End all Russian oil and gas imports, including to Europe
President Joe Biden’s leadership in the fight against Russian aggression in Ukraine has been in many ways masterful. He inspired unity within NATO, paved the way for an economic assault on Russia’s financial infrastructure, and even levied personal sanctions about Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Biden also coordinated efforts to seize the assets of Russian oligarchies who have long enabled financial corruption and controlled much of the Russian economy. He coordinated with European allies to bar Russia of the SWIFT global banking system, imposed stringent export controls and other measures targeting the 10 largest financial institutions in Russia and impose restrictions on institutions holding Russian banking sector assets. Perhaps most significantly, President Biden announced today that the United States ban imports Russian oil and gas.
The hope is that as Russia burns through the limited emergency reserve funds it is still able to access, and its miscalculations and military mistakes add up, Russia’s military campaign is likely to come under increasing pressure and will eventually collapse. Under the pressure of overloaded supply lines, underfunded and poorly trained troops, overwhelming economic pressures at home, and growing discontent with the lack of civil liberties and growing repression by the Russian government, control at any test of Putin on his people could begin to wane. Same without the broad support of the Russian peopleand in the face of international condemnation, however, it appears that Putin is capable of wreaking havoc and inflicting war crimes on civilian populations, as the world tragically learned in 1999 from Russia destruction of Grozny in Chechnya. With Russian forces now deliberately targeting civilians fleeing Ukraineeven along the humanitarian routes identified by both sides in the conflict as reserved for civilian evacuation, it has become reasonably clear that the combined strategy of the United States, Europe and NATO, as impressive as the coordination, will probably not succeed in preventing the massacre of many innocent Ukrainian citizens in the very near future.
What more can be done without risking a direct military conflict between the United States and Russia, as would likely result from the imposition of a no-fly zone on Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Zelensky implored the United States and NATO to undertake?
The most important economic weapon to use now against Putin is for Europe to join the United States in a ban on Russian oil and gas imports. Europe is resisting such a move, however, as might be expected from the fact that 60% of Russian crude oil exports go to Europewhile the United States imports less than 10% of its oil from Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that Germany “deliberately exempted Russia’s energy supplies from sanctions” and argued that Germany had no way to replace Russian energy sources.
The impact on the United States of abandoning Russian oil and gas imports depends on how we implement one or more of the following three alternatives:
—Produce more domestic oil and gas, which has the benefit of reducing dependence on foreign countries, but can be opposed as a threat to the environment.
— Ask other foreign countries to increase supply, such as Saudi Arabia or even Venezuela, despite the appalling human rights records of many oil-rich countries.
—Reducing oil and gas consumption and switching to cleaner energy, which is difficult to do quickly and may require conservation strategies that are unpopular with voters.
Regarding the first possibility, the United States can temporarily increase the production of ethanol as a temporary substitute for Russian oil and gas.
In the second option, we can turn to the oil-producing countries of the Middle East and South America, but we will have to ignore acts such as the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis, or the repression policy of the authoritarian Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
In the long term, the only feasible option is the third, which is to reduce oil and gas consumption by improving conservation, increase clean energy production, and accelerate our transition to electric vehicles.
Reduced US oil and gas consumption will increase heating bills and the cost of transportation for the average American. While some burden is an understandable price for fighting for freedom and democracy, the economic burden of war should not fall disproportionately on the less privileged. Congress should therefore provide an emergency tax refund to middle- and low-income families to help weather these price spikes.
The US embargo on Russian oil and gas imports will only be truly effective if Europe participates in it. Europe may refuse to cut off all Russian oil and gas imports overnight, but the European Union (EU) can at least drastically reduce imports. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany, which the The German government has temporarily suspended, is expected to remain permanently closed until Russia leaves Ukraine and Putin leaves the Russian presidency. Abstract theories about the post-Cold War world order and blissful ignorance of Russian attacks on democracy should have evaporated when Putin razed Grozny in 1999, when he bombed Georgian towns in 2008 and when he interfered in the US presidential election in 2016.
Be that as it may, this naïve worldview has now disappeared in Western Europe and elsewhere. US diplomats should ensure that this new realism and commitment to defending democracy remains the centerpiece of US-EU military, diplomatic and economic relations. Business leaders, former diplomats and others should stop lobbying for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline or other commercial ties with Russia and should unite to present a unified economic front against Russian aggression.
The United States can help defend Europe, but Europe must also defend itself. Reducing Russian oil and gas imports is a better alternative than embarking on direct military intervention or passively waiting for the Russian military to implode under the weight of current sanctions. Passivity on the part of Europe will provide a license for Russian aggression to devastate other European countries or end in nuclear catastrophe.
The time has long come to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Today, Russia has forced the hand of the United States and Europe. Clean energy has become an immediate national security imperative, necessary to protect us from totalitarian dictators as well as the threat to our climate. Freeing the world’s democracies from dependence on authoritarian oil states is no longer just a sensible thing to do; it is essential to the survival of democracies everywhere.
Claire O. Finkelstein is the Algernon Biddle Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at the Carey Law School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Eric W. Orts is the Guardsmark Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Richard W. Painter is the S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Minnesota Law School.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.