing loyalty to Trump.” She tried, but she couldn’t do it.

Ukraine grew up as a country in the years after Yovanovitch was relieved of her ambassadorship. Zelensky, a comedian who had made his reputation playing a TV president who dares to criticize the oligarchs, actually became president, trouncing the billionaire Poroshenko with 73 percent of the vote in April 2019. Trump tried to extort favors from Zelensky in return for American weapons in July 2019, in his famous “perfect” phone call. But Zelensky kept rolling toward his date with history in the Russian invasion.

Yovanovitch emerges from this narrative as a model of what America should want in its diplomats: courageous, steadfast, removed from politics to the point of naivete. The saddest moment in her book is near the end, when she speaks of what her country had become under Trump. “The parallels with Ukraine, where patronage and politics often outweighed principle and patriotism, were uncomfortably close for comfort.”

Ukraine has found its identity and national unity under fire. The reader can only hope that the same is true of America.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

Lessons From the Edge

A Memoir

By Marie Yovanovitch

Mariner. 394 pp. $30

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