Blog Post: Behind the Scenes - 24 Hours in Kyiv
December 19 2013
Every now and again, I try to give my friends a behind the scenes view of what this job is like. This Sunday, I travelled to Kyiv, Ukraine with Senator John McCain to support the growing pro-European protests taking place in the capital city. It was the experience of a lifetime, and I want to share an inside look at how a trip like this comes together.
(Backstage with Senator McCain before going up on stage.)
The lead up
I wake up Wednesday morning to the news that, overnight, the Ukrainian government brought bulldozers and riot police into Independence Square in Kyiv in another attempt to break up the peaceful protests that had convened in response to President Yanukovych’s surprise decision to decline signing an agreement to begin the process of Ukraine joining the European Union. The protest, which came to be known as the “EuroMaidan,” repelled the police and thousands more reportedly began heading for the square to swell the ranks of the protesters in the wake of the unsuccessful crackdown.
As Chairman of the European Affairs subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, and representing Connecticut which is home to many Ukranian Americans, I immediately began drafting a Senate resolution that condemned the Yanukovych government’s repression. On Thursday, I began to hear that Senator McCain was considering travelling to Kyiv to support the protest movement, and since he knew I was also working on the resolution, he approached me on the Senate floor midday on Thursday and asked if I would be willing to join him.
But pulling off a trip to Ukraine in 48 hours is not an easy task. There were so many questions: would our voting schedule allow for us to leave Washington; could we find flights that would get us there and back; did the State Department support our trip given the fragile situation in Kyiv; could I find someone to cover my scheduled shift on Monday to preside over the Senate? As Thursday and Friday wore on, we worked on getting answers to all these questions, and by noon on Friday we got the details worked out and I was off to Kyiv.
Arrival in Kyiv
I took an overnight flight to Kyiv, which involved the most interesting airplane breakfast meal I have ever encountered: chicken lo mien, cheesecake, smoked salmon, and crab dip. Normally, I sleep very well on planes, but for some reason (maybe the 85 degree cabin temperature) I didn’t sleep a wink, and landed in Kyiv at 9:30 a.m. having not closed my eyes all night.
Senator McCain, who had been on the ground already for a half a day, is notorious for keeping insanely packed schedules when he travels (maybe this is why Senator Lieberman, his normal travelling companion, had to retire), and as I walk off the plane, our State Department escort tells me that there is no time to go to the hotel because Senator McCain wants me to join him at our 11am meeting. I fear that if I walk into the hotel room I might immediately fall asleep on the bed, so I agree to head straight to the meeting. The meeting is with Yanukovych’s National Security Advisor, who tells us the two things we want to hear: Ukraine’s future is still with Europe, and there will be no more crackdowns on the square. I am pleased with how McCain and I work together, delivering a coordinated message, in this first meeting. These foreign trips can be tricky if you aren’t on the same page, whether regarding content or style, with your partner. It quickly becomes apparent that McCain and I, despite being of different parties and generations, are able to work well together.
(Senator McCain speaking to the crowd.)
After a quick lunch, we head to the Maidan. We hear reports of a half a million people on the square. Oh boy. Our State Department escort says that I will speak first, followed by McCain. I look over at McCain during lunch and he is reading over his type written speech. Hmm. I never write out my speeches ahead of time, but maybe this time, with 500,000 people listening, I should. I grab a pen and pad and duck into an adjoining room to scribble down some remarks. I tuck it in my suit pocket and head to the car.
When we get to the edge of the protest, we are hustled out of the car by a flock of security guards. Despite the below freezing temperatures, McCain decides to leave his coat in the car. Tough guy. I bow to unspoken peer pressure, and leave mine too. We enter the square, which is surrounded by makeshift barricades that have been constructed by the protesters since Wednesday morning to better repel another assault from the police. The crowd, seeing a recognizable face in McCain, starts to close in around us. Their reaction is positive, but the shoving and jostling as security pushes the crowd back is both disarming and thrilling. It feels like we are in the middle of a revolution. We might be.
We are met behind the stage by Vitali Klitchko, the de facto leader of the political opposition. Klitcho is known best as a former heavyweight boxing champion, owning the second best knockout to fight ratio of any fighter in history. Now he is a 6 foot, 7 inch member of the Ukrainian Parliament, and our host on stage. We wait for a few speeches to end, and we ascend the stairs. Holy moly. There is no way to be ready for what it feels like to stand on stage and look out at a half million people. Whoa.
(Meeting with the opposition leaders. From left to right: Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitaliy Klychko, Senator Murphy, Oleh Tyahnybok.)
