As the deadliest European war in decades enters its third month, Newsweek spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch about the deeper implications of the conflict — for Ukraine itself, but also for the wider world. Yovanovitch, whose recently released memoir, Lessons From the Edge, details both her 33-year diplomatic career and her firing by former President Donald Trump in 2019 following what she calls an extensive smear campaign against her, sees Ukraine as a key battleground in the global contest between democracy and autocracy.
In her interview, Yovanovitch stressed the importance of understanding the effect that regime type has on a given country’s policies, both foreign and domestic. From her perspective, the current hot war in Ukraine is not a battle over materialistic geopolitical interests or expanding alliance structures, but an attempt by an authoritarian Russian leadership to remake the world in its own image. It is a fight that, if Russia is permitted to win, could bring dire consequences not only for Ukrainians struggling to establish a functioning democratic state, but for Americans striving to preserve theirs.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.vNewsweek: President Biden has called the war in Ukraine a battle between democracy and autocracy. Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Ben Cardin have seconded the president’s characterization of Russian actions in Ukraine as genocide. From your perspective, what is currently at stake in Ukraine?
Yovanovitch: First and foremost, what’s at stake is the existence of Ukraine itself. This is a war of choice that Russia decided to foment against the Ukrainian people in the most brutal way imaginable, and the Ukrainian people are fighting not only for their country, but for their families and their freedom.
It’s about more than that though. I really think that Ukrainians are fighting for our freedom as well. I think Putin has greater ambitions than just Ukraine. He can’t compete in the rules-based global order that was established after World War II, and so he wants to challenge that order — to destroy it if he can. And what better way to do that than by creating a world where might makes right, where you just grab countries if you want them, and where smaller countries just have to endure that if they can’t fight back? I think other autocrats are looking at this and waiting to see if Putin is going to be successful, and I think we need to do whatever we can to make sure that he doesn’t succeed.Newsweek: You mentioned that Ukraine is fighting for our freedom as well as for their own. Given that, how would you assess the Biden administration’s response to the crisis, both before February 24 and after? In hindsight, is there anything that could have been done to deter Vladimir Putin from giving the order to invade? And now that the war has entered its third month, is there anything more that Washington should be doing?
Yovanovitch: By and large, I think that the Biden administration is doing a pretty good job in very, very challenging circumstances. I think Biden, from the very beginning of his presidency, has put a high premium on alliances and partnerships. Even if Biden had attempted to implement sanctions or to increase security assistance to Ukraine beyond what we were already doing pre-invasion, back in January or early February a lot of our partners wouldn’t have been ready to go along. They would have considered it provocative to Russia, even though we can never lose sight of the fact that, however much Putin tries to spin this, it is Russia that is the provocateur here; it is Russia that is the aggressor. So I think president Biden and his administration put the premium on alliance cohesion, and there is a lot to be said for that.
Then, as we’ve moved forward week by week, I think the policies on all fronts have gotten stronger and stronger. In part that is because of leadership by the United States and other countries, but it’s also due to Russia’s actions, Russia’s stark aggression in Ukraine, and the massive goal of taking over the whole country.
The brutal way that Russia has unleashed its forces on the Ukrainian people has moved not only European and American publics, but also the leadership of these countries. Maybe we should have understood beforehand that this was going to come, but seeing it unfold in all of its horror has caused the Western policy response to strengthen. And so moving forward, the administration needs to do more of the same, and more quickly, in terms of providing additional weapons systems to Ukraine. That includes providing long-range weapons that give Ukraine standoff room, and also systems capable of hitting Russian targets in the Black Sea.
Newsweek: You served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine throughout much of president Biden’s predecessor’s term in office. If Russia had launched its invasion in, say, 2018, rather than in 2022, would you have expected the transatlantic reaction to have been equally unified and robust?
Yovanovitch: Well, usually the transatlantic alliance requires U.S. leadership. That’s the way it was before the Trump administration, and that’s the way it is now. As you may recall, former president Trump was a critic, if not to say hostile, to NATO. Senior Trump administration figures like former National Security Advisor John Bolton have said that had Trump won a second term, he would have pulled the U.S. out of NATO. So it’s hard to imagine him, given his views towards NATO and towards many of our staunchest allies — and, frankly, his views towards Russia — leading the kind of united opposition to Russia’s war that this administration is doing.
