On Tuesday night, I got back from a whirlwind 24-hour visit to Ukraine with six of my Senate colleagues. It came at a critical time for Ukraine, as more than 100,000 Russian troops sit on its border threatening to invade. Here’s the short story of our trip.
Over the years, I have worked very closely with Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio on U.S.-Ukraine policy. Most recently, the three of us visited Ukraine together last June, and since Russia’s potential invasion plans were made public, we’ve worked together to build bipartisan support for the defense of Ukraine.
Demonstrating this bipartisan support was especially important in the wake of a divisive vote in the Senate last week. Senator Ted Cruz forced a vote on his bill to sanction people and entities involved in the construction and operation of a Russian gas pipeline to Germany — something that many of our allies in Europe opposed. The Cruz bill failed because many Senators (including myself) felt like a diplomatic disruption with Germany right at the moment we needed U.S.-European unity to convince Russia to stop its invasion plans was a very bad idea. But the vote made it look like the Senate was divided on Russia policy. This isn’t true. The Senate was divided on this one very narrow issue — a tactical question about how best to block this pipeline, but there is broad agreement that the U.S. needs to prevent Russian coercion of Europe by manipulating energy supplies, keep sending weapons and economic support to Ukraine during its time of need and that the U.S. must sanction Russia — not our European partners — if Putin commences a conventional invasion of Ukraine.
So Shaheen, Portman, and I rounded up four other colleagues — Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and my Connecticut partner, Richard Blumenthal — and began planning a trip to help set the record straight.
Pulling the trip off in the middle of the holiday season and a pandemic wasn’t easy. Twice we had the trip planned and ready to launch and twice we had to pull the trip down. But finally we were ready to leave early this past Sunday morning.
The Biden team encouraged our trip, and a week before the trip was set to leave, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a rare visit to Capitol Hill to brief us on the issues he recommended we raise in Kyiv. We had other meetings and calls with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Under Secretary Toria Nuland. I would say this ended up being the most thoroughly briefed trip of my Senate career, and perhaps the most important.
Early on Sunday morning, we met at the Senate office buildings to get our final pre-trip COVID tests. One of our colleagues, my friend Senator Brian Schatz, had just tested positive, so we were nervous one of these tests would be positive as well and prevent at least one Senator or staff member from traveling. Because our schedule was so tight, we had to head to Andrews Air Force Base before the results came back. We waited nervously on the plane as the testing company relayed our results one by one. By the time the plane took off, we finally had confirmation there were no positive results.
We took a smaller military plane that couldn’t make the full trip to Ukraine on one load of fuel, so we stopped in Shannon, Ireland to refuel. By the time we landed in Kyiv it was midnight Washington time, so most of us had only gotten an hour or two nap at most. But the sun would soon come up in Ukraine, so we hustled to the hotel for a quick hour nap, shower and breakfast before heading over to the U.S. Embassy for a classified briefing.
At around 5:30 am, on the drive from the airport to the hotel, we heard some interesting news. Recently, treason charges had been brought by the Ukraine government against the nation’s most recent past President, Petro Poroshenko. I know Poroshenko well, and personally I have been very concerned the charges are politically motivated. Embassy staff informed us on the drive that Poroshenko would be appearing in court near our hotel to face charges later in the day, and that a massive gathering of Poroshenko supporters was planned at the courthouse. Maybe a little wrench in our day.
Nothing we heard in the embassy briefing was encouraging. Russia has not stopped sending massive conventional military forces to the Ukraine border, and with no breakthroughs achieved in the U.S.-Russia talks last week, the threat has grown that Russia may go through with the unthinkable: a full scale, conventional invasion of a neighboring nation. Now, of course, Russia invaded and illegally annexed part of Ukraine eight years ago, but that was done mostly with local proxy forces and disguised Russian military personnel. This time, Russia isn’t hiding anything — the uniformed Russian army is ready to move.
During the morning and early afternoon, we met with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, the Energy Minister, and the Interior Minister. At each meeting, we reaffirmed the bipartisan support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and we listened for ways the U.S. can help Ukraine during its time of need. (I’ve long been a proponent of energy reform in Europe; several years ago I authored and passed a bill investing $1 billion in U.S. funds in energy independence projects in and around Europe, to promote energy independence from Russia.) Herman Halushchenko, the Energy Minister, updated us on Ukraine’s plans to disconnect from the Russian electric grid and connect to the European electric grid, and he asked for our help to push the Europeans to make it happen sooner.
