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John Tefft '67

John TefftJohn Tefft ‘67 former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Russian Federation

John F. Tefft, EHS class of 1967, is a retired United States diplomat. He was a career Foreign Service Officer for more than 45 years, completing his service as the United States Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2014 to 2017. Tefft earlier served as the United States Ambassador to Lithuania from 2000 to 2003, Ambassador to Georgia from 2005 to 2009, and Ambassador to Ukraine from 2009 to 2013. He worked from 2004 to 2005 as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs responsible for U.S. relations with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

Tefft originally retired from the Foreign Service in September 2013 and served as Executive Director of the RAND Corporation’s Business Leaders Forum from October 2013 to August 2014 until his recall to duty and confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from September 2014 to September 2017. Tefft is currently a Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation.
From 2003-2004 Tefft was the International Affairs Advisor at the National War College in Washington, D.C. He was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1996 to 1999, and was Chargé d’Affaires from November 1996 to September 1997. His other Foreign Service assignments include Jerusalem, Budapest, and Rome.

Tefft holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Marquette University and a Master’s Degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

John Tefft greeted by Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets John Tefft (left) as new U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation in 2014
John Tefft and Yushchenko
John and Mariella Tefft (right) with former Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko from 2005 to 2010 (second from left) and his wife Katya
John Tefft with Mikhail Gorbechev (right)
John and Mariella Tefft (left) with former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev (right)
Tefft with Henry Kissinger
John and Mariella Tefft with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (center)
Tolstoy grave
John and Mariella Tefft make a winter visit to the Yasnaya Polyana Estate of Leo Tolstoy (with his grave in the background)

Among the awards he has received are the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award in 2017, the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award in 1992, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Year Award for his service in Moscow in 1999 and the Diplomacy for Human Rights Award in 2013. He received Presidential Meritorious Service Awards in 2001 and 2005.

Tefft is married to Mariella Cellitti Tefft, a biostatistician and nurse. They have two daughters, Christine and Cathleen, who both live and work in the Washington, D.C. area, and two granddaughters.


Edgewood's role in his life's work: “I was always fascinated by Russian history and literature, and Edgewood was a big part of that. From 1966 to 1967, I took a two-semester Russian history course at Edgewood with Sr. Marie Michel. She taught us all of the basics of Russian history, but she also introduced me to the culture of Russia.

“There’s an emotional connection to Edgewood. It’s one of the many things that Edgewood gave me.”

John shared some thoughts about the situation in Ukraine with the Crusader Connection staff in late May 2022.

“What’s happening is just tragic. What the Russians are doing is barbaric, there’s no other word to describe it. Putin has this dream - he doesn’t think Ukraine is a country, but part of Russia. He launched this invasion, which is still raging, to bring Ukraine under Russian control.

"The war has now changed into a horrible battle of attrition. Both sides are employing artillery and rockets to kill their opponents. There is horrible loss of life. Of course, the Russians also continue to strike indiscriminately civilian, non-military targets to terrorize the Ukrainian population.”

John noted that, in 2014 when Russians invaded and took Crimea, the Ukranians understood pretty clearly what was going on. They decided they needed to protect their country.

"Over the last eight years they have built up a military. What we’ve seen, as a result, is a very able Ukranian force pushing the Russians back and out in the north and fighting them very hard in other parts of the country. For eight years, they have prepared well - not just equipment, but their fighting forces as well. Today you see highly motivated people defending their homeland. The flip side is the Russians clearly were not as prepared and did not have the fighting force that many western analysts thought they had.”

Of the Ukranians he says, "They’re very intelligent people. One of the big miscalculations that Putin made was he thinks this isn’t an independent country. I understood this from the very beginning, certainly when I was ambassador in Ukraine from 2009 to 2013, you could see it. When I got to Moscow in 2014, the Russians were saying ‘we’ll be taking over Novorossiya,'  new Russia, as they called the land along the Black Sea Coast. I asked the Russians I spoke with: ‘Do you really understand what’s going on in Ukraine?' They didn’t understand how Ukraine had changed – the Ukrianians wanted to be an independent country, they didn’t want to be under Russia.”

