Discussions about Russia’s decision to wage an unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine cite a number of factors: Russian nostalgia for its lost empire, now fractured; Russian fears of Ukraine joining NATO and moving closer to the West; residual Russian bitterness and humiliation over the collapse of the Soviet Union. But other, less obvious factors deserve mention: Russian oil and gas. To be certain, Russia would not have been able to invade its neighbor—and attempt to overthrow Ukraine’s democracy—without them.
This is bigger than the oil Russia has been using to power its tanks and 40-mile-long convoys. Let’s focus instead on how much power Russia’s oil and gas industry has held over much of the world for decades. Thankfully, that era may finally be coming to an end: In the midst of Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, the European Union and the United States are now trying to sever their dependence on Russian fossil fuels. That’s a great first step. An even better next step would be for members of the international community to deflate the influence of petro-states, like Russia and others that use fossil fuel profits to support needless aggression, by speeding up their own development of low-carbon economies.
The Russian Petro-State
Despite being the largest country on the planet, Russia doesn’t enjoy a diversified economy. Its economic health, in fact, depends almost entirely on its ability to produce and export energy products—primarily crude oil and natural gas. Though Russia is the world’s third-largest oil producer (behind Saudi Arabia and the United States), the country only consumes about 30 percent of what it produces, exporting the rest. Revenues from these exports account for more than a third of Russia’s federal budget. And a significant portion of that federal budget—at the moment, around $20 billion per day—is going toward the indiscriminate bombing of Ukrainian cities, including their kindergartens, maternity hospitals, and breadlines.
Given the centrality of energy exports to the Russian economy, it’s not an exaggeration to say that oil is fueling Russia’s war machine. In recognition of this fact, President Biden recently banned all Russian oil and gas imports to the United States as part of a much larger sanctions package aimed at weakening the Russian economy, and Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have instituted bans of their own. Still, these actions are far from a crippling blow.
China and the European Union continue to purchase more than half of all the oil that Russia currently produces. And while the E.U. has imposed sanctions against Russia’s oil and gas industry by freezing new investments and joint projects, most member nations are simply not in a position to cut off the flow of Russian energy products entirely, at least not overnight. This lingering economic relationship has led to some very dark ironies: Poland, for example, is sheltering millions of Ukrainian refugees even as it is purchasing massive amounts of Russian oil every day. Lithuania also acknowledges that its payments are helping to finance atrocities—even while the country expresses the well-grounded fear that should Ukraine fall, it could be next.
Decades of Petro-Aggression
While some petro-states find themselves embroiled in war because they’re trying to protect their resources from seizure by oil-thirsty rivals, others, like Russia, start conflicts, confident that the countries that buy their oil will simply look the other way. Jeff Colgan, a political science professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, coined the term “petro-aggression” to describe his finding that countries where petroleum accounts for more than 10 percent of their gross domestic product are 250 percent more likely to instigate military conflicts with other countries.
Petro-aggression seems to go hand in hand with another geopolitical theory that has gained currency: the resource curse. This theory holds that the susceptibility of a state to governmental corruption, authoritarianism, and violent conflict increases proportionally as that state amasses more and more commodifiable resources—especially oil and gas. You don’t have to be a scholar of international affairs to see how President Vladimir Putin’s Russia checks all of the boxes: The country today is a kleptocracy, led by an autocrat who has held onto power for 22 years and who has a penchant for invading his neighbors.
There’s no shortage of evidence for these theories in other recent conflicts. The nearly unbroken string of civil wars in modern-day Sudan and South Sudan have left millions dead and displaced millions more since 1983, and they’ve largely been one decades-long battle over control of South Sudan's oil fields. Revenues from oil sales finance 98 percent of South Sudan’s federal budget, a fact that effectively elevates any threat to the country’s control of its oil fields to the level of an existential threat. The event that precipitated the first Gulf War emerged from a feud over Kuwait's refusal to cut back on oil production, which had been depressing the export market for the oil revenue–dependent regime of former president Saddam Hussein. And Putin's current aggression toward Ukraine follows his illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea, the peninsula that juts out from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. When Russia took over Crimea, it also took over 80 percent of the offshore oil and gas deposits that had been under Ukrainian control.
True Energy Independence
For people who oppose violent authoritarianism and support freedom, democracy, and human rights, buying oil and gas from Russia now feels like complicity in its war on Ukraine. That’s why the E.U. is rapidly trying to wean itself from Russian energy products. In both Europe and the United States, events of the past several weeks have brought new urgency and gravity to ongoing conversations about the need for energy independence. But as John Bowman, NRDC’s managing director of government affairs, notes, the fossil fuel industry shouldn’t be allowed to define that term. “The way to beat autocrats who sell oil and gas to pay for war is to stop buying it altogether and shift away from the fossil fuels that lock in dependence on belligerent petro-states,” he writes. “The worst thing we can do now is to lock future generations into decades’ more reliance on these dangerous fuels—and those who would use them as weapons.”
The time has come to redefine energy independence in the only way that makes any kind of geopolitical, economic, or environmental sense. The term can’t continue to mean only independence from fossil fuels from other countries, be they hostile or friendly. It must mean independence from fossil fuels themselves—and all the havoc they wreak, from pollution to climate change to war.
The longer we take to transition to cleaner sources of energy, the longer we’ll be at the mercy of petro-aggressors who would weaponize oil and gas by withholding them from us for punitive or strategic reasons—or, worse, sell them to us at a moral price that’s too high to pay, as Russia is doing right now.
No nation can corner the market on sunlight. Wind can’t be weaponized. We already know that investing in clean energy is essential to avoiding the worst aspects of climate change, which itself is an amplifying contributor to global conflict and mass human misery. Now we’re also learning how vital a clean energy economy could be to bankrupting some of the worst actors on the world stage.
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