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In ‘Lessons From the Edge,’ How an Ambassador to Ukraine Became a Casualty of the Trump Administration

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A Memoir
By Marie Yovanovitch
Illustrated. 394 pages. Mariner Books. $30.

When Marie Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled from her post as the United States ambassador to Ukraine, the timing felt surreal.

It was April 24, 2019, and she had been hosting an event at her residence in Kyiv in honor of Kateryna Handziuk, a human-rights activist who had died a prolonged, agonizing death after two men attacked her with a liter of sulfuric acid. Throughout the evening, while Yovanovitch and others spoke about Handziuk’s anti-corruption work, one of Yovanovitch’s assistants kept fielding increasingly insistent calls from Washington. Yovanovitch was ordered to return to the United States “immediately,” though at the time she wasn’t told why.

“The State Department, my home of 30-plus years, was kicking me to the curb,” Yovanovitch writes in her absorbing new memoir, “Lessons From the Edge.” “This was not the way I had ever imagined my career as a diplomat ending: being pulled out of post in the middle of the night, under a dark cloud, to face an uncertain future.”

That uncertain future would eventually include her memorable testimony at the first impeachment of President Trump in November 2019, when Yovanovitch explained how she wasn’t surprised that Ukrainians who had long benefited from corruption had sought to remove her, given that she had made anti-corruption efforts a priority. But she hadn’t expected officials in her own country to green-light, much less actively encourage, such machinations. “What continues to amaze me,” she said in her testimony, is that a coterie of corrupt Ukrainians had “found Americans willing to partner with them and, working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador.”

Yes, Yovanovitch knows that ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president. But she was “incredulous” that Trump had apparently decided to remove her based on false claims by associates of Rudy Giuliani, who as Trump’s personal lawyer was trying to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the Biden family. During the hearings, Yovanovitch sounded calm and self-assured, but in her book she describes how scared she was. The State Department had tried to keep her from testifying. She even feared opening up to friends; what was happening was so convoluted and bizarre that she was bound to come across as a “crazy lady with an enormous ego,” she says. “Rudy Giuliani, the hero of 9/11, was trying to dig up dirt in Ukraine about former Vice President Biden and smear me because I was getting in the way of his schemes. Would you have believed me?”

Yovanovitch was the child of immigrants who had fled the Soviets and the Nazis — a family history that she briefly recounts with tenderness and immediacy. She remembers how a “feeling of otherness” had inculcated in her a sense of caution, “a lifelong habit of observing before acting.” As a “rules-follower to the core,” Yovanovitch knew she “had done nothing wrong.”

Marie Yovanovitch, the former United States ambassador to Ukraine, whose new memoir is “Lessons From the Edge.”Credit…Jennifer Watkins

Yet the survival instinct she also inherited from her parents forced her to recognize that she couldn’t count on being protected by those rules anymore. In a phone call with Ukraine’s then newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019, Trump said that Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.” (Zelensky, she writes, “piled on” during the phone call, calling her a “bad ambassador”; the book was completed before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and in interviews she has given over the last couple of weeks she praises Zelensky for his wartime leadership.) The right-wing media tarred her as a fount of corruption, and Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said nothing as his own employee’s reputation was “trashed.”

“What other crazy demands might State accede to?” Yovanovitch wondered, panicking because nothing seemed to make sense. “Would the department launch an internal investigation into my actions? Would I be fired? Would my pension be taken away? Could I be prosecuted?”

That I arrived at this moment in the book with my heart in my throat speaks to how skillfully Yovanovitch narrates her life story. Born in Montreal, she takes us from a childhood in Kent, Conn., through postings in Somalia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. She started out as a young, introverted newbie in the Foreign Service, condescended to by autocrats and bad bosses. She admits that her feelings of insecurity could never be banished; they could only be managed — which probably made her encounters with Trumpworld only more bewildering, as the “overthinker” in her kept trying to get her mind around the absurd.

The attempts to deform her sense of reality had been so relentless that when she returned to Washington from Ukraine she found herself huddled on a psychiatrist’s couch. She had spent decades working in high-pressure situations, cultivating delicate relationships with foreign officials who were ready to pounce on “any misstep,” she says. Yet what pushed her to the breaking point was “my own government’s actions.”

This doesn’t mean that Yovanovitch had previously been a blindly enthusiastic proponent of her own government. She talks quite a bit in this book about “values” in foreign policy, contrasting them with “interests.” Ideally they can work in tandem. But she has also seen enough firsthand to know that the United States, for all its talk about democracy and freedom, has not infrequently ignored corruption and worse — propping up brutal dictators who seemed to serve American “strategic objectives,” however defined.

In 1986, Yovanovitch arrived at her first posting, in Somalia, and she recalls how the daily grind of dealing with shakedowns and extortion schemes made her “more cynical.” But she still retained a faith in diplomacy — “an optimistic profession,” she calls it. She had been the ambassador to Ukraine for only a few months when Trump won the election in 2016, and even though he had made obsequious noises about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, she held fast to her belief “that the Republican foreign policy establishment would bring Trump into its fold” and that “the long-term bipartisan consensus supporting Ukraine” would prevail.

It did, sort of, in a tenuous and perhaps degraded form. Ukraine eventually got the military aid that Trump had threatened to withhold unless Zelensky announced an investigation into the Biden family, but Yovanovitch was taken aback that no matter how much evidence came out, Republicans remained unwilling to hold an American president to account for trying “to trade his office for personal favors from foreign governments,” she writes.

Back in 2019, perhaps all of this talk about Ukraine and military aid sounded too remote to American ears to seem of much consequence. But as the ambassador, Yovanovitch had regularly traveled to the war zone on Ukraine’s eastern border, where the Russian invasion of 2014 had “unleashed a humanitarian disaster.” Yovanovitch was intensely aware that even then, she was only seeing so much. “I recall looking out the reinforced windows to see Ukrainians without our elaborate protection going about their daily business and trying to scrape together a living,” she writes. “I was just a visitor, and I knew that I could go home.”

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