John says it is difficult to see the places where he once lived destroyed. "It’s a tragedy. And what’s really crazy is the Russians are attacking those very 'Russian areas' that they claim for themselves. They are destroying life there as we know it. Kharkiv was a beautiful city up in the northeast. The Ukranians still control it, but a lot of it’s been destroyed. It’s sick. At one point I called this invasion ‘Putin’s demonic dream.’ He has this mythic idea that he’s going to be what the Russians call a 'gatherer of lands.' It’s imperialism."

When asked how this may end, John says "No one knows the answer to that... (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy has said 'we’re going to continue fighting, we’re not going to give up any land.' But he’s also said 'we are ready to negotiate.' Thousands and thousands of people have been killed in this war. It’s so sad, really tragic.”

Of President Zelenskyy, John says “He has turned out to be a great wartime president. He has understood what it is to be a leader. He speaks every night to the nation. We see his presentations to parliaments in the west. He was originally an entertainer and you can see he uses some of the skills he developed in his career. He is someone who knows how to deal with the public and project himself. It’s pretty amazing to watch.”

John recognizes how things have changed in what the world sees of war. “Everything now is out on the internet. I’m not sure Putin has really understood that it’s a different world now for those who wage war. First of all, you have drones and other new technologies that can destroy the tanks and other heavy equipment that Russians have relied on for decades and decades going back to WWII. Second, everybody has a cell phone. Everybody can take a photo or a video of atrocities and the next thing you know the photos are flying around the world on the internet. Russia has a formidable propaganda machine, which continues to work inside the country. It doesn’t work as well internationally because the Ukranians understand very well how to use modern communication techniques to combat the Russians in the information sphere.”

The Russian people only see what they're allowed to see, according to John. “If you look at Russian TV, there’s heavy propaganda: 'The U.S. is the enemy. NATO is dastardly. The Ukrainians are Nazis. They are all responsible for this.'  Domestically in Russia, there are signs that more and more people are getting angry and saying this war is ridiculous. They still haven’t brought back all of the bodies of soldiers who’ve died in Ukraine, so I’m not sure that’s sunk in. The other thing is the economy. The government has stabilized the ruble, but I understand that food prices are up 11% and energy prices are up 35%, so life for the ordinary Russian is getting to be more expensive and more difficult.

"It’s hard for me having lived in Moscow for six years of my life to think that people aren’t understanding the cost of this war and the fact that it continues to drag on. Putin thought it would only take a few days - go into Kyiv, take out Zelenskyy and his people one way or the other, and then it would be over. It obviously just hasn’t worked out that way."

Of the U.S. involvement in the war, John says “What you’ve seen is a slow but steady increase in the provision of more sophisticated arms to Ukraine by our country and our NATO allies. I think the Biden administration has handled alliance matters really well. They have supported Ukraine, and with bipartisan support in the Congress they’ve slowly increased the quality and quantity of weapons they’re supplying. But the Administration has also been careful all along because they’ve not wanted to escalate this conflict into a broader European war or to get into a confrontation with Russia. So, the Administration has done a careful analysis at each stage trying to calculate all the cost/benefit and risk factors."

News came in mid-May that the U.S. flag was raised again over the Embassy in Kyiv, resuming operations. “I’m glad," John says. "That building was built when I was the ambassador. There’s a plaque on the front gate that says 'this embassy was dedicated on such-and-such a date by Ambassador John Tefft,' so I have a certain emotional feel for that building and for our staff there. I was (recently) on a video conference with Bridget Brink, who is now our new ambassador. I and three other ambassadors had a chat with her before she left for Kyiv. I know Bridget well; she’s a tremendous foreign service officer. She’s a good choice for this position. She’s a real professional and I think she’ll do a great job.

“This is what the foreign service is about. We’ve moved on to the next generation of leaders - there’s a lot of really talented young officers coming up as ambassadors and taking other senior positions. This is not just in Eastern Europe, but in other parts of the world as well. Younger officers are taking positions at the State Department, where they are responsible for eastern European policy and recommending to our political leaders what our policies should be."

John currently works part time as an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Rand Corporation on different projects. "When the war started I was doing media all the time; that was pretty much every day. It’s kind of fallen off a little bit now." He currently gives speeches and presentations, does articles and reviews papers by the Rand experts. John says he is currently writing a memoir and spending time with his wife and grandkids.