Interview Conducted by Danielle Ranucci
On April 12, alumna Marie Yovanovitch visited Princeton to speak about her new memoir, Lessons From the Edge in an event sponsored by the Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.
Yovanovitch served as ambassador to Ukraine from 2016-2019, when she was recalled by the Trump administration. She also conducted diplomacy in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Moscow. Yovanovitch graduated from Princeton in 1980 with an A.B. in History and Russian Studies.
The day after Yovanovitch’s lecture, she sat down with Princeton’s Slavic Department to discuss morals, Ukraine, and diplomacy.
Princeton Slavic Department: In your memoir, you wrote about how your parents fled from the Nazis and then the Soviet Union before immigrating to the United States, and how learning about their lives helped you develop a strong moral compass. What makes it difficult for people to maintain integrity, and how might we foster integrity in ourselves?
Marie Yovanovitch: There’s temptation everywhere, right? Why does somebody cheat on a partner or take just a little bit of money? It’s not a lot, it doesn’t really hurt anybody, right? So there’s temptation everywhere, and I think we just always need to remember that we need to be our best selves. It doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes. It doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes fail, but then you need to get back on that straight and narrow path again.
I think that what helped me certainly was my parents. They just led exemplary lives. As I was saying last night, like many immigrants they were grateful to be in the United States, grateful for the security, grateful for being able to give my brother and me opportunities. They sacrificed a lot for us. As much as what they told me to do, it was watching their example and realizing over time, obviously not when I was a kid, that I wanted to emulate that kind of behavior.
And I think that my high school but also really Princeton [influenced me]. It’s not just that Princeton had high expectations for us on the academic side, but also on the ethical side. There was the Honor Code, and then the slogan that just meant so much to me, ‘Princeton in the nation’s service,’ which is what it was at the time. That just really resonated. I was fortunate. I think all of us in the Princeton community are fortunate and we need to give back. When you have opportunities you should be giving back.
I think that my parents had high expectations for me and my brother, and Princeton had high expectations for all of us as students. I think that setting that bar [makes] people try to meet it, and I think that really helps.
PSD: In your talk you mentioned how we should think about the international situation not just in terms of NATO and the US but also in terms of the countries involved, Ukraine and Russia. What insights has your experience as the ambassador to Ukraine, your time in Russia and Eurasia, and your study of Slavic at Princeton given you into Russia and Ukraine at this moment during the war?
MY: I think that Putin has told us what he thinks. He wrote that letter in the summer of 2018 where he put in writing in a very long manifesto, that he then distributed to everybody in the Russian military. It basically said that Ukraine isn’t a country and doesn’t have a right to exist.
He told us again on the eve of the war that Ukrainians don’t exist as a separate people, that they’re Malorussiani ‘Little Russians,’ and that Ukraine as a country is a construct made up by the Soviet Union and that he’s going to set that straight. And he went beyond that to say that there are other former republics, now newly independent states over the last 30 years that constituted the former Soviet Union, that they too should be brought back into the fold of Mother Russia. I think that he’s coming from an incorrect reading of history, and I think that he is paying for it. He made a severe miscalculation.
The Ukrainians for their part are very proud of their culture, of their language, of their history, and of all they’ve accomplished over the last 30 years of independence. They are a separate people. In fact, over the last 30 years of independence, the Russian state has recognized that multiple times, through various treaties and so forth, but now Putin is, of course, conveniently forgetting all of that. And the Ukrainians are standing up and they are fighting for their country.
So I think Putin really underestimated the comedian who became president [Volodymyr Zelensky], and he underestimated the Ukrainian people. They’re fighting for their country, their family, and their freedom, and I think that’s something that Putin probably did not think would ever happen. It’s outside of his comprehension. And the Russian military and the Russian people are paying for it.
PSD: There’s the saying that, ‘Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.’ In this case it seems that we are in a way repeating history, even though we do remember what has happened in the past in such instances. Why do you think, in spite of the fact that we may remember, we are still repeating?
MY: Going back to 2008 when Putin invaded and grabbed a couple of chunks of Georgia, and then in 2014 illegally annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine, and continued that war for the next eight years and then re-invaded on a grand scale in February 2022… I think there are many reasons why Putin has done this, but part of the reason is that he got away with it before.
In 2008 there was some tsk-tsk-tsking but no sanctions. In 2014 there were sanctions, and it’s my belief that those sanctions actually did prevent a deeper invasion into Ukraine. But Putin was able to withstand the sanctions. He was able to withstand the public scolding that he got, [being kicked] out of the G8, which then became the G7. And world leaders met with him and it was pretty much life as usual. There were costs to Russia but they were tolerable costs.
What he did over the next eight years was build up…he has a very capable central bank, and he built up a war chest that he thought he could use to fund the next war. That has been stymied by the most comprehensive and effective sanctions regime we’ve ever seen. But I think the reason that this is repeating on Putin’s part is because he was able to get away with it before.
I hope that the combined actions of the US and the West, through sanctions, through isolation, through arming Ukraine with modern and very effective weapon systems, as we are doing now, is going to impress upon Putin that he’s not going to be successful in Ukraine and that he shouldn’t try it again in Ukraine or anywhere else.
PSD: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
MY: What I’d like to add is the importance of diplomacy. Diplomacy is the tip of the spear in terms of the tools that a government brings to the foreign policy arena. There’s economic diplomacy, there’s informational diplomacy, there’s development, and of course there’s also our military. But there’s also diplomacy, and in my view, diplomacy should be the front line in every single instance. That requires the support of the American people as well as, of course, the government. But it also requires the right resources, that we’re properly resourced to do the job.
What we’ve seen over the past several decades is that the State Department is not properly resourced. People don’t generally understand what we do in terms of safeguarding our security, promoting American business and prosperity, and fighting to keep the world free.
As a result, we haven’t really been properly resourced. So time after time, we turn to the Defense Department to take on roles that it is not best suited for, that it doesn’t want, and shouldn’t take on. The importance of diplomacy is something that I really try to highlight in this book, and I hope it’s a take-away for people.