Newsweek: Do you have any explanation, then, as to why Vladimir Putin would have chosen to launch his invasion of Ukraine at the moment he chose to do it?
Yovanovitch: I would note that Putin has shown a lot of strategic patience over the years. There was Georgia in 2008, then Ukraine in 2014. He makes a move, then he waits and consolidates and, to his own mind at least, strengthens his position. I think that he was probably getting what he needed out of the Trump administration. On NATO, he was probably hearing those same indications that Trump may well take the U.S. out of NATO, which I think would have really done great damage to the alliance. So I think he could wait.
But then Trump lost the elections, and Putin was faced with President Biden, who is a staunch transatlanticist, who believes in the value of alliances, who understands Russia, and who understands Ukraine. Putin then had to think about, ‘How can I still get what I want?’ And so I think he decided to use the instrument of war.
Past being prologue, when Putin seized Crimea in 2014, that paved the way for his re-election as president in 2018, and I think he was looking for that same spike in approval ratings and another easy romp to re-election in 2024. I think Putin, like many, was buying the argument that NATO’s best days were behind it, that it had outlived its usefulness and that it could not unite again. Ironically, it is Putin himself who was the catalyst for the unity that we see right now.
Newsweek: Is Putin trapped in a corner? You said in a March interview with David Axelrod that Vladimir Putin was “targeting civilians, and it’s a war crime.” Since then, evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine has only multiplied. Has Vladimir Putin’s prosecution of this war already made a diplomatic solution impossible?
Yovanovitch: Well, diplomatic solutions are always possible. We just have to find the path and find the way. But I think that Putin has certainly made it much, much more difficult. He has a real negotiating partner in Ukrainian president Zelensky. Zelensky put a lot on the table at the beginning of the war, but after Bucha and the horrors of Mariupol and with so many other towns and villages that we don’t even know about yet, it does make it much, much harder to reach an agreement. If Putin is in a corner, it’s a corner that he put himself into.
Newsweek: Even if Putin were offered an attractive diplomatic off-ramp at this point, is there any reason to believe that he would accept it as legitimate? Given his notorious paranoia about the intentions of the “collective West,” is there any reason to expect that he will ever voluntarily stop fighting?
Yovanovitch: I think if he gets enough of what he wants, then yes. I think there is a possibility. But I also think that the Ukrainians are right to be concerned that Putin would use any sort of ceasefire or diplomatic off-ramp just as a placeholder until Russia can regroup, rearm, and re-invade Ukraine.
Russia can be very, very patient. I’m not just talking months; I’m talking years. That’s what we’ve seen before. So we need to make sure that, whatever the diplomatic solution is, it is a resolution of the issue. Because in 2014, there was a lot of European pressure to end the fighting, to end the dying — all of which is laudatory — but I think that the resulting Minsk Accords were not a sufficient framework to actually bring peace. Russia kept the war on a simmer for eight long years while they were regrouping. Two to three Ukrainians died almost every week, both soldiers and civilians. It didn’t always make the news in the U.S., but it was a real hot war in the middle of Europe. And now if the diplomatic resolution that comes out of this fighting is not sufficiently sturdy, I think we can expect to see the same thing happen again.
There are arguments between realists and idealists that go back a long way, but I think what many realists fail to realize about a country like Ukraine is that it’s a democracy, and what they fail to realize about Russia is that it’s an autocracy. What realists are looking for is a kind of stable equilibrium where great powers are balanced, but there isn’t going to be an equilibrium for Russia in Ukraine if Russia is occupying the country against the will of the Ukrainian people.
In an age when people in a country like Ukraine do have agency, it’s not just about what sorts of decisions government leaders want to make. If the Ukrainian leadership just forks over what Russia says it wants from Kyiv, it’s hard for me to envision that the Ukrainian people will stand for it. Likewise, it’s hard for me to believe that Russia under its current leadership will ever say ‘This is great, we’ll stop now.’ Because with Russia, that’s not what we see from the recent past. There’s never enough for somebody like Putin unless you make clear that it’s over and he simply cannot get any more.
