Behind The Scenes — My Trip to Ukraine and Estonia

A view of Tallinn, Estonia

I’m just back from a quick three-day trip to Ukraine and Estonia, to learn more about the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and how the United States can support our allies in eastern Europe against an increasingly aggressive Russia. As has been my habit, I’m sending you a behind-the-scenes account of the trip as a means of sharing how these experiences help shape my views on U.S. national security. I hope you’ll read it and share with friends.

Vote-a-rama

This trip has been in the works for a long time. In 2013 and 2014, I traveled to Ukraine three times with Senator John McCain. As Ukraine broke away from Russia’s orbit and Russia responded by invading both Crimea and eastern Ukraine, McCain and I became the primary voices for a strong U.S. response to Russian aggression, and traveled to the region repeatedly to learn about how America could help. For most of my time in the Senate, I have been either the Chairman or Ranking Member of the Europe subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so this crisis has been under my jurisdiction. But Connecticut also has a strong, vibrant Ukrainian-American community, and early on, they pressed me to be a leader on the issue of Ukrainian sovereignty.

It’s been three years since I’ve been in Ukraine, and it’s time to get back. There really is no substitute for being on the ground in a conflict area, and since the U.S. is spending millions to support Ukraine, it’s important that I see for myself how our dollars are used. Plus, three years into the war, Ukrainians are getting fatigued, and high-level U.S. visits are always a way to let them know that we stand with them in their time of need.

I set up the trip with the current Chairman of the Europe subcommittee, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Ron’s a pretty hard-line conservative, and he and I don’t see eye-to-eye on most domestic policy issues. But we’ve worked really well together on U.S. support for NATO, Ukraine and the Balkans. I’m excited to go with him, but right off the bat our trip is in jeopardy. We are set to take an overnight flight on Thursday night, but Republicans have scheduled the vote on the budget for Thursday. It’s a truly terrible budget — huge cuts in Medicare and Medicaid in order to finance a gargantuan tax cut for the wealthy. The rules of debate on the budget allow for unlimited amendments (a process called vote-a-rama, given the quick pace and high frequency of votes), and Democrats are rightfully determined to use the amendment process as a way to highlight all the ways that this budget — a massive transfer of money from the very poor to the very rich — is dangerous for America.

But the extended debate threatens our trip. We start voting on amendments at 3pm. Our flight out of Dulles Airport is at 10pm. After about three hours of votes, Democrats start to signal that we are ready to take a final vote. Johnson finds me on the floor. “Looks like we’ll be fine to make our flight,” he says.

But there’s a new wrench in the works. My pal Senator Rand Paul, the only Republican who is voting against the budget, decides to make one of his patented stands. He is demanding a series of votes on amendments to dramatically cut spending to lower the deficit impact of the budget. Though I’m not going to support any of his amendments, he has a point — by cutting taxes for the wealthy by so much, the budget actually expands the deficit by a whopping $1.5 trillion. As I’m learning, Republicans seem to only care about deficits when a Democrat is in the White House.

But Paul’s stunt means that we might miss our flight. And that’s exactly how it turns out. We finish voting by 9pm, about a half hour too late for us to speed to Dulles to make the plane. Johnson decides that shortening the trip by a day doesn’t make it worth it, and he declares that he’s going back to Wisconsin instead. Since I’m the lead on the trip, and we’ve set up meetings and visits throughout Ukraine and Estonia, I need to go through with it, and we book a 5pm overnight flight for the next day.

Ukraine

We fly overnight to Frankfurt and transfer to a small plane to head to Lviv, Ukraine, in the western part of the country. The delayed departure means I won’t have time to meet with President Petr Poroshenko in Kiev, which is disappointing because my relationship with him goes back to the early days of the 2013 Revolution of Dignity, when he stood with McCain and me on stage at one of the biggest protests of the Revolution. As we get up in the air, the pilots tell us that Lviv is socked in by fog, and we might not get clearance to land. Plan B is to fly to Budapest instead and wait for the weather to improve. Ugh — this trip seems cursed.

