The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The only plausible path to keep the pressure on Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman in Riyadh in 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
5 min

The next phase of the war in Ukraine is now apparent. Over the next weeks and months, Russian forces will try to expand control of their occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and dig in. The Ukrainian army and people will resist fiercely, and low-grade battles will likely persist in these areas, as they have in the Donbas region since 2014. That means the only way out of this conflict is to put enough pressure on Russia to force it to the negotiating table and seek sanctions relief in exchange for a peace deal.

To achieve this, the coalition against it needs the staying power to maintain and even ratchet up sanctions and embargoes against Moscow. And that is only conceivable in a scenario in which energy prices come down from their current highs. If oil prices remain over $100 a barrel — and they could easily go much higher — Europe will soon enter a recession, and the entire global economy will see a drop off of growth and political backlash against the sanctions. This would almost certainly mean the collapse of the coalition against Russia, as countries search for ways to gain cheaper energy. That is surely Vladimir’s Putin’s hope.

The only plausible path to keep the pressure on Russia while not crippling the global economy is to get oil prices down. And the only sustainable way to do this is to get the world’s largest “swing producer,” Saudi Arabia, as well as other gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, to increase production of oil.

U.S. oil production is expanding as fast as it can. There are other paths worth trying — such as easing the embargo on Venezuela and returning to the Iran nuclear deal — but the gulf states can easily expand production by millions of barrels a day and keep those supplies flowing well into the future. Yet, despite several entreaties by the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have refused to significantly increase production.

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That brings us to the central issue: Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In the past, President Biden has called Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” He has yet to hold a formal meeting with him. In return, MBS (as he is often called) has refused U.S. requests to increase oil production and has moved to strengthen his relations with Russia and China.

In a soon-to-be-published Council on Foreign Relations special report, Steven Cook and Martin Indyk propose a grand bargain in which the United States would improve relations with MBS and make more explicit pledges to protect Saudi Arabia in return for a series of Saudi moves, from working to end the war in Yemen to recognizing Israel to taking more explicit responsibility for the murder of journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

It is an idea worth taking seriously and expanding to include the UAE, other gulf states and Egypt. Despite their surface disagreements with Washington, all these countries want more solid U.S. guarantees regarding their security in an increasingly unstable Middle East. The Saudis were distressed that, after the 2019 drone attacks on their oil facilities by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, the Trump administration did practically nothing to retaliate. The UAE faced a similar attack in January and was likewise distressed that the Biden administration was not more active in responding.

There is a way for Washington to forge a new security umbrella in the region that includes Israel, Egypt and the gulf states. It would stabilize the security environment, foreclose the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the region and provide access to energy for the industrialized world. But that path would have to include making up with Mohammed bin Salman.

I don’t make this argument lightly. Jamal Khashoggi was my friend. In fact, when I visited Saudi Arabia in 2004, he was my companion and guide. I miss him dearly even now. But the fact of the matter is MBS is likely to rule Saudi Arabia for the next 50 years. He is an absolute ruler (like all his predecessors), but within the country he is viewed as a modernizer and is extremely popular with Saudi youths for curtailing the powers of the religious police, opening the country up to entertainment and tourism, and giving women greater freedoms. Most of those who advocate continuing the ostracism of MBS — including this paper’s editorial board — do not explain when or how it will ever end, leaving U.S.-Saudi relations in a permanently frozen dysfunctional state.

International relations are often about choosing strategy over ideology. During the Cold War, Washington made common cause with Mao’s China — among many unsavory regimes — to put pressure on the Soviet Union. If Washington wants to prevail in this new cold war with Russia, it needs to be similarly strategic in its outlook.