Ambassador Yovanovitch speaks to Princeton students about diplomacy

April 18, 2022

By Sam Harshbarger ’24

On Wednesday, Apr. 13, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch ’80 met with a small group Princeton University students. She shared her experiences as a career diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service and answered their questions. The previous evening, Yovanovitch spoke to the University community in a talk moderated by Professor of Sociology and International Affairs Kim Lane Scheppele.

At Princeton, Yovanovitch concentrated in history and earned a certificate in Russian studies (the predecessor to the Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies certificate). Following graduation, she continued her study of the Russian language at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. She joined the State Department following the U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983. Since, Yovanovitch has served as U.S. ambassador in Kyrgyzstan (2005-2008), Armenia (2008-2011), and Ukraine (2016-2019). She resigned from her post in Kyiv in 2019 as a result of pressure from the political operatives of president Donald J. Trump. This event vaulted her into the political limelight as a key witness in the first impeachment inquiry against Trump in 2019. Her memoir “Lessons From the Edge” reflects on her decades of diplomatic experience in the former Soviet space, as well as her decision to provide testimony about Trump’s attempts to coerce Ukrainian officials to investigate relatives of then presidential contender Joe Biden.

While overseas, Yovanovitch worked to expand people-to-people ties and emphasized the value of public diplomacy in building bridges with foreign publics. Addressing students whose parents immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, she underscored the valuable contributions that these individuals can bring to the State Department, where their language skills and ability to navigate otherwise unfamiliar cultural contexts can be put to good use. As a Russian American, Yovanovitch said her cultural familiarity increased her ability to engage effectively with publics in the former Soviet Union. Yovanovitch also expressed her desire that the U.S. government look beyond traditional avenues of reaching foreign audiences and seek to foster positive dialogue through social media and other platforms.

Yovanovitch said that she believes the U.S. government will require greater expertise in Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies in the years ahead considering the uncertain regional and global ramifications of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. She believes that the State Department offers considerable opportunities for Princeton students to serve their country. Given the absence of opportunities to travel to Russia for study at this time, she encouraged students to explore opportunities to learn about the politics and culture of other former Soviet states. In an evolving region, she believes that embracing new perspectives beyond the archetype of the Russia-centered, post-Soviet space will enhance and enliven the U.S. capacity to understand and form meaningful bonds with the countries of Eastern Europe and Eurasia.