Thankfully our pilots are able to land despite the low cloud ceiling, and we head off to my first speech at Ukrainian Catholic University. The Lviv area is where many of those in the Ukrainian community in Connecticut come from, and the Connecticut diaspora has specifically been very supportive of this school. That’s why I’m here to give a speech in front of about seventy five students (a pretty good turnout for a Saturday afternoon!). These students are primarily concerned with the high level of public and private sector corruption in Ukraine. I learn from them how normalized corruption has become in Ukraine — teachers, doctors, parking enforcement officers all take money on the side to carry out functions that we would simply take for granted in the United States. Russia benefits from the corruption, because it undermines support for the Ukrainian national government that is trying to rally the country to fight the Russian invasion. I leave the speech energized to do more to help Ukraine in this fight for cleaner government.

Thanks to all the students at Ukrainian Catholic University who came out to join me on Saturday afternoon!

Next, we drive an hour north to Yavoriv military base, where a contingent from the Oklahoma National Guard is training the Ukrainian infantry to more effectively fight in eastern Ukraine. Whenever I travel abroad, I try to visit U.S. troops just to say thanks. But it’s also good to see how our training money is being put to good use — the Russian invasion has been stalled for almost two years, largely because the capability of the Ukrainian army has seriously improved. The fight for the future of this country has to be waged by Ukrainians, not Americans, but this small investment in training is paying big dividends for regional security.

Hearing from soldiers at Yavoriv military base

Back in Lviv, we have a long, fascinating dinner with the Mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, who is a major political player in Ukraine. Lviv is Ukraine’s second biggest city and Sadovyi is also the head of a political party that has become increasingly critical of Poroshenko’s slow pace of anti-corruption reforms. Our excellent Ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, wants me to press the Mayor to make sure that any protests against the government remain peaceful — any political violence in Ukraine could undermine U.S. and European support for the government.

But I also get a sense of how norms and standards are still very different here than in America. At one point during dinner, Mayor Sadovyi provides us with a long complaint about how Poroshenko and the oligarchs control all the media in the country, and use it to promote their political agendas. This prompts Ambassador Yovanovitch to politely ask Sadovyi, “With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, what do you say when people ask you about the TV and radio stations that your family owns?”

He brushes this concern off without a flinch. “My wife owns those, not me! And our stations provide fair coverage. There’s no political slant at all. Not like those other stations.”

I’m struck by how normalized it’s become in Ukraine for politicians to control media. And the lack of self-awareness that would allow Sadovyi to complain about other political leaders’ media ownership when he and his family are doing the same thing! I concede to him that the U.S. has its own challenges with media ownership as a handful of big, politically connected corporations gobble up more and more newspapers, TV stations, and online media sites. But that’s different from the effective state ownership of media, I tell him. Ukraine’s democracy is young, and this is a reminder of how far it still has to travel.

Estonia

The next morning, we break through the fog (back again) to fly to Tallin, Estonia. While the U.S. has no treaty obligation to defend Ukraine, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are NATO members, and given their proximity to Russia and their small militaries, they are the countries most at risk of Russian invasion or interference. And if that were to happen, the U.S. would be obligated to defend them from attack. It’s important that people like me visit the Baltics to show our solidarity with them, and understand how we can take preventative steps to make sure that U.S. troops don’t have to be sent to this region to fight.

I’m here to focus one area of cooperation in particular. Last year, I teamed up with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio to write legislation establishing a new center at the State Department called the Global Engagement Center (GEC). The GEC would be the home for all the U.S. government efforts to fight back against propaganda from our primary global adversaries, like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Russia. This has been a focus of mine for years due to my belief that the U.S. is way behind the curve in confronting online terrorist recruiters who spread hatred of the U.S., and Russian fake news sites that try to influence elections and legislative debates to the benefit of the Kremlin.

