The establishment is obsessed with meaningless words and “constructive dialogue,” but all Vladimir Putin cares about is power. We’ve wasted decades talking about containing Russian aggression while increasing Russian power by granting them access to European energy markets. Words will not change this dynamic, only the application of power in the form of US energy will.
Last weekend, CNN’s John Harwood claimed President Biden’s approach to Russia was “paying dividends.” He cited the thinking of Fiona Hill, an impeachment witness against then President Donald Trump in his first go around. Ms. Hill claimed that unlike his predecessor, President Biden is “trying.” “After Trump derided and weakened the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Biden has rallied NATO on Ukraine’s behalf. After Trump pressured Russia’s beleaguered neighbor for his personal benefit, Biden has steeled Americans for shared sacrifice in defense of Ukraine’s right of self-determination.” “You couldn’t get a sharper contrast,” Ms. Hill observed. “Ultimately Putin wants some kind of deal,” she said. “They think Biden is the kind of president who could actually make a deal. Trump never could.” She continued, “They might have thought we were going to crumble, and we didn’t. It might have deterred a full-scale invasion. Now (Putin) is basically recalibrating, recalculating.”
Barely 48 hours later, Ms. Hill was proven completely and catastrophically wrong about everything. Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want a deal. Instead, he announced that two regions in Eastern Ukraine were actually independent states and began rolling in tanks as “peace keeping” forces to annex the territory. These “peace keeping” troops were generally seen as an invasion force, and it is assumed that Donetsk and Luhansk will now be permanently in Russia hands, the very “minor incursion” President Biden appeared to condone just last month. The Russian President wasn’t finished, however. He laid out a broader claim to all of Ukraine, saying the modern country was an artificial construct and they were “ancient Russian lands.” He also outright threatened anyone who disagreed, “Those who seize the power and keep the power in Kyiv, we demand to stop hostilities immediately, otherwise, all the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodbath will be on the consciousness of the regime that is ruling in Kyiv. By declaring these decisions, I’m confident that I will have support of all the patriotic forces of Russia.”
I do not point this out to criticize Ms. Hill in particular. The entire political and academic establishment has been completely wrong about Russia in general and Vladimir Putin particular for twenty plus years now. George W. Bush once claimed, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” The former President might have realized his error by the time he left office and Russia was busy annexing Georgia in late 2008. At the time, he promised harsh sanctions and swift retaliation, but he had barely a month left in office. His successor, President Obama, rode into office promising a “Russian Reset” orchestrated by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complete with the gimmicky gift of an actual reset button. Before President Obama left office, Russia annexed a piece of Ukraine in 2014, taking the Crimean Peninsula. President Obama provided humanitarian aid, but nothing that could actually combat Russian aggression. In between, he castigated his opponent in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, for claiming Russia was our greatest geopolitical foe. At a debate, he said to applause from the chattering classes, “Governor Romney, I’m glad you recognize al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Nor is my goal here to criticize former Presidents Bush or Obama either, merely to point out that the entire foreign policy establishment and credentialed class, what Dr. Anthony Fauci might call “real card carrying experts,” have all been entirely wrong and to ask how is that possible? How could the combined might of the most powerful country on Earth and 29 other countries in the NATO alliance be unable to deter a country with a Gross Domestic Product less than three quarters the size of Texas? In my opinion, the answer is simple: The establishment doesn’t understand the dynamics of power, and instead wastes their time on the vagaries of language. Putin, however, is entirely focused on power, keeping it at home and projecting it abroad, twisting language to advance his goals rather than using it for its own sake. The contrast over the past two months couldn’t be more clear. Governments in the United States and around the world, accompanied by “experts” like Ms. Hill, wasted countless words urging President Putin not to act, but took no meaningful action themselves, exercising no power to stop an invasion. President Putin, on the other hand, said whatever was convenient at the moment while actively implementing his plan, surging his army to the border, planting false flag operations, and ultimately rolling in “peace keeping” troops.
Thus, President Biden was offering his Russian counterpart an in-person meeting if Russia delayed the invasion as late as last weekend. Likewise, French President Emmanuel Macron spent hours on the phone with Vladimir Putin as Putin was planning his (so far limited) invasion. Even now, the French and Russian Foreign Ministers are claiming there is an agreement to work for a ceasefire and talks are expected to start in the next few days. This follows literally months of talk, from promises of sanctions like no one has ever seen before to supposedly constructive dialogue. Last December, President Biden said, “I made it very clear: if in fact he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences, severe consequences, economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen.” At the same time, he was undercutting his own position by hedging his options, insisting US troops were “not on the table” and hoping to “discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO writ large” with the hopes of coming up with an accommodation that would bring “down the temperature along the eastern front.”
This back and forth appears to be continuing right now. As of Monday night, Germany suspended the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, but no other substantive action has been taken in Europe, not even the official notification of which specific actions will be taken in the future. Meanwhile, officials in the United States have been busy debating what actually constitutes an invasion. A Senior Administration Official told The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker that this “peace keeping” exercise doesn’t meet their definition because the territory had been disputed since 2014. Another refused to clarify if this was actually an invasion. Meanwhile, CNN’s Bianna Golodryga is claiming “analysis on independent Russian media” believe this “could give Putin an off-ramp.” In other words, the free world is busy debating with itself whether we should do nothing or next to nothing, promising swift retaliation while dithering on anything substantive. CNN’s Kylie Atwood tweeted, “The Biden admin targets Ukraine’s separatists regions in a new EO, prohibiting trade/new investment/or financing in those regions. This announcement – coming within hours of Putin’s speech – is separate from ‘swift & severe economic measures’ for any Russian invasion, Psaki says.”
