Behind the Scenes of My Trip to Ukraine and Lithuania

I miss John McCain. We were of different parties, different generations, and different ideologies, but we both agreed that America could be a true force for good around the world. I was lucky that he took me under his wing, early in my Senate career, and took me with him around the world to represent the United States. Our particular focus was Ukraine — he and I went there three times between 2013 and 2014 as the country was forcing its way out of Russia’s orbit.

I think my focus since then on advancing the U.S.-Ukraine relationship is a function of the responsibility I feel to protect John’s legacy, but also a product of the big Ukrainian-American community in Connecticut (I once brought McCain to Connecticut to join me for a town hall meeting with Ukrainian-Americans). And so when my colleague, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen told me she was putting together a bipartisan delegation to visit Ukraine over Memorial Day recess, I told her I would join. What follows is a short behind-the-scenes account of our quick, two-day trip to Lithuania and Ukraine.

Last Minute Change

One of my favorite John McCain stories is from the lead up to a trip I asked him to take with me to Poland. I was asked to speak at a major international conference in Wrocław, Poland in 2015, and I asked John to join me. He agreed, but thought it was a waste to simply visit one country and he suggested adding Romania. We only had a three day weekend so I thought two countries was pushing it, but John insisted.

Two days before we were due to leave, John approached me on the Senate floor. “The Bulgarians will get mad if we go to Bucharest and not Sofia,” he told me. “We need to add one more stop.” So, we scurried to find out how to expand the weekend trip to three days.

The next day, he found me again. “Oh man, Chris, did you know the new President of Ukraine is being sworn in this weekend? Biden’s going, and if we time it right, we could stop into Kyiv for a few hours to congratulate President Poroshenko!” So, amazingly, our weekend trip to a conference in Poland became a three day, four country, mad dash across central and eastern Europe.

Six days before Senator Shaheen, Republican Senator Rob Portman and I were due to leave for our trip to Ukraine, I pulled Portman aside during a classified briefing we were both attending. The day before, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka, likely with the help of Russia, had brazenly hijacked a Ryanair passenger plane in Belarusian airspace in order to arrest a pro-democracy journalist who was on board. It was a jaw-dropping violation of international law, and I told Portman that I thought John McCain was likely looking down on us from heaven, begging us to change our schedule: we could make a quick stop in Vilnius, Lithuania, to express U.S. support for the exiled Belarussian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who now lives and works there. Portman agreed, Shaheen quickly signed on as well, and our busy staffers started working to find us a way to get to Vilnius and Kyiv in the same two-day timespan.

No Time for the Old City

On Monday, I got up early and made my way to Norwalk for their Memorial Day parade and then onto Darien and Fairfield for a ceremony and a picnic. I got to Newark Airport just in time for my flight to Frankfurt, where I was due to meet up with Shaheen and Portman, who were arriving on separate flights. I got a few hours restless sleep on the overnight flight, and quickly changed into a suit at the Frankfurt airport. We then boarded a small military plane for the short ride to Vilnius.

A few hours later, we touched down in Vilnius and were met by Robert Gilchrist, the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, who quickly gave us a summary of the situation in Lithuania and Belarus on our way to a courtesy call meeting with the Lithuanian Foreign Minister. Quickly back in the car after the meeting, Portman asked the Ambassador if we had time to drive through the historic “old town” of Vilnius, since I had never been to the city. The Ambassador politely informed us that our short stay in the country didn’t give us enough time for even a ten minute detour, and we continued on our way to our meeting with Tsikhanouskaya.

During our meeting, Sviatlana updated us on the status of the pro-democracy movement and asked for more U.S. help. We then made our way to a press conference where Tsikhanouskaya and our delegation stood together to condemn Lukashenka’s suppression of dissent and his forced landing of the Ryanair flight. Shaheen, Portman and I conducted interviews with local media outlets afterward before we were hurried back onto the plane for another flight to Ukraine, made a little longer because of our (wise) decision to avoid Belarusian airspace on our way.

Red Bull in Kyiv

Our flight landed in Kyiv on Tuesday around five in the afternoon. I pulled out the schedule for the next twenty-four hours and I gasped — I was going to need some serious caffeine. Just in case readers think these trips are cleverly disguised overseas vacations, here is our itinerary for our day in Kyiv.

Tuesday

6:00pm — Arrive at hotel

7:00pm — Briefing with U.S. embassy team

8:00pm — Working dinner with anti-corruption advocates

Wednesday

8:30am — Greet Kyiv-based U.S. Marines

8:45am — Lay flowers at Ukraine war memorial

9:00am — Meeting with Foreign Minister

10:15am — Meeting with Defense Minister

11:30am — Meeting with President Zelensky

1:30pm — Meeting with Prime Minister

2:30pm — Meeting with Rada (Parliament) Speaker

3:00pm — Meeting with Rada party leaders

4:00pm — Meeting with exiled Russian journalists

5:00pm — Interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

6:00pm — Reception with U.S.-Ukraine business leaders

After the reception, Shaheen and Portman headed to the airport, as they were making an additional stop in Tbilisi, Georgia. But since I wasn’t joining them, I added to the schedule an 8pm working dinner with a Ukrainian energy industry expert. I got back to the hotel, exhausted, around 11pm, thinking about my flight back to the United States leaving the next morning at 9am.

Values, Not Just Security

I’ve had some newsworthy meetings with President Volodymyr Zelensky. In September 2019, Senator Ron Johnson and I visited Ukraine in the middle of President Trump’s quiet, illegal pressure campaign to get Zelensky to interfere in the 2020 election. The details of our meeting eventually became an important part of the official record of Trump’s impeachment trial.

This meeting was less eventful, but Zelensky opened the session by streaming in his military commanders from the eastern front to brief us on the status of hostilities with the Russian-backed separatist army, and express concern about the thousands of Russian troops still amassed on the other side of the border. It was a dramatic way to start our meeting, and reflected the show business background of the young Ukrainian President.

Zelensky pressed us hard on his desire for Ukraine to join NATO, and asked us to make sure that he had a chance to speak with President Biden ahead of both the NATO summit and Biden’s summit meeting with Russian President Putin. I was confident that Biden planned to call Zelensky before his meeting with Putin, but we cautioned him about setting expectations too high on NATO accession.

I said this to Zelensky: “NATO isn’t just a security partnership, it’s a values partnership. Right now, the alliance is struggling because at least one of our members, Turkey, doesn’t share all of our democratic values, and it’s more important today than ever that any country that joins NATO sees eye to eye with existing members on the importance of protecting democracy and fighting corruption.” I proceeded to list the reforms that we felt were most important for his government to implement, and I assured him that these reforms would help Ukraine make the case to one day join NATO.

It’s the reform agenda that is most important in Ukraine. Russia doesn’t really want to march its army on Kyiv. What it wants is for Ukrainian democracy to fail so that a pro-Russian government can rise like a phoenix. That cannot happen if Zelensky continues to root out corruption and make his government more responsive to the people.

That’s why I keep coming back to Ukraine — to reinforce this narrative. Yes, maybe part of the reason for my visits here is to honor the memory of my friend John McCain, but I also believe that American influence abroad — both political and economic — flows from the belief that we will stand up for those that wish for democracy, wherever they exist. And right now, one of the most important fights for democracy is in Ukraine. John knew this, and even though he’s gone, the battle continues.