By Michael Shank
For anyone questioning the fundamental energy and resource connection to most geopolitical struggles and conflicts, the West’s wrestle with Russia over Crimea is illustrative of merely the latest energy-related conflict in a long litany of ones.
While perhaps not as dramatic as America’s removal 60 years ago of democratically-elected Iranian President Mohammad Mossadegh, for wanting to democratize his nation’s oil supply and free it from Western corporate control, the U.S. interest in the Ukraine is not far afield.
Having just returned last week from Poland and Germany, where I met with leaders from both countries to discuss Russian geopolitical plays in Ukraine and Crimea, the relevance was apparent.
Packaged in a neatly-framed narrative over sovereignty, this is a fight over who gets to supply the European Union with energy, and American companies (and the U.S. members of Congress who represent them) would love to replace Russia’s energy imports into the E.U. with American gas exports. And this conflict provides the perfect opportunity to do so.
There are several problems with this premise, however. First, the neatly-packaged narrative is undermined by U.S. interest in secessionist movements around the world. Whether it’s our support of Somaliland and Puntland and their efforts to undermine sovereign Somalia and their government in Mogadishu, or the West’s support for changing borders in South Sudan, Kosovo, Falklands, Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and Kashmir, Russia’s behavior is not new. We’ve done it before.
Second, the international law concerns are riddled with inconsistencies. If we are truly concerned about a world power and a permanent veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council contravening international norms, standards and legal precedents, then America must also lead in that regard.
America’s circumvention of sovereignty and disregard for international law with our invasions and interventions in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, and more, must also be held to the same accountability measures that members of Congress are now using to keep Russia in check. If we want to be an effective arbiters of rule of law, whether in Crimea or Cairo, then we have to lead by example, otherwise our words ring hollow among our allies and our adversaries.
Lastly, the energy supply argument is deeply disconcerting because it merely provides a shot in the arm for an unsustainable energy industry.
We don’t need more fracking stateside and any attempt to supplant Russia’s energy supply to the E.U. (recognizing that it would take years, not months) is a giant step in the wrong direction. More fossil fueling is simply going to create more violent conflicts out of existing ones and take a greening E.U. into heavier carbon reliance.
The way forward, then, is to utilize Russia’s reliance on E.U. energy buyers as a means of negotiating a way out of this crisis. Excessive sanctions and military rhetoric will only make the situation worse, polarize parties and escalate already heightened tensions. Russian-E.U.business ties, however, can more appropriately be leveraged to find a way forward, apply pressure, and keep communication channels open ¬ all essential components of conflict de-escalation.
That’s only if the West wants to prevent further violent conflict. Nostalgic Washington, and the Eurasian experts who’ve occupied a quiet docket until recently, may well prefer to return to Cold War narratives and, admittedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin fits nicely into that narrative. But that will forge little fertile soil in an already intractable situation and merely fuel the conflict’s ire and the fossil fuel reasoning that underlies it.
There is a way out of the crisis. Let’s hope America and her friends in the E.U. pursue it.
Michael Shank is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Shank.