Essentially, it seems they generally agree with Vladimir Putin that the “minor incursion” is a peace keeping force and not an invasion, or at least not a full-fledged invasion, just a minor one. Maybe, President Biden seemed to disagree with this assessment when he said that it was, in fact, an invasion, adding to the confusion rather than clearing it up. To be precise, he described Russia’s action as the beginning of an invasion, and hence we are starting the beginning of sanctions, taking the old adage about splitting hairs to an entirely new level. “This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine…so I am going to begin to impose sanctions in response,” he said. Would we apply that phrasing to the beginning of a murder or a rape? Once upon a time, I imagine everyone thought invasion was an either or proposition as well. Now, tanks crossing into a sovereign country doesn’t fully count. To be fair, the sanctions he proposed appear to go further than those announced on Tuesday including freezes on two Russian banks, sovereign debt, and elite family members in Russia. Elsewhere, foreign governments have likewise wasted a lot of breath condemning Russian aggression and expressing their disappointment while promising to unleash a few sanctions. Even the Kremlin noted, “The president of France and the Federal Chancellor of Germany expressed their disappointment with this development. At the same time, they indicated their readiness to continue contacts.”
Throughout, President Putin has largely played along with these word games, participated in calls and meetings, citing their “readiness to continue contacts,” and more, all while moving forward with his plans regardless of his statements. This is because the United States and other countries have refused to exercise any actual power over the situation. Power in Russia comes from the energy industry. Oil and natural gas account for somewhere between 20% to 30% of their GDP and around 60% of their exports. They are an economy built on energy, much of it supplied directly to Europe. This creates an incredibly awkward and in my opinion unsustainable dynamic: Europe is dependent on Russian energy and Russia is dependent on European dollars. Each has reason not to overly provoke the other, but in a world of rapidly spiking energy prices and limited supplies, the power dynamic has shifted rapidly to the Russian side of the equation, especially when they can sell to China. President Putin has likely reasoned that he can take any economic or diplomatic hit, but Europe cannot without experiencing a full blown crisis considering energy prices are already up significantly across the continent, costing families some 800 more euros per year just to heat their home.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy produced a white paper on the energy dynamic, “American Gas to the Rescue? The Impact of US LNG Experts on European Security and Russian Foreign Policy.” At the time, the United States provided not a single drop of natural gas to Europe because of a ban on exports while Russia provided the lion’s share. The insanity of this policy is difficult to overestimate. NATO’s 27 European member nations are supposed to be a bulwark against Russian aggression. That is the primary purpose of the alliance, alluded to by Ms. Hill herself earlier in this post, and yet the United States had done absolutely nothing to prevent these very nations from depending on the potential aggressor to support almost every aspect of their lifestyle. Even so, the Columbia report noted that “The US natural gas revolution has already undermined the profits of Russian producers and benefitted European consumers.” This was true even though we weren’t exporting directly, “This has strengthened Europe’s bargaining position, forcing contract renegotiations and lowering gas prices. US LNG exports will have a similar effect.” They did add a caution to their conclusions, “While there are important longer-term benefits for Europe from US LNG exports, they are not a solution to the current crisis. Those terminals already approved will not be online for several years. Terminals pending approval, if constructed, will not be available until after 2020.”
This report was produced in 2014. It is now 2022, meaning if we had pursued this policy and exercised our energy power we likely wouldn’t be in this position. For his part, former President Donald Trump did exactly that, turning America into the world’s number one energy producer. He personally harangued NATO in June 2018, claiming Germany was “captive” to Russia and that it makes no sense to want protection from Russia while sending them billions of dollars. In other words, he stated the obvious. President Biden, however, has done the exact opposite. He has reduced US exports and supported Russian efforts to better supply Europe like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, granting Russia waivers for the purpose while canceling similar projects in the United States, and he’s done this with the overwhelming approval of the establishment class. Sam Buchan, writing for Newsweek, recently argued that “U.S. Natural Gas is Saving Europe from its Own Energy Policy.” As he saw it, “U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers are sailing to the relief of Europe as the latter faces perhaps its direst energy crisis in recent history. But you’ll hear no mention of this American armada from the ‘keep it in the ground’ Biden administration.” Mr. Buchan also asked the obvious, “So what has been President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s stance on this? Silence. The Biden administration prefers to shun America’s energy bounty and depict our potentially liberating resources as burdens of guilt to be discarded in the name of global equity. The silence is all more bizarre now that the U.S. is the world’s largest LNG exporter and is pulling Europe back from the brink of disaster.”
Alas, none of this is groundbreaking thinking or even a particularly insightful formulation. It’s the most basic common sense. Realizing that a country needs energy and will be averse to biting the hand that feeds it should have been obvious for over 20 years. From that, it necessarily follows that we cannot have our allies in bed with our adversaries regardless of the rhetoric. Words cannot change this dynamic. Power, in this case actual power that Europeans put in their gas tanks or use to heat the homes, can. Putin knows this. We don’t, or we refuse to accept it. As late as yesterday, President Biden noted that nothing in Vladimir Putin’s announcement indicated he was ready for “constructive dialogue” about peace in Europe, as if that was ever his goal. Therefore, we are completely impotent when we shouldn’t be. As a result, our approach isn’t “paying dividends,” it’s courting global disaster.