The Ukraine scandal that led to the impeachment of President Trump brought sudden attention to Marie Yovanovitch, a decorated career diplomat who served as the US Ambassador to Ukraine until being recalled from her post last spring.
Before Congress, she testified that her anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, instead of finding support in Ukraine and the US, were undermined by a “campaign of disinformation” pushed by “individuals with questionable motives” who benefited from Ukraine’s status quo.
“Shady interests…have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she told lawmakers, referring to the coordinated campaign to smear her that resulted in her removal.
Her distinguished career representing US interests abroad, in which she served in the United States diplomatic corps for 33 years and was at the time the most senior US diplomat in Europe, was called into question because she stood in the way of Ukrainian corruption and the unprecedented pressure campaign that was the subject of the impeachment hearings.
But her post in Ukraine and willingness to testify about what she experienced is only part of her legacy. Ambassador Yovanovitch was born in Canada and moved to Connecticut at the age of three. With parents who fled the Soviet Union and the Nazis, she grew up speaking Russian and has said that her parents’ experiences gave her particular empathy for those who have endured poverty, war, and displacement. She received her BA in history and Russian from Princeton University and joined the State Department six years later, after studying at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow and working in the private sector. In 1979, she studied Russian at the Hamilton Lugar School’s renowned Summer Language Workshop. She later received a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University’s National War College in 2001.
During her 2016 confirmation hearing, she told Congress that her parents “arrived in the United States with me in tow in search of freedom, accountability and opportunity.”
Her background as an immigrant is not lost on her, nor are the unique opportunities offered to immigrants in the United States. “In almost no other country would an immigrant be able to represent that country as an ambassador,” she has said, emphasizing the benefits of American culture and education.
After fulfilling assignments in Ottawa, Moscow, London, and Mogadishu, as well as a position at the Russian Desk in the US Department of State and the Foreign Service Institute, President George W. Bush appointed her to be ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, where she served from 2005 to 2008.
Then, from 2008 to 2011, she was the ambassador to Armenia, where she oversaw a staff of almost 400 Americans and Armenians in what is one of our nation’s largest embassy complexes in the world. While there, she worked to strengthen the country’s democratic principles and practices, including a push to ensure officials fairly treated protesters arrested after the contentious 2008 election.
As ambassador, she was chief executive officer of the mission and the interagency manager, coordinating US policy and representing the United States to the Armenian government, business sector, and civil society. She and her diplomatic team worked to improve regional stability and assist in the opening of borders and the normalization of relations among Armenia and its neighbors, which include Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
The advancement of women is also important to Yovanovitch; she launched the country’s first mentoring program for women, and she conducted a sustained dialogue with the Armenian government on human trafficking.
Her numerous awards at the State Department include the Senior Foreign Service Performance Award (received six times) and the State Department’s Superior Honor Award (received five times). She has also received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award and, for her work in Armenia, the Secretary’s Diplomacy in Human Rights Award, which honors an ambassador who “has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to defending human rights and advancing democratic principles of government in his or her host country.”
In singling her out for this important award, the State Department pointed to her advocacy for transparent investigations and due process after the elections, as well as her work to improve the electoral process while maintaining a positive relationship with the government of Armenia.
Upon returning to Washington after her diplomatic mission in Armenia, she served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, during which time she worked as the day-to-day contact person for many diplomats in Europe. One of these diplomats was Ambassador Lee Feinstein, founding dean of the Hamilton Lugar School, who was serving in Poland. Together they discussed missile development in Poland and the US military presence there.
And in 2016, after serving many administrations, both Democratic and Republican, President Obama appointed her to be the next ambassador to Ukraine, where her anti-corruption campaign included a push to end immunity for legislators accused of crimes.
Her time as ambassador was not her first appointment in Ukraine. From August 2001 to June 2004, as a member of the Senior Foreign Service, she served as the Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Kiev. Part of her work there involved tracking and understanding the former Socialist Republic’s civil society—the press, activists, and citizens’ groups that are crucial for the proper functioning of a democracy. Soon after she left, the series of protests and political upheavals in Ukraine that came to be known as the Orange Revolution showed the strength of civil society. Citizens demonstrated for a free and fair election after widespread corruption in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. These protests resulted in a runoff and the instantiation of a new president.
During her confirmation in 2016, she said she was open to providing military aid to Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s aggression and emphasized the importance of civil society, drawing attention to the need for “building capacity within the journalistic community, within civil society so that [Ukrainians] themselves can get their own good news out, and they themselves can counter the Russian propaganda efforts.”
While testifying to Congress, she said, “Where I’ve served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the US as well as for the countries that I’ve served in—Ukraine, for example, where there are huge challenges, including on the issue we’re discussing today, of corruption…. But they’ve made a lot of progress since 2014, including in the years that I was there. And I think…Ukrainian people get the most credit for that, but a part of that credit goes to the United States and to me, as the ambassador.”
Her anti-corruption campaign in Ukraine involved working directly with political appointees as well as advocating more publicly for respect for the rule of law, democratic accountability, and economic freedom.
“The old oligarch system is still clinging to life, and corruption is its life support,” Yovanovitch said in a speech to graduates of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy. “Ukraine must continue to pursue economic reforms in line with European standards and fully empower all of its anti-corrupt institutions.”
Despite the early end of Yovanovitch’s term in Ukraine, her decades-long work in Europe will leave a lasting legacy of what a US diplomat can accomplish and push for in countries working to fulfill their promises to their citizens. Her efforts—particularly in former Socialist Republics where fledgling democracies are struggling with corruption, competing foreign influences, and threats to civil society—were necessary and important contributions to those nations’ political and economic lives. Though it is seldom reported by the national press, the work done by ambassadors like Yovanovitch enhance American interests and values and strengthen the nation’s relationship with its allies, both for the sake of the US and the nations where it has a presence. It is some of the most important work this country does abroad.
In January 2020 Ambassador Yovanovitch retired from the Department of State as a Career Minister. Recalling some of her lessons in an op-ed published in the Washington Post earlier this month, she wrote, “I have seen dictatorships around the world where blind obedience is the norm and truth-tellers are threatened with punishment or death. We must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act,” adding, “We need to stand up for our values, defend our institutions, participate in civil society and support a free press.”
Despite her treatment, Yovanovitch is optimistic and finds strength in young people. In the same op-ed, she writes, “Our newest diplomats fill me with hope.”
She continues, “Even though our institutions and our fellow citizens are being challenged in ways that few of us ever expected, we will endure, we will persist and we will prevail.”
Yovanovitch will receive the Richard G. Lugar Award on Friday, March 6 at 11:45 in the IU Auditorium. The ambassador will give remarks followed by a moderated discussion with Ambassador Feinstein. She will also take questions from students.