This Was Not a Junket
When most of us think of Congressional overseas junkets we think of keeping an eye on the latest in aircraft technology at the Paris Air Show; investigating the application of banking laws on Grand Cayman Island; or helping understand the engineering involved in the Great Wall of China.
The leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Democrat Elliot Engel (D-NY) led an overseas trip last week and spent its time in the garden spots of Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk. As you have guessed, they are both in Ukraine.
I spoke with Chairman Royce shortly after he returned.
Assuming the Russians don't drive tanks over the border into eastern Ukraine, the major issue on the minds of federal and provincial officials is the upcoming election for President. That is scheduled to be held on May 25.
The Russians, he suggested, are heavily invested in destabilizing the eastern provinces (known as "oblasts") to the point that the elections cannot be run smoothly - if at all.
Royce said that there is a difference between the eastern oblasts and Crimea. In Dnipropetrovsk, where they went after a stop in Kiev, there is a high percentage of Russian-speakers, but the group did not get a sense that there was any widespread move to leave Ukraine.
That was echoed in a recent poll released by the International Republican Institute that showed 67 percent of respondents in the south and 61 percent in the east" opposed having Russia standing by to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
"There are obviously Russian operatives," he said. "We were told that a hooded band that were supposed to be local separatists were heard speaking Russian with Moscow accents. They stormed and took over city hall," Royce said, "only to find out they had successfully occupied the opera house."
Think: Some guys from Columbus, Ohio trying to pretend they're from Columbus, Mississippi.
The US has to support neighbors in the region like Poland and Lithuania who are, he said, engineering the natural gas pipelines that have been feeding gas from Russia to Eastern Europe to run the other way - and provide emergency natural gas to Ukraine if necessary.
He said that there needed to be a multi-point plan put in place by the Obama Administration that would include immediately approving natural gas exports to Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
"This won't start right away," he said even as he maintained there is excess export capacity at ports in the Gulf of Mexico, "but, it would have an immediate impact on natural gas futures that would, in turn, have a negative impact on the Russian economy."
The third leg of the stool, he said, would be to "send experts to Ukraine so they can develop their own shale gas fields." He said he was told there was enough recoverable natural gas to supply 50 percent of Ukraine's needs when fully developed.
"The idea," he said, is to introduce competition in natural gas as a fuel for Europe from being heavily - in some cases essentially wholly - dependent on Russia to having a choice in suppliers."
However, he said, the Obama Administration is so anti-fossil fuel that he doubted the President would get behind a multi-faceted plan like that.
I know what you're saying: The US State Department hired actors to pretend they were Ukrainians and gave the members of the delegation the old happy dance.
A member of the delegation, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) who is not a member of the Committee, went on the trip because of a large pocket of Ukrainians and Poles in his Illinois district. He was quoted by the New York Daily News' James Warren as saying, "It was the most I've learned about anything in a four-day period. I had expected a dog and pony show," Quigley said. "I didn't expect the optimism we saw, especially about the coming elections. It's a key moment in their history. There's a sense it's their last best hope."
Royce said that the thousands of international observers who are already in Ukraine and who will be supplemented by more from the U.S. and E.U. for the elections themselves "are the best hope to keep intimidation and fraud to a minimum."
Memo to the House Foreign Affairs Committee staff: Come on guys! Rome? London? Prague? Budapest? Let's get some real trips on the travel schedule.
On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: A Map of Ukraine showing the Oblast in question, also links to the Wikipedia entry for Dnipropetrovsk, to the Daily News piece about Rep. Quigley, and to the IRI poll. Also a Mullfoto of what I hope was an error by my health insurance company.