Congress' energy role in the Ukraine crisis

Congressional leadership is critical to rebalance the energy terms of engagement in Europe. Energy is at the heart of the ongoing crisis. President Putin relies on oil and gas revenues to pay for his military adventurism and to maintain domestic political support. He wields influence through corporate tie-ups and direct control of gas supplies to individual states.

An ocean away from European markets and a Constitutional Article away from executive power, Congress nonetheless has an affirmative and unambiguous role to play in grounding Putin's energy arsenal. 

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First, renewed Congressional leadership to advance proactive energy solutions is needed. Unlike Russia that coerces and buys influence through energy, the United States relies on diplomacy and market forces.

Over the past decade, Congress convinced, cajoled, and flat-out required Bush and Obama administration activity to loosen Putin's energy stranglehold. After an August 2005 meeting in which then Prime Minister Tymoshenko warned former Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) that Russian gas pipelines were a dagger at the throat of Ukrainian independence, a bipartisan Senate crusade propelled strategic energy projects, diplomatic capacity, and NATO engagement.

Europe today is in a stronger position than in 2005, having largely overcome every-country-for-itself polices and expanded critical infrastructure. U.S. leadership remains essential in further catalyzing change. Most urgently, many Central and Eastern European countries remain physically isolated, leaving them vulnerable to Russian influence.

Russia's current aggressive overreach creates an opportunity to advance reforms and deals that previously stalled. Dismantling subsides and corrupt deals in Ukraine; advancing pro-production reforms; blocking Russian-backed projects; diversifying European supply routes to connect to Iraq, Central Asia, and Eastern Mediterranean countries; and promoting U.S. private investment should be forthrightly pursued. 

While it is the administration's task to implement energy security initiatives, the record shows an essential role for Congressional leadership to motivate policy, engage in direct diplomacy, and demonstrate U.S. commitment.

Second, Congress should let natural gas markets work by opening trade. Authorizing liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to friendly countries is the single most direct step we can take to counteract Putin's energy weapon.

Enthusiasm for LNG is not a fad brought by the current crisis. A 2012 Senate investigation warned that export restrictions left more room for Gazprom to strengthen its hold on Europe. Legislation to correct that situation, led by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Sen. John BarrassoJohn BarrassoGOP blasts EPA on mine spill anniversary Investigators open criminal probe into EPA mine waste spill McAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat MORE (R-Wy.), and others, has been under consideration for more than a year.  

Congressional action to open LNG trade would be far more efficacious in demonstrating U.S. resolve and rallying markets than reliance on administration discretion under current law. The promise of future U.S. LNG adding liquidity to gas markets will tend to dampen prices and, most crucially, strengthen the bargaining position of our allies against Putin's Gazprom. Demolishing federal political risk to commercial exports would encourage investment at home and in diverse infrastructure needed in Eastern Europe. Those benefits can be realized despite lack of export facilities today and regardless of whether U.S. gas physically reaches Ukraine.

Legally enshrined pro-LNG policy would unambiguously demonstrate U.S. support across Europe. Countries under pressure from Russia are asking for help through trade, not aid. Failure to act would not maintain status quo -- it would be seen in the region as a mark against U.S. resolve to counter Russian aggression.

Third, the Senate should immediately confirm our nation's most senior energy diplomat, the Assistant Secretary of State for Energy. Absent strong U.S. diplomacy to negotiate political agreements, steward projects, and advance reform, commercial initiatives from LNG exports to European shale development are unlikely to realize their potential. Fortuitously, the nominee Carlos Pascual is also a former Ambassador to Ukraine, but his nomination has stalled for more than two years. 

Control of energy resources and revenues pervades national security concerns around the globe, including in Ukraine. Prior to Congressional action in 2007, no senior State Department official had a full-time mandate on energy. The result was an ad hoc approach and lack of consistent high-level support. Congressional leadership spurred redeployment of foreign affairs resources to focus attention and build diplomatic capacity. 

United States energy diplomacy maintains an essential role in overcoming divisive regional politics, shepherding strategic projects to circumvent Russian infrastructure and stiffening the spines of governments under intense pressure from Russia. Ukraine's energy fortunes rely on its domestic resources, but capturing their potential requires tremendous political will to implement subsidy and pro-transparency reforms. Congress should press that agenda, and it also has a duty to ensure our diplomats are in place to do the necessary spade work. 

Breaking Putin's energy weapon will take time and diligence. Congress is uniquely positioned to lead in both. 

Brown is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and formerly, as a senior pofessional staff member, was Republican lead for energy at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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