Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa) didn’t give the Biden administration a chance to reject his request to travel to Ukraine when he visited Kyiv and Odesa in May.
The former FBI agent, who helped stand up Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau in 2015, traveled with Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), relying on a network of personal contacts and the Ukrainian government to ensure his safety.
“Me and Dan just decided to go, because we were told that [trips] were not being approved,” Fitzpatrick told The Hill in an interview in his office in late July. “So that’s why we chose that course. Dan’s a Navy SEAL, I’m an FBI agent, so we can handle ourselves.”
A member of the House committees on Intelligence and on Foreign Affairs, Fitzpatrick was intent on seeing for himself what impact U.S. assistance in the country was having following the passage of a $40 billion aid package earlier that month.
“A lot of people wanted, and still want to, go to Ukraine, a lot,” Fitzpatrick said.
Before he went, he said he’d already got the word his trip was unlikely to be approved for support from the Biden administration. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him.
At least one Democrat and six Republican lawmakers, including Fitzpatrick, have traveled to Ukraine independently between April and July.
The lawmakers have made the trips without bothering to get permission from the Biden administration, which has warned of security risks.
The administration began withholding approval over fears that security provided by the U.S. military risked a direct confrontation with Russia if American service members were wounded or killed.
Support for Ukraine remains strong among both parties in Congress, and many members want to visit the country.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who traveled independently to Kyiv in July, said approval for his trip was denied because the State Department didn’t feel that it had “the footprint on the ground to take care of us.”
“We went through a system that other senators had used, and I’m hoping the administration will start supporting these trips,” Graham told The Hill. “It was a great trip. We were well taken care of. I would encourage members to go, they have a very good, reliable system.”
Some trips have won approval.
The administration sanctioned a trip late last month for a bipartisan group of House Armed Services Committee members.
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), who traveled on the trip, said the chairman of the committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash), “had to really jump through some hoops to get that approval.”
And it earlier shepherded senior congressional leaders — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — on visits to Kyiv.
Lawmakers who have made such trips have kept the details to themselves.
“The trip is a hard one, at least it was in the way we had to go, which was classified, so I can’t talk about it,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who traveled with McConnell, told The Hill. “But suffice it to say, I wore the same clothes for three days — and no access to a shower for that long too — but that’s minor compared to the scheme of things, obviously.”
Those who traveled independently to Ukraine were hesitant to speak about the exact route they took. Most are traveling to a border country and then using a mix of cars and trains to get to Kyiv, sometimes for days, sometimes for a matter of hours.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who traveled independently to Ukraine in June, said “there’s no substitute for being there, standing on the ground, looking at what’s going on.”
Risch’s train heading into Kyiv was briefly delayed amid rocket fire, but he said the security risks were minimal and the trip reinforced his resolve for the U.S. to support Ukraine for the long-haul.
“These people are angry, they’re hurt, when this is over it’s not going to be over,” he told The Hill. “This isn’t a situation when the hostilities end, there’s not going to be a reconciliation commission or something. It’s going to be generations, generations before there’s any reconciliation.”
Lawmakers want to go to Ukraine for a variety of reasons.
They want to see firsthand how Ukraine is using the aid that has been approved in a series of bills and executive actions.
Some have used it as part of their oversight of the administration.
Risch after his trip wrote a letter with House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) to Secretary of State Antony Blinken chastising the State Department for what they said was the agency choosing to “circumvent” legislative requirements to update Congress on U.S. assistance to Ukraine.
The lawmakers called for the administration to beef up the presence of American personnel on the ground to better oversee the flow of funds and weapons. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, one of the largest American missions in Europe, is said to be operating with a fraction of its staff since resuming operations in late May.
Sometimes visits by lawmakers affect policy.
Following a meeting with House Armed Services members, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for U.S. military personnel to be deployed in Ukraine for oversight, The Washington Post reported last month, an idea supported by both Smith and Waltz.
“I asked President Zelensky, because I wanted to see his willingness to have us, really looking at their operational plans and, again, providing that kind of oversight, and he said, ‘I welcome the transparency. Absolutely.’ He said, ‘I’ve been asking for it.’ Those were his words,” Waltz said, but added he got the sense that the White House viewed such a move as “too escalatory to the Russians.”
Since the war started in late February, six Senate Republicans have traveled to Ukraine, as well as one Senate Democrat, 11 House Democrats and four House Republicans, according to a tally by The Hill.
That includes Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the first U.S. official or lawmaker to visit Ukraine after the atrocities in Bucha were uncovered in April. He also traveled independently.
“I was asked by the Ukrainian leaders to come,” he told The Hill. “They wanted the world to know through the eyes of U.S. officials, in this case a U.S. senator, of the atrocities the Russians had committed.”
Some lawmakers who have made the trip have used what they’ve learned to discuss with colleagues amid concerns about how support might change if the GOP takes back the House this fall.
While Ukraine skeptics continue to be in the minority among the GOP caucus, supporters of robust assistance, like Crenshaw, are concerned about a growing battle between isolationist and Reagan Republicans over Russia’s invasion.
Speaking to The Hill last month, Crenshaw accused the “populist right” of seeking to “cherry-pick certain facts to degrade any kind of sympathy for Ukraine into increased sympathy for Russian interests.”
The Hill spoke with one Ukrainian citizen who helped organize their trip and the later trip by Graham, who traveled with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
The person, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their work, called the lawmakers who visited “brave people” who were setting an important example of American leadership and solidarity with Ukraine.
“It was [an] emotional experience,” the person said of shuttling the lawmakers between meetings with Zelensky in Kyiv and to the suburbs to speak with civilians who survived the Russian occupation.
“When they hear the sirens and see how the people stay … they understand it’s not just through the TV screen, but real, real experience, this is a real, horrible war,” the person said.
“It’s a big problem if people forget about Ukraine, about this war, this is what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants,” the person said. “I’m also worried if the people of United States are just tired from the war and forget about it, this is important.”