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

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

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.”