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Will Putin's War Be the Last Fought Over Fossil Fuels or Just the Next In Line?

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 7 min read

It was a mistake that Germany became so heavily dependent on energy imports from Russia.
Christian Lindner, German finance minister

Could you ever imagine the allied nations buying wheat, fertilizer, or fuel oil from Nazi Germany once battle lines had been crossed?  I couldn’t either. So let me ask you this.

What’s the difference between purchasing some critical resource from Nazi Germany and the buying of Russian oil and gas by Western allied nations now that Putin’s armies have crossed into Ukraine?  Isn’t trading with an enemy in wartime considered a nearly universal crime against country?

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the intricacies of war and diplomacy. Still, on a good day, I’m not entirely without some understanding of history, the ways of politicians, and possessed of a bit of common sense.

Of the major Western allied economies, Germany’s plight is the worst in terms of its reliance on Russian oil and gas. A month ago, 50 percent of its oil and gas supplies came from Russian reserves. The number has dropped to 40 percent and is expected to be “0” sometime in 2023.

Nevertheless, each day, each month, as Western nations are pumping fossil fuels into their tanks, they are also pumping billions of dollars into an economy that’s being sanctioned as part of their defense of Ukraine. Weaning national economies off of Russian fossil fuels will take time.

Estimates vary, but it’s clear that we’re talking months to years depending upon the nation. Whereas the German economy is heavily reliant, the US looks to Moscow for a relatively small percentage of total imports—in amounts that can be more easily made up for from domestic supplies or imports from Canada and Mexico.

The other day, I spoke with friends about the war and the central role played by fossil fuels. I was surprised when they shrugged their shoulders and said, who knew Putin was Vlad the Mad?

The answer is as straightforward as the question. We and every one of our Western allies—indeed any nation with a half-decent intelligence service—had already modeled a world at war under such or similar circumstances.

A low percentage of something happening, i.e., Putin’s war on Ukraine, doesn’t mean it won’t. Insurance isn’t what you buy or plan for when there’s no possibility of an event’s occurrence. It’s a bet. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. If you’re not prepared, the loss could prove disastrous.

It’s risk you insure against. In this case, it’s the potentially cataclysmic risk to national and world economies and environments far away from the ensuing battles. Russian sanctions and its war effort mean Tunisians are going without bread and farmers without the nitrogen fertilizers they need to strengthen their subsistent soils not to go hungry next year.

Russia’s assault on and around the now-defunct but still radioactive Chernobyl power station could have sent nuclear smoke on the winds of a war that was never to happen—even as an armed force of nearly 200,000 soldiers amassed on a border unlikely to be crossed.

As always, the heaviest burdens are carried by the poor and those least able to defend themselves. Where is the justice in that?

Putin’s war is good for [some] businesses and bad for most US politicians with a “D” after their name.

The big dollar beneficiaries of Putin’s war are the oil companies, Middle Eastern nations, and Mother Russia. The price of petroleum and natural gas has exceeded pre-pandemic levels. A gallon of gas is at a 14-year high. Where is the incentive to produce more?

Western allies are attempting to shut down the Russian economy with one hand while feeding it needed foreign currencies with the other.

According to Bloomberg Economics forecast:

Russia…even amid sanctions and boycotts…will still reap nearly $321 million from its energy exports in 2022 — 36 [percent] more than in 2021.

President Biden’s current I Didn’t Do It Tour is a misreading and serious misunderstanding of American voters. Respondents to a recent Ipsos/ABC News poll have blamed the rising price of a gallon of gas where it belongs—on Vlad the Mad and the oil interests.

Voter understanding, however, isn’t something Biden and the Democrats should take comfort in, as the survey also indicated respondents didn’t much care for Biden’s management of the nation’s affairs. It may be one of the few things partisans all along the political divide can agree on and bodes badly for US climate policy.

FiveThirtyEight’s adjusted job approval averages of various major polls reports Biden’s job approval ranges between the 58-percent disapproval number of a Morning Consult survey and the 52-percent no-sir rating showing up in an April 12 to 14 Rasmussen report.

Inexplicably, the White House sees bringing down the price of a gallon of gas by a few cents as the way to come back from poll hell. A ten-cent reduction of a five-dollar gallon of gasoline is not enough to make that much difference to the average consumer, who would save ten dollars for every 100 gallons (.10 x 100.00).

Moreover, as people, voters are sympathetic to the plight of Ukrainians and see higher prices as a patriotic act—if not an entirely selfless one. Putin’s precipitous acts have not only strengthened ties between existing NATO nations, they are also driving Sweden and Finland into the organization’s arms—notwithstanding Vlad the Mad’s intimations that he is prepared to go nuclear if the two nations proceed with their applications.

While Sweden and Finland are running to NATO, President Biden is running to the arms of fossil fuel interests and regimes as heinous as Putin’s Russia.

How sadly ironic it is that the most climate-conscious president runs to oil companies and despots like the Venezuelan Nicolas Maduro and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. How disparaging to the US is the refusal of Saudi and Emirati leaders even to pick up the phone to take Biden’s call?

For all their bleating about higher royalty fees and smaller federal leases, there’s nothing to stop oil companies from increasing the production of already operating fields. Instead, they’re looking to capitalize on the situation with a message we’ve heard before—drill, baby, drill—only faster! It’s deflection. 

Fossil fuel interests see Putin’s war as an opportunity to reap high short-term profits. They are using the threat of a next time to get governments to reduce environmental protections that would subject the nation—the world—to the still more insidious threat to its long-term health and economic wellbeing—a warming planet made warmer by the continued reliance oil, natural gas, and coal.

The simple truth is this--there are no quick solutions to the fossil fuel bind that Western allies have gotten themselves into through crappy planning.

Putin’s war is the latest in a decades-long history of the dog-ate-my-homework excuses of why a just transition to a sustainable and secure global environment must again be halted as the nation and its allies turn their attentions to more pressing earthly matters.

More pressing, they say? What’s more pressing to current and future generations than a habitable environment?

Whatever it was—in the moment—that caused Putin finally to pull the trigger on Ukraine, it likely had little to do with energy or the climate. The world must take heed of how he has weaponized those concerns for everyone to see in his unprovoked war on Ukraine.

The nation, along with its Western allies, has gone through years of pandemic and is now confronted by known risks that have been ill-prepared for because it was thought no reasonable person, no responsible leader would unleash such monsters.

Well, this Kraken is out, and the beast is unlikely to return easily to its cold and watery lair without taking us with it.

I wonder how history will record these years of pandemic and war? Will it show us capable of learning from mistakes, or simply repeating them—hoping for a different outcome?

I wonder too, how many wars have ever been fought over access to the sun or wind. It’s just a thought.

Please contribute what you can to any Ukrainian relief effort organization of your choosing.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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