Six months have passed since the death of Sen. John McCain, a true American hero and one of the most consequential American political figures on foreign policy and national security matters of the last three decades.
Ukraine has had few stronger supporters in both defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and in promoting democracy. Lest we forget, Sen. McCain spent one of his last New Year’s eves – December 31, 2016 – together with two other U.S. senators accompanying President Petro Poroshenko on a visit to Ukrainian troops at the front-line town of Shyrokyne in Donetsk Oblast. I can’t resist being provocative in wondering how many leading Ukrainian politicians have done the same.
Sen. McCain was a key sponsor of pieces of bipartisan legislation impacting Ukraine, often being the lead with one of my former Helsinki Commission chairmen, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), on bills supporting Ukraine and sanctioning Russia for its aggression towards Ukraine. Notably, he was co-author with Sen. Cardin of the Magnitsky Act, which Vladimir Putin has railed against more than any other. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he took the lead in advocating and, through his sponsorship of key bills, ensuring military and security support for Ukraine.
In a way that few others did, Sen. McCain understood that we were more secure in a world where democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law were the norm. As chairman of the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organization that has played a key role in advancing democracy around the globe, he was a tireless advocate for human dignity, freedom and justice. He was especially highly respected in the countries that once constituted the Soviet Union, including Ukraine.
Much of Sen. McCain’s commitment to Ukraine came from his involvement with IRI. Indeed, it was Michael Kostiw, a Ukrainian American who grew up in Elmira, N.Y., who got John McCain involved with IRI and elected as that important organization’s chairman in 1993. Mr. Kostiw, who first met Mr. McCain back in 1985, was his vice-chairman at IRI for 10 years from 1993 to 2003, and also served as his Senate Armed Services Committee staff director in 2007-2011. Mr. Kostiw encouraged Sen. McCain to engage with Ukraine and traveled with him there twice.
It should be noted that in addition to these key positions, Mr. Kostiw’s lengthy and illustrious career with the federal government has included service in the CIA, the U.S. Army and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He currently serves as advisor to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. He also did a stint in the private sector, as an executive at Chevron. Mike Kostiw may not be a household name in the Ukrainian American community, but he has done a lot.
In a tribute to his friend, Mr. Kostiw described Sen. McCain as a leader of “profound honor, honesty and belief in the dignity of man. Belief in democracy and the rule of law was at the core of his being. He believed it for all humanity. He believed it for Ukraine as he watched, supported and encouraged Ukrainians to realize their democratic dreams.”
Someone else who has known and worked for John McCain at IRI is Stephen Nix, regional program director for Eurasia since October 2000. He oversees programs in Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic and Russia. Clearly, Mr. Nix has been in the forefront of IRI’s efforts in Ukraine and is well-respected by Ukraine’s political leaders and Rada members. Having known and worked with him for decades while at the U.S. governmental Helsinki Commission, where he was often a speaker at our public briefings on Ukraine, I consider him to be one of Ukraine’s staunchest and most consistent American friends. Our cooperation continues to this day, as we both participate in the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation-initiated Friends of Ukraine Network’s Democracy and Civil Society Task Force.
Mr. Nix resided for three years in Kyiv during the 1990s, working for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and as outside legal counsel for the Committee on Legal Reform in the Ukrainian Parliament. While there, he assisted in the drafting of the 1996 Constitution of Ukraine, the presidential and parliamentary election laws, and the law on the Constitutional Court of Ukraine. It was in Kyiv that Mr. Nix met Natalia Bondar from Khmelnytsky Oblast at a reception at the British Embassy. They were married in Kyiv’s Cathedral of St. Alexander in 1995. And most likely thanks to her, his Ukrainian is quite good.
In a tribute to Sen. McCain published on the Atlantic Council’s “Ukraine Alert” blog, Mr. Nix recounted discussing with Sen. McCain in the first week of December 2013 possible travel to Kyiv so that he could address the crowds on the Maidan. The senator had been advised by the State Department not to travel there because of heightened security concerns. Mr. Nix remembered Sen. McCain telling him: “We cannot be concerned about our own security; we have to support our friends in Ukraine because it’s the right thing to do.” And so, he went, spoke to a crowd of nearly a million on the Maidan, letting them know that America stood with them in their struggle for a better future.
Finally, let me offer just a snapshot of IRI’s recent activity in Ukraine, as it would take a tome to write about this organization’s work there throughout the last quarter century. Having been in-country since 1994, the Ukraine portfolio is one of the largest at IRI. With two offices currently in country (in Kyiv and Dnipro), IRI’s programming has extensive reach, particularly in those areas affected by Russia’s ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. IRI conducts the majority of its programming at the local level in Ukraine – an approach that is all-the-more timely as the country implements sweeping decentralization reforms that have empowered Ukraine’s cities vis-à-vis the capital. IRI’s interventions cover the political spectrum; for example, IRI works to empower local government officials with the skill sets needed to be responsible to citizens, with youth and ordinary citizens to empower them to be able to participate in local politics, and with political parties in an effort to have them be less personality-driven and more issues-based.
The International Republican Institute’s work is not limited to Ukraine’s regions, however. Over the last year, IRI has partnered with the Verkhovna Rada speaker’s team, as well as several government ministries, to provide staff with strategic communications trainings that will enable them to better highlight their reform efforts to the public. Through these efforts, IRI trains thousands of Ukrainians each year. To amplify its reach further, in December 2016 IRI launched its innovative e-Learning Platform (www.iri.org.ua), an online platform that allows Ukrainians to read more about IRI’s work in Ukraine, see where IRI’s upcoming events are and register online, and access IRI’s training content, including manuals and videos. In addition, IRI’s polling in Ukraine has become a leading source of reliable public opinion research for both local and international experts alike. (For more information about IRI’s URAP program click here).
I have no doubt that IRI will continue to honor John McCain ‘s legacy through its valuable work in Ukraine, the region and, indeed, the entire world.
Orest Deychakiwsky is Vice Chair of the Board of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. This article also appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly.
Photo at top of page: From left, Orest Deychakiwsky, Jonathan Katz and Stephen Nix at the German Marshall Fund. (Credit: GMF).