Putin Is a Fossil-Fuel Gangster. Clean Energy Could Cut Him Off at the Knees
For decades, world leaders and Big Oil CEOs were happy to turn a blind eye to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic impulses and fantasies of empire building. They were all fossil-fuel junkies, hooked on the easy money of oil and gas, and Putin had plenty of it. They helped finance pipelines and drilling rigs, and then bought as much oil and gas as he would sell them. For Putin, the cash from fossil fuels fired up his darkest ambitions. It not only helped him build the military force that he sent into Ukraine, it also gave him the means to stash billions in offshore banks that he believed would allow him to weather any economic fallout from the war.
This was pretty much business as usual in the twilight of the fossil-fuel age. Oil and gas have long been controlled by petro-state thugs who use their money and power in unsavory ways, from throttling global economic growth to sabotaging international agreements to reduce carbon emissions (and if inquisitive journalists like Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi ask too many questions, they end up cut into pieces with a bone saw). Meanwhile, Western leaders ritualistically vow to break their dependence on fossil fuels with hollow calls for “energy independence,” while at the same time showing no reservations about invading Middle Eastern countries like Iraq to secure oil supplies. Here in the U.S., rallying cries like “Drill, baby, drill” just fatten the bottom line of Big Oil while deepening our addiction to fossil fuels.
But when Putin started shelling civilians in Ukraine, everything changed. Maybe it was the courage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Maybe it was the real-time suffering of Ukrainians, captured on millions of cellphones and broadcast around the world. ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP all ceased operations in Russia before their corporate names could be splattered in blood. Exxon was the last to go, pulling out of oil-and-gas production in Russia and promising to end any future investments in the country.
Two weeks after Putin’s army marched into Ukraine, President Biden announced a ban on U.S. imports of Russian oil. Although the U.S. gets only about three percent of its oil from Russia, the move, combined with other economic sanctions against Russia, signaled that Russian oil is the equivalent of blood diamonds or elephant tusks — taboo commodities in the Western world. For Europe, the war marked the beginning of the end of a co-dependency that was bound to lead to tragedy. “European leaders understood that Putin was a volatile character, but it was a relationship they thought they could manage,” says Nikos Tsafos, the James R. Schlesinger Chair in Energy and Geopolitics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “They were wrong.”
Among other things, Putin miscalculated how fast the world is changing. Industrial nations are in the midst of what energy geeks like to call “a great transition” away from fossil fuels and toward clean-energy sources. It is driven by the simple and brutal understanding that if the rich, Western world continues to burn fossil fuels in the future the way it has in the past, we will literally cook the planet, making it uninhabitable for life as we know it today. If there is any good news to come out of the horrific carnage inflicted by this war, it’s this: Instead of slowing the transition to clean energy, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may well have supercharged it. And however the war ends, Putin will pay the price. Russian oil and gas is now forever linked to autocracy, war crimes, and human carnage. “The war marks the end of Russia as an energy superpower,” says Tsafos.
It also marked the opening of a new front in the climate fight. When the Russian army rolled into Ukraine, climate science and geopolitics fused. As Ukrainian scientist Svitlana Krakovka put it in remarks during an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forum held (coincidentally) as Russian soldiers marched over the border: “Human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots: fossil fuels.”
The urgency of the climate crisis was underscored by the latest IPCC report, which, with doomsday levels of irony, was released the same week that Putin invaded. “The rise in weather and climate extremes,” the report notes, has already led to “irreversible impacts.” Heat waves have become more extreme, droughts deeper, wildfires more frequent, sea levels are rising faster. These changes are “contributing to humanitarian crises” that are driving people from all regions of the world out of their homes. Those who have done the least to cause the problem are likely suffering the most from it. So far, the feeble attempts to adapt have been pathetically inadequate and “focused more on planning rather than implementation.”
Russia will not be exempt from disruption, the IPCC report made clear. Melting permafrost in the far north caused one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s recent history. In 2020, during a record-breaking heat wave, the subsiding earth contributed to a storage tank breaking open, spilling around 20,000 tons of diesel into rivers and lakes near Norilsk, a city of 175,000 built entirely on permafrost. As the permafrost continues to thaw across Russia’s frozen north, the ground’s ability to support buildings will degrade by up to a third by 2050, creating an infrastructure disaster that one study estimates could cost $132 billion.
Predictably, Republicans and their corrupt band of climate crooks and deniers immediately used the invasion of Ukraine as an excuse to deepen our dependence on fossil fuels, not free ourselves from it. They willfully ignored the simple truth that there are better, cheaper ways of powering our world than with oil, gas, and coal. To them fossil fuels are the energy equivalent of testosterone. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that Biden’s “war on American oil and gas” made Putin stronger. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem told Fox News that “from the very day [Biden] got into the White House, he gave Putin all the power.”
It was all bullshit, of course. “The Republicans are arguing that you can either have climate-change action or you can have security, but you can’t have both,” says Sharon Burke, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Obama. “And that’s just not true. The climate policies are not causing this problem and have nothing to do with this problem.” Or as Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois and former clean-energy entrepreneur, put it: “Those who are arguing that we should invest in more fossil-fuel infrastructure are either evil or stupid.”
Post-invasion, leaders of the European Union moved quickly to cut ties with Putin. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a massive new project to bring natural gas to Europe, was abandoned. Ads for heat pumps, which can replace gas-fired furnaces, appeared in French railroad stations. At the time of this writing, European leaders were resisting a full ban on fossil-fuel imports from Russia — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Russian gas is of “essential importance” to the daily lives of its citizens.
But in the long run, the unwinding of the EU’s dependence on Russian energy is irreversible and is further evidence that the climate crisis is driving economic and political movements that are hard to see — until a war breaks out. “It’s not just our climate that’s changing,” says Erin Sikorsky, the director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C. “It’s our geopolitics, too.”
The balance of economic power is also shifting fast. Tesla, the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles, is worth more than the Big Three Detroit automakers combined. Big Oil is scrambling to invest in clean energy. African nations are finding themselves grappling with rich investors eager to exploit their resources. Especially in demand are minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite, which are crucial to the batteries that power everything from cellphones to electric vehicles. “Seventy percent of the world’s cobalt right now is produced from the Democratic Republic of Congo,” says Burke. “That is deeply problematic for the Congolese and everyone else.”
But if the war in Ukraine proves anything, it’s that the old fossil-fuel thugs are not going to go down quietly. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is allowing mining companies to pillage the Amazon. In the Middle East, the oil cartels have so far refused Biden’s request to help stabilize global oil prices. And even if the war in Ukraine does mark the end of Russia’s reign as an energy superpower, the dangerous truth is Putin still has enough nuclear bombs to end civilization as we know it. “After the war,” says Tsafos, “Russia is going to be isolated and their economy decimated.” He compares Russia’s future to other cornered nations like Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. “Anyone who thinks an isolated Russia that doesn’t sell anything to the world is going to be a fun neighbor — well, let’s talk in 30 years and see how that worked out.”