Luckily, I get thrown right up at the microphone, so there is no time to get nervous. I start speaking, and quickly realize that the stage organizers have forgotten to give me an interpreter. Not many in the audience speak English and my Ukrainian is rusty (read: non-existent). Realizing the mistake, a guy emerges from the crowd of politicians on stage to take the microphone next to me. My speech is short, but well received. I tell the crowd that the U.S. Senate is with them, and that as the youngest Senator, I am especially proud of all the young people in the crowd and how they have maintained a peaceful protest. Senator McCain does a great job when he speaks next, and we descend from the stage to hundreds of thousands of people chanting “Thank you, U.S.A.! Thank you, U.S.A.!” Unbelievable.
The rest of the afternoon is a blur. I meet with Klitchko and other leaders of the political opposition as McCain runs off to tape Face the Nation. Then we meet with several of the leading Ukrainian oligarchs, who are wary of their country turning away from the lucrative European market, as well as a group of student leaders of the protest. We head over to the most watched Ukrainian TV station to do a live segment with their evening news show, when our State Department liaison pulls McCain and I aside and says, “Yanukovych’s people just called. He wants to see you guys. At 9:30.”
9:30 p.m.? It’s Sunday, and I haven’t slept since Friday night, and now I have to be ready for a meeting with the Ukrainian President at 9:30? I was planning on being asleep at 9:30. Crap. I make the only decision available to me. I start drinking coffee. Lots of it. And I HATE coffee. But it’s my only option, and I take it.
After our TV interview, we head over to the Presidential complex. At 9:30 p.m. on Sunday the place is practically shuttered, but we are brought into an anteroom to await Yanukovych’s arrival. He doesn’t show until closer to 10, and we are seated in a big ornate meeting room, with Senator McCain and I on one side of the table along with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoff Pyatt (a super capable diplomat who has been with us for most of our meetings during the day), and President Yanukovych sitting on the other side along with his Foreign Minister and other deputies.
Senator McCain and I give opening remarks, lasting about 5 minutes total, and then we sit, for the next 70 minutes, as Yanukovych launches into the longest monologue to which I have ever borne witness. He opens by restating his commitment to joining the EU, but spends most of the speech listing the slights he feels Europe has lodged against him and his country. At one point, he spends more than a few minutes talking about a disallowed goal by Ukraine in a 2012 Euro Cup match against England. After over an hour, I gently interrupt, asking if it would be better if we had a back and forth dialogue. He relents. But make no mistake, Yanukovych is a tested, savvy leader, and he takes his time because he wants to leave us with no misimpression about his intentions: he will join Europe, but only on what he considers to be the most favorable terms to Ukraine. And he hasn’t seen those terms yet.
But we hear good news too. Like his National Security Advisor, he promises that there will be no more violence at the Maidan. And he assures us that he has no intention to sign on as a member of the Russian-led Customs Union (an ostensible competitor to the European Union). After over two hours, McCain politely ends the meeting (we sense that Yanukovych could have gone for another two hours), and we wearily depart the grandiose room. We walk outside, and the snow is tepidly falling on the quiet Kyiv streets. We were in there so long, the weather changed.
(Meeting with student leaders of the protests.)
We get back to the hotel at 1 a.m., and we are so wound up from our marathon meeting with Yanukovych that a few of us decide to gather in the hotel bar to debrief. I get back up to my room at after 2, and can you believe it - I am still so wound up I can’t fall asleep. What?? I stay up watching Sports Center for an hour or so, take a long shower, pack up my things again, and head downstairs for our 4:30 a.m. baggage call.
McCain and I ride to the airport together in the dark of the early morning. He is in a good mood, and he starts telling stories from back in the days of the Senate when Republicans and Democrats worked together on a regular basis. He uses as an example a bill he authored to set aside thousands of acres in Arizona as permanent wilderness. At 5:30 a.m., I board a flight to Munich, where we will get a connection back to Washington. I fall asleep on the first leg the minute my body hits the seat.
We arrive back to Washington to hear bad news. That morning, President Yanukovych fired several of his deputies that negotiated the draft agreement with European Union, and announced that he would be signing new economic agreements with Russia (though not the Customs Union). Our meeting with him made it clear to us that his mind had been made up on these subjects for quite a while, so we aren’t surprised that we failed to persuade him otherwise. Our trip was not designed to win over Yanukovych. Our goal was to provide strength to the people at the Maidan, and to the political leaders that support the protests, so that they can continue to organize the critical mass of Ukrainians who want closer ties to Europe and United States. We, like the Ukrainian people, are playing the long game.
It has been an incredible trip, and I am looking forward to meeting with our Ukrainian-American community in Connecticut next week to hear their thoughts on what EuroMaidan means to them and the future of Ukraine.
At 3:30 p.m., I land at Dulles. I do a conference call with Connecticut reporters on the drive back to the Capitol, and I arrive just in time to cast five votes on the Senate floor at 5:30 p.m. I walk home to meet Cathy and the kids, and we head off to our office holiday party.
The fun never ends.