WASHINGTON – “We thought we could die.”
The Russian invasion had just begun when Nancy Pelosi made a surprise visit to Ukraine, the House speaker then the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to lead a congressional delegation to Kyiv.
Pelosi and the lawmakers were ushered under the cloak of secrecy into the capital city, an undisclosed passage that even to this day she will not divulge.
“It was very, it was dangerous,” Pelosi told The Associated Press before Sunday’s one-year anniversary of that trip.
“We never feared about it, but we thought we could die because we’re visiting a serious, serious war zone,” Pelosi said. “We had great protection, but nonetheless, a war — theater of war.”
Pelosi's visit was as unusual as it was historic, opening a fresh diplomatic channel between the U.S. and Ukraine that has only deepened with the prolonged war. In the year since, a long list of congressional leaders, senators and chairs of powerful committees, both Democrats and Republicans, followed her lead, punctuated by President Joe Biden's own visit this year.
The steady stream of arrivals in Kyiv has served to amplify a political and military partnership between the U.S. and Ukraine for the world to see, one that will be tested anew when Congress is again expected this year to help fund the war to defeat Russia.
“We must win. We must bring this to a positive conclusion — for the people of Ukraine and for our country,” Pelosi said.
“There is a fight in the world now between democracy and autocracy, its manifestation at the time is in Ukraine.”
With a new Republican majority in the House whose Trump-aligned members have balked at overseas investments, Pelosi, a Democrat, remains confident the Congress will continue backing Ukraine as part of a broader U.S. commitment to democracy abroad in the face of authoritarian aggression.
“Support for Ukraine has been bipartisan and bicameral, in both houses of Congress by both parties, and the American people support democracy in Ukraine,” Pelosi told AP. “I believe that we will continue to support as long as we need to support democracy ... as long as it takes to win."
Now the speaker emerita, an honorary title bestowed by Democrats, Pelosi is circumspect about her role as a U.S. emissary abroad. Having visited 87 countries during her time in office, many as the trailblazing first woman to be the House speaker, she set a new standard for pointing the gavel outward as she focused attention on the world beyond U.S. shores.
In her office tucked away at the Capitol, Pelosi shared many of the honors and mementos she has received from abroad, including the honorary passport she was given on her trip to Ukraine, among her final stops as speaker.
It’s a signature political style, building on Pelosi’s decades of work on the House Intelligence Committee, but one that a new generation of House leaders may — or may not — chose to emulate.
The new Speaker Kevin McCarthy hosted Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library this month, the Republican leader’s first foray as leader into foreign affairs.
Democrat Hakeem Jeffries took his own first trip abroad as House minority leader, leading congressional delegations last week to Ghana and Israel.
Pelosi said it’s up to the new leaders what they will do on the global stage.
“Other speakers have understood our national security — we take an oath to protect and defend — and so we have to reach out with our values and our strength to make sure that happens,” she said.
“I just want to say that this, for me, was the most logical thing to do,” Pelosi said.
When Pelosi arrived in Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stood outside to meet the U.S. officials, a photo that ricocheted around the world as a show of support for the young democracy fighting Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion.
“The courage of the president in greeting us on the street rather than us just meeting him in his office was yet again another symbol of the courage of the people of Ukraine,” she said.
Pelosi told Zelenskyy in a video released at the time “your fight is a fight for everyone.”
A year on, with no end to the war in sight, Pelosi said: “I would have hoped that it would have been over by now.”
Pelosi’s travel abroad has not been without political challenges, and controversy. During the Trump era she acted as an alternative emissary overseas, reassuring allies that the U.S. remained a partner despite the Republican president’s “America First” neo-isolationist approach to foreign policy.
Last year, in one of her final trips as speaker, Pelosi touched down with a delegation in Taipei, crowds lining the streets to cheer her arrival, a visit with the Taiwanese president that drew a sharp rebuke from Beijing, which counts the island as its own.
“Cowardly,” she said about the military exercises China launched in the aftermath of her trip.
Pelosi offered rare praise for McCarthy’s own meeting with Tsai, particularly its bipartisan nature and the choice of venue, the historic Reagan library.
“That was really quite a message and quite an optic to be there. And so I salute what he did,” she said.
In one of her closing acts as House speaker in December, Pelosi hosted Zelenskyy for a joint address to Congress. The visit evoked the one made by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain, at Christmastime in 1941 to speak to Congress in the Senate chamber of a “long and hard war” during World War II.
Zelenskyy presented to Congress a Ukrainian flag signed by front-line troops that Pelosi said will eventually be displayed at the U.S. Capitol.
The world has changed much since Pelosi joined Congress — one of her first trips abroad was in 1991, when she dared to unfurl a pro-democracy banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square shortly after the student demonstrations that ended in a massacre.
After the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s again Russia and China that remain front of her mind.
“The role of Putin in terms of Russia that is a bigger threat than it was when I came to Congress,” she said. A decade after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, she said, Putin went up.
“That’s where the fight for democracy is taking place,” she said.
And, she said, despite the work she and others in Congress have done to point out the concerns over China’s military and economic rise, and its human rights record, “that has only gotten worse.”
Often mentioned as someone who could become an actual ambassador — there have been musings that Biden could nominate her to Rome or beyond — Pelosi said she is focused on her two-year term in office, no longer the House speaker but the representative from San Francisco.
“Right now my plan is to serve my constituents,” Pelosi said. “I like having 750,000 bosses, rather than one.”