War, by its frequency, spawns many quotations. Heraclitus observed that “deliberate violence is more to be quenched than a fire.” Dwight Eisenhower, who helped orchestrate the largest amphibious assault in military history, saw war’s waste and futility firsthand. “Every gun that is made,” he said. “Every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” While Ukrainian courage and solidarity, epitomized by President Zelensky in Kyiv, never ceases to inspire, Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack of their country risks diverting our attention from other existing threats. Climate change, mass extinctions, COVID-19 and disinformation are perilous and global in scope. We must weigh our options carefully responding to Europe’s worst brutality since 1945. As we stay the strategic course of weaponizing sanctions by seizing the oligarch’s fortunes and banning imports of Russia’s fossil fuels, some takeaways are clear. Sanctions in global economies can be as formidable as bombs, and Russia, much more capitalist than socialist, shares the same Achilles’ heel as other nations ─ corporate-oligarch greed. If the U.S., EU, Japan, Australia and other nations support Ukrainian freedom by conserving oil and natural gas, enduring Big Oil’s price-gouging at pumps, Putin’s gambit will fail. His high stakes bet NATO alliances would fracture rather than fuse will be his undoing. If Ukrainian citizens can fight tanks with Molotov cocktails, as Hungarians did in ‘56 and Czechs in ‘65 without worldwide sanctions to support them, reducing gas and oil consumption is the least we can do.
The President’s ban on fossil fuel imports from Russia is sound strategy, if somewhat belated. Indications are the EU may follow suit, at least in part. Western Europe depends on Russia for 40% of its natural gas and a quarter of its oil imports at prices with which American producers can’t compete. Energy sanctions, added to those already imposed by Europe, financially and otherwise, will hurt multiple sectors. In the U.S., far less reliant on Russia, it’s easier. This isn’t about Americans volunteering to fight fascists in Spain (1936-39) or joining the Lafayette Escadrille before the U.S. entered WWI. Crude oil imported from Russia in 2021 only accounted for 3% of our use (as high as 7% some years). While triple the 2020 shipments, most of those 209,000 barrels per day were delivered to Lukoil (a Russian company which bought out Getty in 2000), Valero, Exxon-Mobil and Chevron. That’s a deficit correctable by lessening consumption or moderate increases in existing production. Rants about drilling more wells to lower gasoline prices are not only temporally flawed (taking years to effect), but obvious ploys to open protected wilderness areas to oil extraction, despoiling those areas while exacerbating carbon emissions. Ecologically, economically and morally, our future would again be mortgaged to maximize profits for oil companies. We’ve all seen the flooding in Brisbane, wildfires in Florida; tornadoes ripping through Iowa and Arkansas. On February 28, the IPCC again warned global warming is disrupting human and other natural systems at rates far-surpassing earlier projections, data and scientific modeling climate change deniers called “alarmist” decades ago. Even with so much suffering in Ukraine, global warming and anthropogenic climate change remain the most rapidly growing threats on the planet.
With over 9,000 approved drilling permits at Big Oil’s disposal there is no need to expand offshore production, lift restrictions on drilling in ANWR or build the XL pipeline. Without XL, the current flow of crude from Canadian tar sands to Texas refineries arrives by the same conduits as it has for decades. Only corporate decision-making affects quantities refined and how much gasoline gets exported overseas. Output could be directed to meet U.S. energy demands, but China is the #1 crude oil importer in the world. Continuing gasoline exports to Asia maximizes profits, and that’s capitalism’s raison d’etre, not improving our lives. Unless forced to do so, Big Oil has no intention of reducing its petroleum exports to meet domestic demands. As long as consumption outraces supply (kept lower by production cuts) oil companies can synergize Putin, America’s profligate driving habits and gas-guzzling SUVs and over-sized pick-ups to keep prices climbing. Meat and other industries have followed the same suit.
Other than the dire consequences of climate change no stronger case can be made for transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy than the instability caused by an autocrat’s oil. The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine is also a lesson in unity: 43 million strong standing for liberty, staunch resistances of freedom-fighters against overwhelming odds; a 40-mile long military convoy stalemated. Brussels, having purchased and sent weapons to a non-EU country at war, is now punishing disinformation around the globe, citing lies intentionally spread by Russian state-owned media. Germany, no longer stigmatized by the Third Reich, is bolstering its military. To accommodate Ukrainian refugees, EU asylum procedures are being sidestepped, and Finland and Sweden are mulling joining NATO. Switzerland, famously neutral, has announced sanctions against some of its biggest depositors, and Turkey is blocking passage of warships to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. As global finance conspires to devalue the ruble, even Congress seems united against Putin.
Since 1945, at least compared to earlier history, the international community has seen relative peace. Boundaries matter, but the Internet makes Neolithic wall building absurd. Clashes between super powers, where one country wiped another off the map, haven’t occurred because better institutions were built to mitigate conflict. That’s also led to better decision-making. Ironically, the threat of nuclear weapons has helped to preserve that peace, at least until now. Otherwise, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. may have engaged in all-out war in the 1950s and 60s. In Ukraine, however, we’re seeing the consequences of neglecting those institutions and the power of resurgent international cooperation, collaboration without which our species is doomed. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the vulnerability of nuclear power plants caught in a cross-fire, and the longer the violence persists, the greater the likelihood of Putin’s cyber attacks here. With Great Britain diminished by Brexit, Germany needs to take the lead in European affairs, especially as a catalyst to green energy development. Oil is too often connected to dictators, and when push comes to shove, no-fly-zones are euphemisms for declarations of war.
Ukrainians are not Russians. Ukraine is an ancient independent nation with a history spanning over 1,000 years. Kyiv was a major metropolis and cultural center when Moscow was still a village. Even after absorption into Russia, Ukrainians maintained their own political and cultural identities. Putin has fantasized Ukraine isn’t an independent nation, that it’s part of Russia and wants back in the fold. Those preventing that from happening, he stupidly insists, are Nazis, even though President Zelensky practices the Jewish faith. Now, Putin’s fantasy has been shattered. Ukrainians, reflecting their fiercely independent history of resistance, have met their Russian invaders with gunfire instead of floral bouquets. Even if Putin wins every battle, he’s already lost the war. It won’t be enough to conquer militarily (as we learned in Afghanistan and Iraq). He needs to hold Ukraine with neither the support of the subjugated nor Russians at home, where, as in America, oligarchs suck wealth and power from the less privileged and, despite sanctions, get richer from war. The seeds of hatred Putin’s planted in Ukraine will last for generations. Before the conflict, Ukrainians and Russians fought side-by-side during WWII and the Bolshevik Revolution. Now, Putin has made their hatred his everlasting legacy.
Living in an era of relative peace for decades, EU defense budgets were only about 3% of their government outlays when the rest of the world spent 6% on average. The U.S., insanely, spends over 11% with increases proposed in the “Omnibus” Bill. Germany recently doubled its military budget in a day. Other countries, following the same lead, will trigger a race to the bottom from commensurate decreases in funding for healthcare, green energy initiatives, Paris Accord goals and education. Repercussions of what’s happening in Ukraine thusly impact us all. But, that backdrop to Putin’s aggression does provide an opening to end culture wars in the West, the left v. right nonsense that curses democracies. Ukrainians have shown us with their valor and solidarity that the contradictions of liberalism and nationalism are not polar opposites. They meet in the middle at liberty. Nationalism isn’t about intolerance of dissent, hiding a nation’s missteps from students or contempt for foreigners. It’s recognizing everyone as a comrade and compatriot, especially in crises.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.