An inside look at my trip to Germany, Ukraine, Serbia, and Kosovo
As President Trump withdraws America from the world, Congress has an unwelcome new burden to help manage the crises that Trump has created around the world, and make clear that Trump’s presidency is hopefully just a pause in America’s role as the global moral and security leader. So as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I have a responsibility to represent the United States abroad — now more than ever — and as has been my practice, I like to share these experiences with you.
It’s long, but I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it.
I’m just back from a whirlwind five-day trip with Republican Senator Ron Johnson to Germany, Ukraine, Serbia, and Kosovo, and I want to give you a behind-the-scenes sense of how a major foreign trip like this looks from the inside.
But you say, “Chris, you didn’t list Russia as one of the countries you visited!” Well, you are correct, but early versions of our itinerary did include a quick stop in Moscow. Over the years, I have been a vocal critic of Russia’s cornucopia of malevolent conduct around the world. We may rightly focus on their work to manipulate American politics, but their campaigns of bribery, intimidation, murder, and information warfare are destabilizing democracies across the European continent. I’m worried about that too, and have supported tough sanctions to incentivize a change in the Kremlin’s policy. But I also know that we need to talk with our adversaries. We can’t just lodge complaints by press release and social media. We need to talk in person — have a dialogue. And through that dialogue, maybe we can find ways to resolve some issues while preventing other conflicts from spiraling out of control.
So when my friend, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, suggested we organize a trip to Moscow, I said I would consider it. Republican Senators have gone to Moscow in the past few years, but no Democratic Senator has set foot in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, and certainly not since the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. But I decided that it was time for a leader from my party to show up at Putin’s doorstep and convey our grievances in person, especially since Trump’s in-person visits with Putin have been so disastrous.
So we signed up one more Senator, Republican Mike Lee of Utah, and started planning. But a week before we were due to leave, we received word from our embassy in Moscow that we would not receive visas to enter Russia. We later learned that the Foreign Ministry confirmed that Johnson and I were on the “blacklist.” This is the select list of Americans who Putin has determined are so anti-Russia that as punishment, they aren’t allowed to set foot in the country. I wasn’t shocked (I mean, I was standing on stage with John McCain during the anti-Russia protests in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2013), but I am disappointed. I’m not sure how we fix our relationship with Russia if we can’t talk to each other. Maybe there’s a little pride in being on the blacklist, but I’d rather my name not be on it.
So, with days to go before the trip, we scrambled to reschedule. Our plan was always to go to both Russia and Ukraine. But now, with a few extra days on our hands, we added a few stops. If Russia wants to label me a nuisance, well then, I figured I might as well temporarily play the role. So I scheduled a stop in Berlin, Germany to explain why America thinks the Germans are wrong to allow a new Russian pipeline to bring gas to Europe. Johnson suggested we make quick stops in Pristina, Kosovo and Belgrade, Serbia too, where the peace process to settle a decades-old conflict has stalled, in part because of Russian pressure on Serbia to keep the wound with Kosovo open. This kind of shuttle diplomacy is normally what the Administration would be doing. But with both the Trump White House and the EU currently mired in dysfunction, these congressional visits are incredibly important to preserving peace in potential conflict areas.
I arrived in Berlin on Monday morning (Johnson would meet me at the next stop), and immediately off the plane I went to have coffee with our Ambassador there, Ric Grennell. Grenell has been a controversial ambassador, and I have been publicly disappointed with his performance. He is an ideological brother of our president, and he regularly scolds the Germans for not lining up more closely with Trump’s worldview. Germany has all but given up on a functional partnership with the United States. Trump’s approval rating in Germany is below Putin’s, and leaders in Berlin are focused on simply surviving Trump, as the U.S. trade war has already slowed the German economy. As a result, Grenell is essentially a persona non grata in the capitol, but he was gracious in our meeting, and I appreciated his embassy’s help setting up meetings for me with German leaders.
As I dropped my bags off in my hotel room before heading out for meetings, I noticed a small sign in my room noting the presence of my favorite soda, Diet Mountain Dew, in the mini-refrigerator, a gift from a former staffer in my office who now works at our embassy in Berlin. It made my morning.
The day I was in Berlin, the capital was abuzz with talk of the recent local elections in east Germany, where the new right-wing, nationalist (and often Nazi-looking) Alternative for Germany (AFD) party has just captured a quarter of the vote. Over the years, I’ve built friendships in Berlin with various political leaders, and ahead of my trip I dialed up Norbert Roettgen, the head of the Bundestag’s Foreign Relations Committee, to have dinner.
