Dialogs: Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch Explains Ukraine at Chicago Humanities Festival

The Chicago Humanities Festival has been offering in-person programs under the spring theme of “Public.” Two programs on May 7 at the UIC Dorin Center featured law professor Anita Hill talking about her new book Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence and sharing her first-hand knowledge of Supreme Court corruption. Later in the day, Ambassador Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch chatted about her new book Lessons from the Edge: A Memoir, and discussed her direct knowledge of executive branch corruption. 

Yovanovitch hit the national spotlight during her testimony at Trump’s impeachment trial. She had shared how she was recalled from her position because she spoke out against Rudy Giuliani and the former president for pressing the Ukrainian government to get dirt to use against the Biden campaign. They also requested a “loyalty pledge” from her, which she refused as authoritarian blackmail. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also refused to defend his employee. 

But she had been a foreign service officer for three decades prior, including as US ambassador to Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. She explained that the fact she was a Russian speaker when the former Soviet Union split into 15 different countries helped her career trajectory. She was in Ukraine when Volodymr Zelenskyy won its democratic election, and “the Ukrainians were much better at accepting election results than the Americans,” she noted. 

Her first posting was in Mogadishu, Somalia, as a logistics coordinator, a difficult position in a system “rife with corruption,” where everybody at every level expected a bribe. She noted Russia’s continuous use of graft as psychological operations to undermine other countries, such as the recent appointment of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder (1998-2005) to the board of Gazprom, the state-owned Russian fossil fuel concern. Yovanovitch also placed blame for the continuation of corruption in the US, where American policies with banks and real estate agents also helps bad actors to launder dirty money.

She had grown up during the Cold War, and, in her state department roles, was happy to help countries become democracies and launch market economies. But with no underlying regulations or laws, mafias descended onto these new governments. At that time, American policy-makers didn’t condemn the first elected President Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) for his growing transgressions because he was a decent partner in the move towards securing “loose nukes.” 

After her discussion with the moderator, former US NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, the audience asked several questions about the steps that led Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine on February 24 this year. Yovanovitch remarked that many communists and nationalists in Russia wanted to reunite the Soviet Union, and Putin’s annexation of former territories started with Crimea and the Donbas region. At that time, US sanctions helped arrest his land lust. But President Clinton eventually encouraged the G7 to add Russia to the inter-governmental political forum, creating the G8. 

When asked, “but why this invasion now?” the ambassador said that Putin likely wants to “gather up the lands,” as the Russians say, to be his bloody legacy. But his war is pure terrorism, she said, and his war crimes of torture, murder, forced deportations and cultural desecration must be held to account. Putin’s “war of choice” is destroying his own country, and there are lines for every product and service everywhere around the country. If he wanted to restore the country as the former Soviet Union, he’s definitely reinstating the fear, the hunger and the want. Yovanovitch listed the reasons why Putin is failing, including his underestimating how fiercely the Ukrainians would fight back. He also didn’t realize how weak his military is, and that NATO countries would rally around their democratic ally. 

Maria Yovanovitch. Photo by Timothy Schmidt, courtesy Chicago Humanities Festival.

Yovanovitch is proud of the Ukrainian people’s resolve to stand up to invasion, and she thinks they will eventually win, but the conflict will take a long time. The Russians are masters of disinformation, something she knows is also on the rise in the US. Americans need to vote in record numbers to save our own democracy, and not take our freedoms for granted. She encourages Americans to vote in all upcoming elections. Chicagoans should check their voter registrations for the Illinois primary election on June 28, 2022. 

The Chicago Humanities Festival spring sessions continue with the “Public” theme on May 14, with speakers including actor Selma Blair, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, and deaf Dancing with the Stars champion Nyle DiMarco. 

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.