Tackling Climate Change is the Best Way to Defeat Putin
The West has an incredibly powerful weapon against Russia which it has so far refused to use, argues Mike Buckley
Western nations are not doing enough to end the war in Ukraine. That is the view of its President, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Ukraine needs weapons,” he said in a recent video message. “We need heavy artillery, armoured vehicles, air defence systems and combat aircraft. Anything to repel Russian forces and stop their war crimes… Western nations have everything to make it happen. The final victory over the tyranny and the number of people saved depends on them.”
The US has sent $1.7 billion in lethal aid since the start of the Russian invasion, though those weapons have largely consisted of anti-aircraft and anti-armour munitions, drones, rocket systems and ammunition. In a possible shift to heavier weapons, Joe Biden’s administration is expected to announce a $750 million package that will include Howitzer artillery.
Until recently, President Biden was hesitant to help Ukraine obtain larger weapons systems, fearful that such moves could draw Russia’s ire and escalate the conflict. Last month, after Poland offered to transfer its fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, Washington balked at the idea and said that it was not “tenable”.
With the Kremlin now expected to heavily attack Donbas, Ukraine’s messaging appears to have led to Western nations shifting their stance.
“There has been a sense of urgency,” a senior US defence official told reporters. “Clearly we understand as the Russians begin to refocus their efforts that time is of the essence.”
The devastation seen in Bucha and Mariupol too has focused Western minds, as has the failure of President Vladimir Putin to negotiate. There is no sign of a Russian withdrawal or even the beginnings of a negotiated end to the war.
Sending more arms is an essential step for the West to take if it is serious about wanting to defend Ukraine and turn back Russian aggression. But more arms alone are unlikely to lead to a swift end to the conflict. Putin is committed and will not withdraw unless forced to.
The West has one powerful weapon it so far refuses to use.
West Must Turn Off the Taps
Western nations may rightly claim that the sanctions regime against the Russian state and its oligarchs is unprecedented – but it is also fatally flawed.
Since the war began, the EU as a whole has spent more than €35 billion on Russian oil and gas – money that goes directly to support the Russian state and its economy.
It is not just Europe. Cargoes of Russian Sokol crude from Asia have sold out for the next month. Several Chinese firms used local currency to buy Russian coal in March. Gas flows from Russia to Europe have, if anything, increased since the invasion began.
None of these sales are subject to sanctions. Bloomberg expects that Russia will earn about $320 billion from energy exports this year – up by more than a third from 2021. The rouble has already rebounded to its pre-war price against the dollar; a sign that markets expect the Russian economy to do just fine.
No one argues that ending imports of Russian fossil fuels – in particular gas – would be easy for Europe. Many European nations buy huge quantities of Russian oil and gas; Germany for example gets around a third of its gas from the country. Without that gas lights would go off across Germany, Italy and a host of other EU nations. Factories would shut down, jobs would be lost.
But, just because it is not easy, does not mean that it is not necessary. As things stand, the EU and other Western nations are both opposing Putin’s aggression and funding it. That cannot endure.
Current plans to shift gas supply to imported liquid national gas from the US are too slow. It would take months or years to build the required infrastructure in the US to liquify and export the gas and for Europe to receive it. In the meantime, the war would continue.
Such plans are also unjustifiable in the decade when scientists argue that global emissions need to be halved to prevent runaway climate change. There is no longer the luxury of building new fossil fuel infrastructure – all energy investment must be channelled into low carbon energy production.
“Financial and other sanctions have weakened the Russian economy [but] fall short of crippling the economy as long as they do not interrupt the flow of revenue from exports,” Patrick Honohan, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute in Washington and former European Central Bank policy-maker, has observed.
President Zelensky himself has criticised current Western sanctions as inadequate. “It can hardly be called commensurate with the evil that the world saw in Bucha,” he said.
Ending the War Sooner Rather than Later
Some Russian sales are beyond the control of the US, NATO or the EU. China is preparing to receive the first commodity shipments from Moscow paid for in yuan since several Russian banks were cut off from the international financial system. Russian crude that would normally end up in refineries in Europe or the US is heading for Asia, where buyers, particularly in India, are taking advantage of steep discounts.
But much is within their control, all the more given the absence of infrastructure that would enable Vladimir Putin to export gas to the east if Europe was to end its imports.
EU foreign ministers are likely to discuss imposing an oil embargo on Russia, according to Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief. Borrell said that a ban on oil is not in the latest sanctions package, though he expects ministers will tackle it “and sooner or later – I hope sooner – it will happen”.
Russia’s natural gas supplies continue to flow freely as Europe faces an energy cost crunch that’s prompting governments to think twice before taking action that could see prices rise further.
But even nations heavily reliant on Russian gas are beginning to see the necessity of ending imports, regardless of the cost. Italy, one of the biggest buyers of Russian gas, has said that it would support a ban if the bloc was united behind the idea, a move that Germany among others has so far opposed.
The best outcome for Ukraine, to enhance the likelihood of ending the war in weeks rather than months or years – and for hopes of preventing climate chaos – is a collective European shift to low carbon energy, ideally with financial and technical assistance from the US.
Such a programme would be justified by the climate crisis alone, and is exactly what the latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change calls for. It is further justified by the war in Ukraine.
Western nations have done so much already to support Ukraine. Billions have been spent in aid and on arms. Sanctions have been imposed which harm Western economies as well as Russia. European nations, with the notable exception of the UK, have opened their borders to refugees and committed to provide housing, education and access to work for at least three years.
But, as President Zelensky recognises, it is not enough. To be meaningful, more arms must be allied with a ban on the import of Russian fuels. To do otherwise would leave the West, in particular the EU, attempting to end the war while continuing to fund it.
The people of Ukraine deserve better and the climate crisis demands a near immediate shift away from fossil fuels. The time for Western leaders to deliver is now.
Mike Buckley is a freelance journalist and director of Campaign Central