KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The former United States ambassador to Ukraine visited Knoxville as part of the Howard H. Baker Junior Center’s Ashe lecture series.

Marie Yovanovitch is known for building collaborative cultures that drive strategic change and outstanding performance according to the University of Tennessee Professor Dr. Krista Wiegand. During the lecture, the former ambassador talked about her experiences and observations of the current geopolitical climate. She had this advice for anyone looking to get into diplomacy.

“If you’re interested in history and politics and traveling and making a difference, not, you know, not just for the American people, but for people in the countries where you would be serving because I felt that I was making a difference every day. And it is really gratifying. It’s what keeps you going,” said Yovanovitch.

Yovanovitch served as the ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019. She also reflected on her first tour in 1986 to the embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia. She describes the trip as very challenging, so much so that she nearly left foreign service, but during her next appointment in London, she gain some valuable insight.

“I was lucky enough to get a job in the ambassador’s office and I worked for three different ambassadors. Each of them very different from each other, but each of them successful ,” said Yovanovitch. “And I realized as a relatively young diplomat that I didn’t have to pretend to be a little man. You know, I could. I could be successful on my own terms and being my own authentic self, and that was a really, really important lesson. So I think, you know, sort of being yourself even in very difficult situations.”

She talked about the war and shared that in her opinion there was nothing the US could do to prevent the war.

“In the beginning of the war, there were the first month or so there were a lot of negotiations actually between the Ukrainians and the Russians. And one of the things that Ukraine put on the table was neutrality. We will not join NATO. And that wasn’t enough. So, you know, the last thing I would say on this is I think that Vladimir Putin has his own ahistorical view of history. He has wanted to expand to the Russian Empire to include Ukraine. He’s said that he’s written it and now he is continuing that project. And so I don’t think anything we did or didn’t do would have affected that calculus.”

She also praised the appointment of Bridget A. Brink as the new ambassador to Ukraine as she had worked with Brink when she was an ambassador in Armenia.

“I think we need to re-establish a presence in Ukraine. Clearly, there is risk in doing that, but I think we can probably mitigate that risk,” said Yovanovitch. “And I think it’s important that we do that for symbolic reasons, but also the important, you know, facilitate the important work that we do.”

She also met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy prior to his election as president.

“Fast forward, life imitates art, and the comedian becomes the president of the country with 73% of the vote and the collective elite in key swooned because they couldn’t believe it,” said Yovanovitch. “Over the next two and a half years, Zelinsky really tried hard to make to make changes to move forward on reform. But with middling success, I mean, it’s really hard to fight corruption and to pursue reform. And he was losing popularity in February of 2022 and then the war happened, […] all of a sudden he became the Winston Churchill of our time in terms of his ability to not only reflect the values of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian people themselves but also to unite them and inspire them. And in doing so, also inspiring the world.”

She also signed copies of her new book “Lessons from the Edge: A Memoir.” The book goes through her experiences during her time in the foreign service and the lessons she wants Americans to know about diplomacy. To watch her full lecture, click here.