For Russia Impasse, Go For The Gas

by Luke Tarbi

In an attempt to alter Russian behavior, President Obama snubbed President Putin last August by canceling the U.S.-Russia Summit. That didn’t work; it turns out President Putin’s foreign policy isn’t altered by nonattendance at meetings. Now, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a declaration of war according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk—the United States is skipping the upcoming G-8 meeting in Sochi. This, too, is unlikely to alter President Putin’s behavior. Instead, the United States should take discernible, concrete steps to weaken Russia’s power and influence in the region.

The Russian invasion of Crimea is just the latest event in an ongoing trend of Russian misbehavior. From announcing new arms shipments to Syria, to undermining missile defense in Europe, to granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, the Kremlin has shown a penchant for zero-sum gamesmanship reminiscent of the Cold War. And what does the United States do in response? It cancels meetings.

Though diminished from its Soviet heyday, Russia is still a great power by any metric. Its seat on the UN Security Council, vast natural resource base, and nuclear arsenal guarantee this status for the foreseeable future. As with other great powers, Russia responds to power politics—not the cancelation of meetings. Power politics, or machtpolitik, advocates the use of military, economic, or political power against countries to achieve one’s own national objectives.

For proof that Russia responds to power politics, one needs look no further than recent Russian protests over European missile defense. The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)—which initially called for the stationing of interceptor missiles in Poland to defend Europe from an Iranian long-range missile threat—caused an outcry amongst Russian officials who were concerned that it threatened their own ICBMs based in western Russia. Nevermind that Russia has no intention of ever launching these ICBMs; the mere possibility that their nuclear deterrence could be undermined was enough to elicit cries from the Kremlin.

What can and should the United States do in this most recent impasse? Go for the gas.

Jockeying over military matters in Ukraine is not the only power play the United States has in its playbook. Great powers are highly sensitive to threats to their economic well-being too, as they rightfully view a large GDP as integral to future military might and overall sway in world affairs. Thus, in light of recent events and assuming President Obama wishes to send a signal that will actually be heard in Moscow, a shrewder move would be to go for the gas. Or more specifically, support Europe in reducing their reliance on Russian gas imports.

Breakthroughs in shale gas technology have been heralded as a domestic “game changer” for the U.S. economy, so much so that Senators are now urging the Energy Department to speed up its review of proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) export projects. However, what’s been missed in this dialogue is the potential utility of this breakthrough for foreign policy objectives. The Russian economy is heavily dependent on its energy exports to keep it afloat. According to UN Commodity Trade Statistics, over seventy percent of Russian exports in 2012 were from petroleum products, thirteen percent of which were directly a result of natural gas exports. As much of this gas is sent via oft-contested pipelines to Europe, any increase in indigenous EU gas supply should be expected to replace the more contentious imports from Russia. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates significant shale gas reserves in Poland, France, and elsewhere. If the United States could help its European allies bring their indigenous gas resources to market, President Obama would send a strong message to policymakers across Europe to Moscow. Towards this end, there are two immediate (and Congress-proof) actions the President should pursue.

First, the President should direct the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to partner with its counterpart EU body in undertaking an exhaustive inventorying of the size and location of all shale gas resources across Europe. The 2011 Memorandum of Understanding between the USGS, EuroGeoSurveys, and The Geological Surveys of Europe can serve as a starting point. One of the largest obstacles to the rapid development of shale gas in the EU is their comparatively limited knowledge surrounding resource evaluation, a skillset the USGS has honed well over the years. A better inventory of resources could facilitate, and perhaps accelerate the licensing of these resources to individual private companies across Europe.

Second, to meet growing environmental concerns, the President should direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to partner with the European Environmental Agency and International Petroleum Industry Environment and Conservation Association (IPIECA)—a well-respected private industry group headquartered in London—to undertake a definitive study of all environmental issues associated with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. This would result in both a politically-credible and technologically-sound study that could deliver a structured format for European governments to utilize when considering their own shale gas development.

By taking these steps and broadcasting them across Europe, President Obama can send a signal that will actually be heard and understood in Moscow. As Hans Morgenthau famously distinguished, there are “economic policies that are undertaken for their own sake and economic policies that are the instruments of a political policy.” Going for the gas, in this case, would be an example of the latter.

About the Author

Luke Tarbi is a 2011 graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he focused on International Security Studies and Political Economy. He is a member of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and U.S. Naval Institute. His publications have appeared in the Navy Times, Breaking Defense, and Small Wars Journal.

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