Newsweek: For how long is Ukraine capable of continuing this fight? Even if Ukrainian society understands this war as an existential conflict for them, is there any guarantee that Kyiv’s Western partners will have the stomach to continue supplying weapons indefinitely?
Yovanovitch: Guarantees? There are never guarantees. But I think that President Biden understands what the stakes are, and I think he’s ready to work with Congress as well as with our international partners to keep that pipeline to Ukraine going. Because this is about Ukraine, but it’s also about something greater, and we need to ensure that Russia is stopped in Ukraine in order to ensure our security, our prosperity, and our freedom.
Newsweek: Going forward, to what extent might domestic U.S. politics hamper that war effort? Eleven Republican senators voted against Washington’s most recent $40 billion aid package to Ukraine. Should officials in Kyiv be nervous about what might follow if there is a change in power on Capitol Hill in January?
Yovanovitch: Let’s look at this a different way. Thirty-eight out of 49 Senate Republicans voted for the aid package, and since Ukrainian independence in 1991 there has been a strong, bipartisan consensus supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty. I do believe that will continue. Despite some of the rhetoric and some of the posturing, most of our politicians do understand the stakes. We have to keep the focus on.
Newsweek: Bringing the focus back to the actual direct belligerents, in the end, how do you expect that this war will have changed Ukraine?
Yovanovitch: I wish I had a crystal ball here. I don’t know what the future will bring, but what I hope that the future will bring for Ukraine is that it’s secure within its own borders and is able to govern itself, that its own sovereignty prevails. What that means is that the Ukrainian people get what they want: to live in a country that is secure, that offers good employment opportunities for themselves and their children, that provides services in a transparent way without having to bribe somebody to get a license for a business or whatever it might be.
People want to live in a normal, well-governed, Western-style country, not a corrupt, Soviet-legacy country. The war is a huge crisis and a heartbreaking challenge, but the end of the war would offer an opportunity to Ukraine to finally put into place the kind of state that they already fought two revolutions to get, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
EU membership is a real possibility, even if it might take some time. Gaining membership is a technocratic process that requires harmonization of laws, regulations, and all of those types of things, but there have certainly been political signals from European leaders recognizing that that Ukraine is a European country, and that EU leaders want Ukraine to join the EU, which would be a very positive thing for Ukraine, and for Europe.
Newsweek: At this point, what could Russia still do to prevent all of those wonderful things you’re describing from happening, and what would that mean for the wider world? What would defeat look like for Ukraine?
Yovanovitch: I don’t really see a scenario in which Russia could occupy all of Ukraine and bring it to heel. That just doesn’t seem very likely. Russia is expending so much equipment from their arsenal. So far, at least, they’re resisting universal conscription, and so they don’t have the men — and the women, I guess — to physically hold the country. Ukraine is enormous, and Ukraine has a population that will resist, and so it’s hard to see Russia physically holding Ukraine and dominating it militarily in a successful way over the long term.
But Russia could destabilize Ukraine in much the way it was doing in the eight years between 2014-2022, not only with the war in the east, but with cyber attacks (which, when they hit Ukraine, also had significant effects on the global economy), disinformation, assassination campaigns right in the heart of Kyiv, all of the economic tools Russia still has. There are still a lot of ways for Russia to make governing Ukraine very, very difficult.
Newsweek: Going beyond Ukraine, how important is it that Russia is defeated in this war?
Yovanovitch: I think that what needs to happen is that Russia needs to be stopped in Ukraine, and Ukrainians have told us that they’re willing to do the fighting. They just need our support, and we should continue to provide that support until they prevail. I think it’s important that Russia be stopped in such a way that it cannot undertake similar action again, either in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world.
It’s hard to believe, but back in the 1990s, after the Cold War, many of us worked very hard to bring Russia into the community of nations. President Clinton brought Russia into the G7, making it the G8. We created the Russia-NATO Council, a mechanism for consultation and cooperation between the two parties. We did all sorts of things to bring Russia into the international community, and I think that is a more reliable path to creating stability in the world than allowing Russia to run roughshod over its neighbors. I am an optimist, and at some point in the future, I’m hoping that this kind of cooperation with Russia will be a possibility again, but it’s hard to imagine that happening under Russia’s current leadership.