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Russia has weaponized the energy sector in war against the West
Russia is waging a cyber war on the United States. Both in terms of scope and in terms of temporal duration for these attacks go back at least to 2014 if not before. These attacks on U.S. and European political and economic actors and institutions fit in with Moscow's larger strategy of subverting governments and unnerving potential opponents.
Indeed, Moscow has seen itself as being in a state of war with the West at least since 2003-04. On January 18, 2005, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the Academy of Military Sciences, the official institutional locus of systematic thinking about contemporary war:
"There is a war against Russia under way, and it has been going on for quite a few years. No one declared war on us," he said. "There is not one country that would be in a state of war with Russia. But there are people and organizations in various countries who take part in hostilities against the Russian Federation."
A critical Russia weapon in this war is the revenues accruing to Moscow from its oil and gas sales to Europe and Asia. This funds much of the information and cyber warfare as well as dirty money and subversion that Moscow directs around the globe. In addition, that money allows Putin and his topmost entourage to pay themselves and other officials to keep the system going at home.
This is why sanctions as well as falling energy prices has so upset Russian elites and why they targeted the Trump campaign to remove those sanctions and the Magnitsky law. However, we have the means (and certainly we and our allies also have the pretext for doing so in Ukraine, the cyber-war against the West and Russian policy more generally) to strike a crippling blow against Russia that will have a lasting impact.
Congress needs to change the laws regarding foreign exports of gas to disable large volumes of gas used a political weapon to go to Europe and to Asia.
Russian leaders may say sanctions do not affect them but their overtures to the Trump campaign and administration betray the mendacity of those claims, as do domestic Russian reports. Maintaining and extending sanctions and energy sales abroad are therefore major weapons to cripple Moscow's efforts to subvert pro-Western regimes and gain a free hand for its policies of aggression. This is particularly the point in Eastern Europe.
Across Eastern Europe from the Baltic States and Poland to the Black Sea Moscow has used its energy weapon to corrupt politicians, parties, institutions and buy up media. It capitalizes on the fact that even now, especially in places like Hungary and Bulgaria, its energy sales are vital to these countries to keep them warm and their territories are vital sources of potential pipeline routs for Russia to big users like Italy and Germany.
Nevertheless, the immense productivity of U.S. producers of shale oil and gas has not only forced energy prices downward, it also can do so again despite Moscow's efforts to collaborate with OPEC to keep prices high and avoid the impact of the sanctions. Furthermore, new developments work in our favor. Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and of Commerce Wilbur Ross and well as President Trump have publicly supported revising U.S. laws to allow more countries to get gas exports faster. Asian countries like India, Japan, South Korea and even China want that gas. Indeed, China signed an accord with the AUS earlier this year containing just such a proviso.
Moreover, in Eastern Europe too the U.S. can export gas in large quantities beyond symbolic exports to Lithuania. Even countries like Bulgaria who are close to Russia would welcome U.S. deliveries if the price is right and certainly Romania and even Serbia (who has often been double-crossed by Moscow regarding gas) would do so as well. Interconnectors are being built all over Eastern Europe and this too is a program we should support so that ultimately gas going to Lithuania could be piped directly to Bulgaria and vice-versa.
The U.S. needs to invest in ensuring diversity of supplies to Eastern Europe and the ensuing depoliticization of gas sales and their use as weapons in Moscow's war against the West. Even a casual observation of Russian policy reveals just how important those sales are and how vulnerable Russia is to strategic and countervailing American action to bring its and other producers gas into the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Asia.
Given the mood of Congress towards Russia, it is rather more likely that Congress would actually approve such legislation unlike the long, futile and even farcical, albeit dangerous, struggle over health care. Playing the energy card can be our strategy and it is a winning strategy to boot.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College