It’s a sound theory that Putin is acting to take Crimea, and eventually eastern Ukraine, to seize its energy production regions. Crimea includes both onshore and offshore energy production — oil and natural gas — while eastern Ukraine includes a vast swath of the country’s energy production fields. Crimea and eastern Ukraine also happen to be where the bulk of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians live. Putin could use alleged threats to those ethnic Russians to justify taking both regions. In fact, he has already used that justification to take Crimea and annex it.
Quick and dirty overlay – Ukraine’s energy production zones line up with Russia’s “protection” zones.
Energy production is Russia’s #1 export, and its chief foreign policy instrument when it deals with the former Warsaw Pact nations and the rest of Europe. Russia’s pipelines feed Europe’s economies. Energy has become Russia’s chief geostrategic asset. Seizing Ukraine’s energy production fields could give Putin a stranglehold on Europe’s economies and therefore their foreign policies. If energy production is key to understanding Putin’s objectives, it could also be key to thwarting his objectives. Here are a few things Obama could do right now. Obama famously offered Russia “flexibility” after his re-election. It’s time he demonstrated flexibility to US energy production to bolster our national interests.
1. Offer Ukraine and NATO’s eastern European allies price breaks on buying American energy
Despite the Obama administration’s overall strategy of reducing US energy production, fracking has led to a boom in US natural gas production. Development of oil under privately-owned land has led to an oil boom in North Dakota, Texas and other oil-producing states. While geography prevents the US from ever becoming Ukraine’s major energy supplier, we could offset Ukraine’s and eastern Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas by offering them price breaks on US energy. Europe presently buys a third of its energy from Russia, and eastern Europe is even more dependent on Russian energy. The US could and should offset that to reduce Russia’s influence outside its own borders.
2. End the war on coal
President Obama could signal that he understands Putin’s energy objectives and takes them seriously by unleashing American energy production including coal, which he has driven into disfavor via EPA regulations. The EPA answers to Obama; he could direct it to back off on its extreme coal regulations. The US could use coal to fire more of our own power plants, including those which have been shuttered by the EPA’s regulations while we increase sales of natural gas to Europe.
3. Approve the Keystone Pipeline
Energy is the lifeblood of the world’s economies. Obama has signaled that he will side with environmental radicals against science and US national interests by scuttling and delaying the Trans-Canada Keystone XL Pipeline. So far, that has resulted in lost jobs in the US while driving Canada closer to China, with no benefit to the environment at all. He could signal an overall shift in American energy policy by approving the pipeline and exploring energy deals across NATO.
These three moves would create jobs here at home in the US, without any of them being overtly military in nature. Both our economy and our alliances would grow stronger.
4. Reinstate missile defense with NATO’s eastern allies
In 2009, Obama scuttled the US missile defense deal with Poland and the Czech Republic. He did this unilaterally, without consulting our allies and without obtaining any concessions from Russia, which objected to placing US missile defense in those countries. The shield was intended to protect these countries from Iranian missiles, which have increased in range and sophistication as Tehran pursues nuclear weapons. Putin objected, and Obama complied. But Obama could signal that Putin’s actions in Crimea have caused a sea change in his thinking, by announcing that the United States will once again strike a missile defense deal with Poland, the Czech Republic and possibly other NATO allies in the region including the Baltic States. The infamous “reset” will have been reset.
None of these potential moves will win Crimea back for Ukraine. They may not even end up preserving Ukraine’s remaining territorial integrity or independence. Russia’s puppet took care to hollow out Ukraine’s military ahead of the Crimea invasion, so there may be little that can be done to save Ukraine at this point. But these moves would signal to Putin that Barack Obama is finally seeing the geopolitical reality that Putin’s aggression is presenting him. They would suggest that Obama is capable of re-thinking his previous decisions.
Unfortunately, the moves that President Barack Obama would have to make to demonstrate seriousness to Putin would be so far out of his character and so far afield from his rigid leftist ideology that he is unlikely to even consider them. No one on his national security team is likely to suggest them.