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Russian Energy Dependence: The Buck stops here

This article was originally published in print on the 23rd March

In the wake of the tragic invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, many are trying to figure out why exactly this is happening. What is Putin’s goal here? What could he stand to gain from an attack on an independent nation that he surely knew was going to be strongly condemned internationally? But the main question that has been plaguing my mind is how we got into this mess in the first place. How is it that, even prior to the invasion, Vladimir Putin was able to cross so many lines with Ukraine? The answer, dear reader, is oil. We in the west have been overly dependent on foreign oil for years at this point. Just like someone hooked on narcotics, when you have an addiction, you’ll allow the dealer free rein to do as they please as long as you can get that next, sweet hit to keep the lights on. One country that excellently encapsulates this scenario is Germany. 

In an effort to reduce CO2 emissions, for years Germany has been phasing out non-renewable energy sources. That’s great. We all want solar and wind power to comprise larger and larger shares of our energy. But until that happens, we still have to use inferior alternatives. Even nuclear power, which does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions like oil and is very efficient, has been cut. Putin has capitalized on this. When you foolishly didn’t follow the renewable path ages ago, you have to deal with the consequences. Our society is still hooked on fossil fuels, and until we learn to utilize more sustainable alternatives that don’t originate in autocratic countries such as Russia, we’ll have to feed our addiction with the oil and coal from abroad. We can power our appliances with dirty coal that leaves our consciousnesses dirty from knowing whence the coal came.

Our lack of energy independence has brought us here, and gaining it could get us out. By feeding into the addiction, instead of actively searching for alternatives, we played right into Putin’s hands. He was then able to frolick on the red line at will up to and including the point of invasion with little reason to believe that the West would do much to stop him. But there’s a reason he did not just invade Ukraine right off the bat. If you want to go farther than your adversaries are willing to put up with, you first have to go forward only up to the point that they start to protest, and then stop. Then you can try again, encroaching yet further beyond the original line, but only until the protesting begins. With each wave, the other side recedes bit by bit away from what they were originally willing to tolerate. Although they never ceded much ground in any individual step, they will soon find that they have receded much more than previously thought possible.

The best way to take power away from dictators looking to expand their territory, is to remove the power they have over you. That way, they have no reason to assume that any threats directed towards them are baseless. For a threat to work, it has to be thought credible, and Putin never really thought previous Western strategies credible enough to pay much attention to. That does not mean we have to be hawkish in our policy towards Russia. It just means, we can’t allow them to put themselves in a position where they are calling all the shots in the first place. By being firm and asserting our energy independence, we can hopefully reduce the ability of foreign, authoritarian governments to hold our oil ransom. It’s a small price to pay to not have to be weighing the options of whether to implement stronger, more hawkish policies down the line.

Image via Pjotr Mahhonin on Wikimedia Commons