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Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine says no-fly zone has to be on the table


Well, as we heard there, President Zelenskyy has asked the West to institute a no-fly zone over his country. U.S. officials are very wary of that. Today I spoke to a longtime U.S. official, one who knows Ukraine better than almost anyone, who says, why rule it out?

MARIE YOVANOVITCH: We are in a rapidly developing situation. Facts on the ground change all the time. And I think we want to keep options on the table because we may need to look at them later on.

KELLY: Marie Yovanovitch, who was appointed ambassador to Ukraine by President Obama, then ousted by President Trump, who saw her as insufficiently loyal. Yovanovitch has a new memoir that covers that time called "Lessons From The Edge." We get to that in another part of the program. But first, I asked her view on the Biden administration's response so far to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

YOVANOVITCH: It's horrifying to see how Putin is targeting civilians, civilian structures, nuclear power plants. He is a war criminal. And I think we want to keep options on the table, but right now, I'm really pleased to see that we are sending surface-to-air missiles and other really important defensive weapons to Ukraine.

KELLY: When you say the U.S., in your view, shouldn't take anything off the table, you're talking about - what? - a no-fly zone, the - Biden's statement repeatedly, no U.S. troops to Ukraine?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, right now I'm talking about the no-fly zone. But, I mean, let's see where we are. Maybe some could have predicted that we would be here, where it looks like Russia is trying to take over all of Ukraine. I never would have predicted that. Even on the eve of the invasion, I didn't think that's what was going to happen. So I think we shouldn't tie our own hands. We can't let Putin set the conditions for this war of choice that he started in a country not his own. Putin is the type of leader who only understands strength. He is a bully. There is risk all around, but there is also risk in not responding sufficiently boldly.

KELLY: Although - just to push back with what - you know, if senior members of the State Department or White House were here now, on this question of a no-fly zone, if you're going to say it should be on the table, you have to actually be prepared to do it and, therefore, enforce it and, therefore, shoot Russian planes out of the sky. You're saying, yes, that has to be on the table.

YOVANOVITCH: I think that has to be on the table. But I also think there are other ways of doing a no-fly zone. I think we have lots of smart people at the Pentagon that can figure out ways to do this in a way that is less risky. And the other thing I would say is the Ukrainians are telling us, just give us the planes. We can enforce our own no-fly zone. I think we need to be thinking creatively because this is about Ukraine. I mean, no question Putin has an obsession with Ukraine. It is about his legacy, but it's also about the further threat to Europe and, frankly, the threat to the world order, the international rules-based order.

KELLY: It's so interesting listening to you, a diplomat of many years, arguing for military options, that military options need to be kept on the table.

YOVANOVITCH: Yes, I do believe that's true. It doesn't mean we're going to go there, but we need to be talking about what we're going to do, not what we're not going to do.

KELLY: What about the diplomacy? Do you see a diplomatic way out of this crisis at this moment?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, you know, every war ends with, you know, negotiations and diplomacy, and this one will as well. The Russians and the Ukrainians are continuing to negotiate. And today we heard from both sides that they're making some progress. I hope that's true. I'm skeptical of Russia's intentions because Russia is continuing to attack Ukraine brutally. We just heard today they attacked a bread line - I mean, people standing in line waiting to buy bread. And there were a number of fatalities. So I'm hoping that they're serious about negotiations, but I'm a little skeptical given - we've seen what they did the first time around in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. We saw what they did in Syria. We need to maintain a healthy skepticism.

KELLY: You're making me think - you write in this memoir about being an optimist and that diplomacy is inherently an optimistic profession. When you look at the situation right now in Ukraine, are you able to do so with optimism? Are you able to see a bright future for this country?

YOVANOVITCH: Yes. And it's because of the Ukrainian people. I mean, you've been there yourself. You've seen the way they're fighting back, how they are uniting, and they are fighting back against Putin and Russian aggression. And I think they're going to continue to do that. Most of the people that I know in Ukraine have not left the country. They're either in their home cities, or they are in western Ukraine because they don't want to go too far away because they want to go back to their homes if they've left them so that they can rebuild. And I think that is the spirit of Ukraine. They are a freedom-loving people, and they are fighting for their freedom. And when they win, they are going to rebuild. I think...

KELLY: Hold on. You said, when they win. You are confident that Ukraine can win, will win this war?

YOVANOVITCH: Eventually, yes. Russia may prevail militarily, but there will be a resistance, and it will be an ugly one for any Russians that are attempting to impose their will on Ukraine. I think that there's going to be not only a guerrilla war, but there's going to be civil resistance where, you know, people get poisoned when they go to the restaurant, sharpshooters are on roofs picking off Russian soldiers. It's going to be long and ugly, but this is a people that fights back.

I mean, you probably know this from your time in Ukraine, but Taras Shevchenko, who was a poet in the 1800s and kind of the father of modern-day Ukraine and their aspirations for a state, he is beloved. And his most famous line is, fight on, and you will prevail. And I think that really exemplifies the Ukrainian spirit.

KELLY: Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. In another part of the program, more of our conversation, including how Yovanovitch was caught up in events that led to the impeachment of Donald Trump - events captured, for example, on this recording.


DONALD TRUMP: Get her out tomorrow. Take her out, OK?

KELLY: What is that like, to hear that from the president of the United States?

YOVANOVITCH: Yeah, it was really painful to hear that for the first time - obviously still painful. I don't understand how the president could have been manipulated like this by bad actors.

KELLY: That's in another part of the program.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.