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Opinion How to beat Putin, for real

Lights illuminate a gas-drilling rig in the Lensk district of the Sakha Republic in Russia on Oct. 13. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)
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The battle has been joined. Now, all that remains to be seen is who will win.

President Biden has rallied not just the West but also much of the world. He has announced sanctions that are more far-reaching than any ever inflicted on a major economy. The results are already evident. Russia’s stock market and the ruble are in tatters.

But despite all this, economic sanctions have rarely forced a country to reverse its path, let alone caused regime change. In the few cases where they do appear to have had some effect — South Africa with apartheid, Iran with its nuclear enrichment — sanctions were usually widely enforced and comprehensive. Because key countries including China, India and the Gulf states are unlikely to boycott Russia, sanctions will lack that long-term bite.

There is one path to changing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus: sanctioning Russia’s oil and gas industry. This is Putin’s golden goose, the source of the state’s wealth and the reason he might believe that he can weather any storm. So far, not only have these been left untouched, but the financial sanctions have been carefully designed to allow Russia room to continue to sell energy to the world.

The conventional wisdom is that the West cannot sanction Russian energy because it would trigger an energy crisis along the lines of the 1970s episode, which would cause deep discontent at home. But the situation is not analogous to the 1970s predicament at all. Today, the United States is the largest producer of oil and gas in the world. It can ramp up production and exports and help open the spigots in other countries. President Biden is worried that he is going to look like former president Jimmy Carter, when his power position is actually more like that of the king of Saudi Arabia.

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Biden should announce that he is going to respond to this massive challenge to the international order by expediting as much production and export of U.S. petroleum as possible to replace Russian energy. With natural gas, he should urge his regulators to facilitate production and he should help more with the financing of liquefied natural gas, so that it can be sent to Europe. He should also encourage countries such as Japan and South Korea to divert more of their liquefied natural gas to Europe. (They have alternative energy sources.) Some of this will take time, but markets will react to the signals and new supplies — and prices will fall.

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But this will not be enough. Biden should also help to unlock two large sources of oil that are currently not getting to the market fast enough or in sufficient quantities. He should suspend former president Donald Trump’s sanctions on Venezuela and Iran. If possible, Washington should work with Iran to close the few remaining gaps and reenter the nuclear deal, which would bring all of Iran’s oil back on the market. And Biden should personally reach out to Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (both of whom feel unloved by Washington these days), patch up relations with them and ask them to ramp up production — which the Gulf states can best do in the short term.

I can hear all the objections from right and left. Let me address a few. Much of this oil and gas will simply be substituted for (banned) Russian energy, so it is unlikely to cause net-higher emissions. There is even an environmental benefit. U.S. gas leaks less methane than Russian gas, and U.S. oil production is also less environmentally harmful than Russian production. In many places, the increase in natural gas could mean countries like Germany could use less coal, a dirtier fuel in nearly every way. In fact, the best way to cut carbon emissions in the short term — with current technologies and at scale — is to replace coal with natural gas.

All of these measures have downsides — some symbolic, some real. But to govern is to choose, and to govern in a crisis is to make hard, painful choices. The country that has best understood this is Germany. It has suspended its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, announced plans to build two new terminals to receive liquefied natural gas, and acknowledged that it might have to use more coal and extend the life of its nuclear plants that were scheduled to be shuttered. These policies are coming from a coalition government whose second-most-important partner is the Green Party, which has historically been tenacious in its environmental goals.

The Biden administration has said that the stakes could not be higher. And it is right. If Putin’s aggression succeeds, we will live in a different world. So let us make sure that he does not.

When Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill, a lifelong and rabid anti-communist, said that if Hitler invaded hell, he (Churchill) would have found something nice to say about the Devil. All we must do is take some steps to support all non-Russian energy, and that policy shift will become a deadly weapon that strikes at Putin’s real Achilles’ heel.

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