Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Marie Yovanovitch, a highly regarded career diplomat, was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine when Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president in 2019. In the new president's first phone call with then-President Donald Trump, the American leader told his Ukrainian counterpart that Yovanovitch was "going to go through some things."
The ambassador did go through some things. Unpleasant, unfair things, including being recalled and dishonestly called out by Trump, his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani, and a compliant conservative media in a scandal that would lead to Trump's impeachment.
Yovanovitch, uncomfortably thrust into the global glare, earned worldwide admiration for her honest, earnest testimony.
But it wasn't the best public speaking of her career, she wrote in "Lessons From The Edge," her 2022 account of her life as an envoy and the undiplomatic way she was treated by a corrupt Trump administration. Instead, she believes her best elocution came the morning of Trump's election, in Kyiv, in off-the-cuff, heart-on-the-sleeve speeches in which she stressed "the American experiment, the renewal of democracy through elections" and "my belief in a nonpartisan Foreign Service unified as one Team America when we serve abroad."
That team is "back," President Joe Biden proclaimed early in his administration. Yes, but "for how long?" one of his fellow world leaders reportedly inquired.
It was a fair question.
"It takes a long time to build up trust, and the kind of partnership that we've enjoyed with our European colleagues, through NATO, and other organizations, and it can be destroyed very quickly, and so we have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk," Yovanovitch told an editorial writer in advance of two Global Minnesota events on June 14 — one open to the public and another specially tailored for Ukrainian Americans and their supporters in our state.
"I think other countries are watching our presidential elections very closely to see what is going to happen next," she added.
This country should, too. Because presidential messages to adversaries and allies alike are important. And the one Trump sent by attempting to leverage requested weapons in exchange for Ukraine opening up investigations resonated beyond Kyiv and Washington.
"What Congress was investigating back in 2019 was whether Donald Trump had committed an impeachable offense by trading our national security — the transfer of Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in exchange for his personal and political benefit," Yovanovitch said.
"Fast forward," she said, from Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine "to today, where we see the importance of supporting our partners in this fight against Russia, which is — as Zelenskyy said it best — not a charity for Ukraine; this is an investment of our national security."
The former president's actions "sent a signal to Ukraine, and certainly to other countries as well, that they could work in a parallel way with the Trump administration," Yovanovitch said.
Among the leaders of those other nations getting a notion of Washington's ways may have been Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He "made no bones about his belief that the West is dissolute, hypocritical, weak, does not live according to its own values, and I think he made a calculation based on the [impeachment] events as well as other things that the U.S., the West, would not be able to come together in a meaningful way" to support Ukraine, Yovanovitch said.
Putin, she added, "was very, very wrong."
In fact, U.S.-led Western support, backed by Ukrainian military and societal heroism, kept Kyiv from falling and pushed Russian forces back to eastern Ukraine. And even those gains may be tenuous, as Ukraine gets set to launch a vaunted spring counteroffensive.
Yovanovitch, who just returned from Ukraine, offered this on-the-ground assessment: "The Ukrainian people are still as courageous and as committed and as convinced of victory as they have ever been." They're exhausted, she said, and know the Russians are "trying to terrify them" through indiscriminate, inhumane missile and drone attacks.
"But they are not going to give in. And so, I think we need to be as brave as they are in Ukraine."
Such courage, concluded Yovanovitch, "is obviously in Ukraine's interest, but it's also in our national security interests."
Americans, their congressional representatives and senators, the president and those Republicans seeking to replace him — including the one who failed Ukraine and the U.S. when he was previously president — should hear and heed the former ambassador's words.