A big aspect of our trip was public diplomacy — using our bully pulpit to show Russia that there is strong bipartisan support for Ukraine now and in the case of an invasion. So normally a trip to a foreign capital would include one single engagement with the press. This trip had three. We held a briefing for print reporters. All the members of the delegations split up to do a series of one-on-one television interviews. And later in the day, we planned a big traditional press conference following our meeting with President Zelensky.
In the print reporters briefing, we were asked about our opinion of the charges being brought against Poroshenko. It’s always delicate in these bipartisan trips to balance your personal views with the joint views of the delegation. I am a big supporter of President Zelensky — I know him well and I trust him as a patriotic leader and true believer in reform. But I worry about the damage that will be done to Ukraine’s desires to join NATO and the EU if he puts in jail his most significant political rival — the man he beat in an election less than three years ago. So I gently remarked to the press that Ukraine needs to be careful about engaging in “selective justice.” The quote ended up in the New York Times story on the Poroshenko court appearance.
We had lunch at the hotel — and managed to avoid a minor diplomatic snafu. As we ate upstairs, we were told Poroshenko and his entourage had entered the hotel lobby, no doubt knowing that this big American delegation was there. I’m friendly with Poroshenko and I hope I will be able to see him again soon, but this was no time for a smiling photo op — minutes after his court appearance. We were also told that it’s probably no coincidence that his rally was just outside our hotel (rather than immediately outside the court building). We held tight in the conference room and made plans to head to our next meeting via a route that was unlikely to bump into the former President.
In the evening, we headed to see President Zelensky. We sent him a unified message. Senator Cramer, a conservative Republican and close ally of former President Trump, said it clearest: “Don’t mistake the vote you saw in the Senate last week for disagreement on the fundamental question of whether or not we support you. We do.” Added Senator Portman, “We have your back.”
I asked Zelensky what sanctions he thinks would be most effective to dissuade Putin from invasion. He gave us a good list that we promised to bring back to the Biden team. After the meeting broke up, I pulled Zelensky’s powerful chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, off to the side to have a few private words. I asked him what his gut tells him about Putin’s endgame. I delivered a few important “off the record” messages, and we departed. Often in these diplomatic meetings, it’s the short, private side conversations where the most important conversations happen.
By dinner, we were all weary. But we weren’t done. A light snow had begun to fall in Kyiv as we headed to the U.S. Chief of Mission residence for a working dinner with the Minister of Defense to talk about Ukraine’s preparations for war. The city looks gorgeous in the snow. Orthodox Christmas is later than Christmas in the United States, so all the holiday lights and decorations were still out and glistening in the falling snow. At about 10:30 pm, our dinner meeting broke up and our delegation headed back to the hotel. At that point, I was running on just two hours of sleep over the preceding 36 hours.
My day, though, was not over. I huddled with my Legislative Director, Chris Mewett, who came along for the trip, and then I hopped on the phone for a conference call (11:30 pm Ukraine time, 4:30 pm Washington, DC time) with reporters based around the world and in the United States to brief them on the trip. Again, the primary purpose of the trip was to signal bipartisan unity around the effort to defend Ukraine, and I wanted to make sure that American and international reporters get the story too.
Of course, I was so wired and energized by the day it was hard to fall asleep. I managed a few hours of sleep before a 6 am wake-up call for our two-leg flight back to Washington. As we boarded the plane, Portman noticed a group of soldiers on the tarmac and wanted to go over and pay our respects. “I’d love to, Rob,” I replied. “But I’m scheduled to preside over the Senate at 4 pm tomorrow and on our current schedule we aren’t getting back to the Capitol until 3:30. We gotta go!”
But the plane had to be de-iced before we took off, and by the time we landed in Washington again, I’d missed my scheduled shift in the Senate chair. Luckily, Senator Tammy Baldwin agreed to fill in so I was off the hook. I limped back to my office just in time for an early evening Democratic caucus meeting. It was a somber, serious meeting, because we knew that on Wednesday we likely wouldn’t have the votes necessary to change the Senate rules in order to pass the voting rights bill. On the way out of the meeting, I thought of something the Ukrainian Foreign Minister said to us, as he contemplated Russian troops in Ukraine: “We have a saying in Ukraine,” he said. “‘In the end, everything will be ok, and so if everything isn’t ok, then it isn’t the end.’” I decided to keep that idea in my head as I readied to shift my focus from Ukraine to the fight ahead on voting rights.