Roettgen was worryingly pessimistic about the potential for even greater growth of the newly empowered German far-right wing. As wages stagnate and the inputs into people’s lives become more and more overwhelming, retreating to tribal instincts is a refuge for Germans, Rottgen told me. His diagnosis sounded familiar — this contributed to Trump’s rise as well — and we both agreed how important it was for America and Europe to find ways to reform what’s wrong with democracy so it is not so easily picked apart by demagogues.
Kosovo is a tiny country — roughly the size of Connecticut but with half the population. So why do I care so much about it? Why would two U.S. Senators choose to come here? Well, as they say, wars start in the Balkans, and the fragile peace between Serbs and Albanians is just that — fragile. So over the past few years, as both Democratic and Republican White Houses have focused on the headline-grabbing hotspots, like Syria and Afghanistan, both Johnson and I have taken an interest in trying to engage in diplomacy to continue to heal the wounds of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and 2000s.
But I also care about the Balkans because the region matters to Connecticut. Our state is home to tens of thousands of (mostly Albanian) immigrants from this part of the world, and many successful Albanian-Americans in our state support schools and non-profit organizations in places like Pristina. My constituents want me to be a force for peace in the Balkans, and I’ve listened to them.
It’s helpful that Pristina is one of my favorite cities in the world. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe, and the streets are full of energy and vibrancy. I got in earlier than expected and took a walk down the main pedestrian walkway. I was intrigued by a stand selling something called “schtlab” which looked like fried corn. I bought an ear for 50 cents, and took one bite before figuring out exactly why schtlab hasn’t caught on as a Kosovar export (imagine a really chewy, slightly burned, mostly raw corn cob…not great).
I am told, as I walk through the market, that the recent 100% tariff that Kosovo recently imposed on imports from Serbia, has caused locals to buy more goods from these local market stands. Our embassy tells us that while this may be true, economic data says that the tariff, likely partly inspired by Trump’s fascination with trade wars, has badly hurt the nation’s fragile economy.
The next day, Johnson arrived, just in time for us to meet with Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaci, and in a separate meeting, a collection of leaders in Parliament. Right away, Kosovo’s leaders complained to us about how the breach between the U.S. and Europe was affecting their security. The central issue in both Serbia and Kosovo is the negotiations for Serbia to finally recognize the independence of their young neighboring country (Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its own territory, even if its leaders know they eventually have to recognize Kosovo’s independence in order to enter the EU). To get that recognition deal involves a complex negotiation, and those negotiations are currently on hold because Serbia suspended talks until Kosovo suspends the controversial tariff. The leaders tell us that these days, the United States and Europe come to Pristina and give them different advice on how to break the impasse — they don’t know who to listen to. More fallout from the disastrous Trump foreign policy.
After these meetings, we speed off to the airport, where a small military plane awaits to bring us to Kyiv. Johnson and I couldn’t be more different — he’s twenty years older, a staunch social and fiscal conservative. He can be curt and to-the-point, a result of his decades in private business before entering politics later in life. And so people in Washington are always surprised to find out that we are good friends and regular partners on foreign policy projects. On the plane, Johnson makes an impassioned plea to me to work with him a new comprehensive immigration reform proposal. I do my best to try to explain the wisdom of Republicans finally relenting on background check legislation. By the time we land, it’s not clear how much progress either of us has made, but it’s this kind of space to have real dialogue that is missing in Washington.
Imagine if Martin Sheen ran for U.S. President, portraying the character he played in The West Wing, President Jed Bartlet, right after the show stopped airing. That’s essentially what just happened in Ukraine, where Volodymyr Zelensky, fresh off portraying a humble high school history teacher who accidentally become Ukraine’s President (in his show), defeated the incumbent Ukrainian President with an incredible 70 percent of the vote (in real life). Zelensky formed his own political party, named after his show, Servant of the People, and after winning the election, called snap elections for the legislature, recruited hundreds of young, new reform-minded citizens to run for Parliament under his party’s banner, and ended up winning a commanding new majority of the seats in the parliament too. As we arrived in Kyiv, this political neophyte was firmly in control of Ukrainian politics — seemingly out of nowhere.