Estonia and the other Baltics have been innovators on this issue, and we meet with the leadership of the NATO Centers of Excellence on information warfare and cybersecurity. My meeting with Janis Sarts, the head of NATO’s Stratcom Center, is particularly disarming. When I tell him about our new $60 million investment in the GEC, he rolls his eyes. “When you put together all the money the Russians are spending on information and propaganda, it’s probably a billion dollars.”

Yikes. He describes a highly entrepreneurial, decentralized system of information and cyber warfare, in which both government personnel and private sector oligarchs are rewarded by the Kremlin for efforts to destabilize foreign countries. It occurs to me how much easier a strategy of destabilization is than a strategy of stabilization. If you’re just trying to knock the tower of blocks down, you can afford to throw lots of shots that miss, as long as one hits. Sarts notes that the United States is not actually a funder of his center’s work — other NATO countries are footing the bill for his work on counter-propaganda programming. This seems crazy to me since the U.S. was just attacked by Russia’s propaganda operation in 2016 when Russia planted thousands of fake news stories about Hillary Clinton all over the U.S. to try to tip the election to Donald Trump. I tell Sarts that I will work on this as soon as I get back to Washington.

Sunday night, I have dinner at the Ambassador’s residence with five members of the Estonian Parliament. Our Ambassador is actually out of town, but I’m in the capable hands of his number two, Elizabeth Horst, who I know well from her time in Ukraine during the Revolution. The Parliamentarians are worried that the Trump Administration is pulling away from Europe and NATO. They also question me about the decision by President Trump to remove the very capable U.S. Ambassador in Tallin and replace him with a friend of Steve Bannon’s who has no diplomatic experience. This is the tricky part of congressional diplomacy. While it would certainly feel good to trash Trump’s foreign policy to this audience, it would do little to advance U.S. national security interests. I can’t lie, but I can try to sugar coat the incoherence of Trump’s foreign policy. And though I am very personally outraged by Trump’s decision to replace a capable, career Ambassador with a political ally of Steve Bannon, I don’t say this to the Estonians. I tell them that sometimes it’s good to have an Ambassador who has close political ties to the White House (this is actually true) and that I am sure the new Ambassador will be a quick learner.

After dinner, a few of us go out for drinks, and amongst our group is a member of the U.S. special forces in Estonia. He and his team have been working with Estonian special forces to increase their readiness in the unlikely case (at least for now) of a Russian invasion or provocation. It occurs to me as we talk that if the Russians were ever to create an actual security crisis in a Baltic state, it would be the United States alone that would likely come to their immediate defense. The situation would develop so quickly that the process of invoking NATO’s mutual defense clause might be too cumbersome — the U.S., with the capabilities that we uniquely possess, would be responsible for helping the Estonians repel the threat. That’s why our special operators are here. It underscores how important it is to make sure that this scenario never happens.

Early Monday morning, I head over to the Foreign Ministry for a meeting with Sven Mikser, Estonia’s young Foreign Minister. He is especially concerned about Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear agreement. He reminds me that so long as Iran is complying with the deal, Europe will not reimpose sanctions on Iran if the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, meaning that U.S. withdrawal will give Iran everything they want — a restart of their nuclear program and continued significant sanctions relief.

Meeting with the Foreign Minister of Estonia

After the meeting, I speed off to the airport to catch my flight back to Washington. We get back just in time for me to make an important vote on the Senate floor –the emergency funding bill for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. By now, I have no idea what time my internal clock is set to — it feels so wild to have started the day with a 9am meeting at the Estonian Foreign Ministry and end the day with a 5:30pm vote on the Senate floor in Washington.

But I’m glad I went, even if it was a very quick trip. One of my chief criticisms of U.S. international policy is that Congress has largely abdicated its foreign policy making responsibilities to the executive branch. The imperial presidency has never had as much power over U.S. global activity than it does today, and part of the reason for this phenomenon is that Members of Congress refuse to do the work necessary to be true experts on critical issues to U.S. national security like the future of Ukraine. I’m determined not to fall into this trap, so even though it’s hard to have missed yet another of my son’s soccer games this weekend, I remind myself that this is the job I signed up for, and I might as well do it the right way.