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Ousted U.S. diplomat could be crucial to impeachment inquiry

Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, sits beside then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 6.
Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, sits beside then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 6.
(Associated Press)

In President Trump’s rough parlance, she was “the woman.”

That’s how Trump described Marie Louise Yovanovitch, the widely respected former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in his July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Now the 60-year-old envoy, who spent more than three decades in the diplomatic service, could prove key to illuminating murky events central to the House impeachment inquiry against Trump.

The veteran diplomat was abruptly ordered back to Washington in May, ending her three-year tour two months early. By then, the events that ultimately would set the stage for the impeachment saga were already in play.

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Yovanovitch is one of five current or former State Department employees summoned to provide depositions to investigators from the House committees on intelligence, foreign affairs and oversight. Her closed-door appearance is scheduled Wednesday.

From her perch in the Ukrainian capital, Yovanovitch had a front-row seat to the machinations of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who engaged with a range of Ukrainian officials outside normal diplomatic channels in an effort to stir up suspicions about former Vice President Joe Biden, now a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and his son, Hunter.

By all accounts, Giuliani and his Ukrainian contacts found Yovanovitch, who had sought to boost the country’s anti-corruption efforts, an impediment. And Trump, in the reconstructed record of the call with Zelensky that the White House released last week, made plain his own animosity.

“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news,” Trump told Zelensky, who took office in May. “And the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news, so I just wanted to let you know that.”

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Vaguely but ominously, Trump added: “She’s going to go through some things.”

Under Trump — as under most presidents — America’s diplomatic corps is laced with envoys who got the job because they helped fill campaign coffers.

Yovanovitch, by contrast, is described by colleagues as a precise and conscientious diplomat. Her recall in May triggered an outcry in foreign policy circles, as well as public praise from many former diplomats — tributes that were echoed when Trump’s derisive remarks about her became public.

Although she was born in Canada, Yovanovitch grew up speaking Russian and is known to friends by the Russian diminutive Masha. The language is similar to Ukrainian, but associates said she honed her linguistic skills prior to her posting to Kyiv, a position that followed ambassadorial stints in Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, also former Soviet republics.

Her parents moved to the U.S. when she was a toddler, and she became a naturalized citizen at 18. She earned a degree in history and Russian studies at Princeton, and then got a master’s degree at the National War College.

After joining the diplomatic corps in 1986, she bounced around the globe, serving at U.S. embassies in Canada, Russia, Britain and Somalia, before a two-year stint as deputy director of the State Department’s Russia desk.

In 2001, Yovanovitch landed in Kyiv as deputy chief of the U.S. mission. It was an era of upheaval, only a decade after the tumultuous breakup of the Soviet Union brought Ukraine its independence. The 1990s had seen steps toward democracy, but — as in neighboring Russia — also ushered in an entrenched culture of fraud and oligarchy.

When Yovanovitch returned as ambassador, in August 2016, Ukraine was again in crisis. A popular uprising two years earlier had ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia, and brought in a pro-Western businessman, Petro Poroshenko.

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The same year, 2014, saw other dramatic events: Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, triggering U.S. sanctions against Moscow. And an insurgency in eastern Ukraine hit the headlines when Russian-backed militants shot down a Malaysian passenger jet over the conflict zone, killing all 298 people aboard.

Ukraine’s political scene was complex and fragmented. But many in Poroshenko’s government hoped to forge closer ties with Europe and especially with Washington, a move they saw as the principal bulwark against Russian aggression.

But Yovanovitch, who did not respond to a request for an interview, ran afoul of the officials dealing with Giuliani, including the country’s chief prosecutor at the time, Yuri Lutsenko.

Lutsenko claimed at one point that the U.S. diplomat had issued a “do not prosecute” list to protect supporters of the Obama administration. He later withdrew that accusation, which the State Department said was baseless. But the smear made the ambassador a target of right-wing critics back home.

During her tenure, Yovanovitch kept a relatively low public profile but actively supported democratic development and anti-corruption efforts, associates said.

Nina Jankowicz, who was an advisor to Ukraine’s foreign ministry at the time, recalled that Yovanovitch hosted an election-watching event at the embassy cultural center on the night of the U.S. election in 2016.

With the time difference, it was early morning in Kyiv when it became clear that a political neophyte named Donald Trump had triumphed over Hillary Clinton, a well-known commodity to many Ukrainians from her years as secretary of State.

As the mood turned anxious, the ambassador addressed the gathering, explaining that peaceful transitions of power were the bedrock of democracy.

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“Everyone was in shock,” said Jankowicz, now a scholar at Washington’s nonpartisan Wilson Center. “She was a consummate professional, and cool as a cucumber.”

Times staff writer King reported from Washington and special correspondent Ayres, based in Moscow, reported from New York.


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