Johnson and I have done enough trips together to understand that bucking the system is critical in making visits to foreign capitals effective. I love our embassies abroad, but their interest is often is making sure congressional visits make the fewest waves possible. The less risk the better. But sometimes a splash is necessary, and Johnson and I see an opportunity when our Ambassador tells us that our visit to Kyiv coincides with the opening session of the new Anti-Corruption Court, a big day for Zelensky’s new reform agenda. Johnson and I decide that we want to represent the United States at the ceremony, but the embassy staff tells us that it would be hard to rearrange our day’s schedule and figure out the last-minute logistics.
We listen to their arguments, and I say to the embassy staffer in charge of our visit, “We hear you, but that’s what we’re doing tomorrow. We want to go the ceremony. Just tell them we’re coming. I’m sure they will work it out.” Our able Ambassador takes the cue, and tells his team to make it happen. We know that if two American Senators are in the audience of the opening of the court, it will send a strong message of American support for Zelenskly’s anti-corruption campaign.
The highlight of the next day’s schedule, though, is our meeting with Zelensky himself. We chat with him for a few moments at the ceremony, but later on the day, we travel to meet with him in his office. As we ready to walk in, Johnson pulls a Ukrainian and American flag lapel pin out of his pocket and affixes it to his jacket.
“I only have one,” he laments to me.
“Great, now it’s going to look like I don’t care as much as you!” I joke.
But on cue, as soon as we walk into Zelensky’s office, the first thing he notices is Johnson’s flag pin, complimenting Johnson on his show of U.S.-Ukrainian solidarity.
I seized my opportunity to needle Johnson. “Mr. President, he had two of those, but, typical Republican, he refused to give me one. I’m so sorry.” You can see Johnson’s wry smile in the picture below.
In our meeting, we see why Zelensky is riding high. He is impressive, passionate, and focused like a laser on delivering on his two primary campaign promises — cleaning up Ukrainian government and lowering tensions with Russia. Zelesnky’s first question to us is to ask what we know about Trump’s decision to suspend American aid to Ukraine. The entire capital is abuzz about Trump’s abandonment of Ukraine, and Zelensky clearly doesn’t understand why Trump has chosen this path. Johnson, who personally spoke to Trump about this matter before we left for our trip (Johnson strongly disagrees with Trump’s decision), does his best to explain the situation, but even he admits that he has no clue whether Trump will reinstate the money.
About an hour into the meeting, I ask Zelensky about meetings his government has reportedly had with Rudy Giuliani, who has been trying to get the Ukrainian government to open up a bogus investigation into the Biden family. Many in Kyiv are wondering whether Trump is withholding the aid until Giuliani’s demands are met. “Mr. President, I hope you ignore any requests you receive from the president’s campaign advisors. It would be disastrous for the U.S.-Ukraine relationship if there is any appearance that Ukraine is trying to interfere in an American election.” Zelensky is ready for the question, and makes it clear that his government has no intention of doing Trump’s political bidding.
As the meeting breaks up, we suggest to Zelensky that he use English whenever he gets his first chance to meet with Trump, face to face. Zelensky’s primary languages are Russian and Ukrainian, but his English, which he only uses a few times during our meeting, is much better than he apparently thinks it is.
“Your English is very good,” I tell him.
Speaking in Ukrainian, though a translator, he responds, “Yes, but what you don’t know, is that my Ukrainian is beautiful.”
The last stop on our trip is a very brief one — a few hours in Belgrade, Serbia to meet with President Aleksandar Vucic, the young leader of Serbia who both Johnson and I have gotten to know well over the years. We both believe that he is willing to strike a deal with Kosovo to recognize their independence, but right now, he is mad as a hornet over the 100% tariff. We both press him to get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible, and he says that as soon as the tariff is lifted, he is ready to talk again.
Our meeting with Vucic is important, because the Trump Administration gives little attention to the still simmering conflicts in the Balkans. Our visits to places like Belgrade and Pristina are the highest-level American delegations these countries are likely to receive during Trump’s tenure. And especially in a place like Serbia, which also has strong relations with Russia, it’s important for Americans to keep showing up so that we keep our relationship alive.
We depart Belgrade after a very well attended press conference with Vucic, where we all reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Serbia relationship, and after a connecting flight to Frankfurt, Johnson gets on a flight to Chicago and I get on a flight to Washington. I have to be back in Washington by Friday night because Saturday morning I get on another early plane to Puerto Rico to survey the pace of recovery from Hurricane Maria.
It never stops.