On June 4, 2013, at the verdant plantation-style Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina, Hillary Clinton spoke in strikingly ambitious terms of her plans for America’s energy boom to a private audience in a speech for the global investment bank Goldman Sachs. “The energy revolution in the United States is just a gift,” she said in one of three speeches that year for which the bank paid her $675,000. “We can have a North American energy system that will be unbelievably powerful. If we have enough of it, we can be exporting and supporting a lot of our friends and allies.”
Clinton meant exporting oil and gas to allies who are heavily reliant on Russian imports. The Democratic nominee’s private positions on energy, as indicated in speeches released by WikiLeaks in October, suggest how she might use America’s oil and gas industry as a bludgeon against Moscow. While her campaign declined to comment for this story, her speeches also made it clear that Clinton wants the U.S. to lead an environmentally friendly energy revolution to tackle climate change.
“I’ve promoted fracking in other places around the world, because when you look at the stranglehold that energy has on so many countries and the decisions they make, it would be in America’s interest to make even more countries more energy self-sufficient,” she said in a private speech to Deutsche Bank in April 2013. “So I think we have to go at this in a smart, environmentally conscious way, pursuing a clean-energy alternative agenda while we also promote the advantages that are going to come to us.”
Clinton delivered many of the leaked speeches as America was becoming the world’s top oil producer, overtaking Saudi Arabia. A few months after the U.S. hit this watermark in April 2014, Clinton made the direct link between America’s energy fortunes and targeting Moscow. “We are now energy independent, something we have hoped for and worked for over many, many years,” she said in a July 2014 speech. “That gives us tools we didn’t have before. And it also gives us the opportunity not only to invest those resources in more manufacturing and other activities that benefit us directly here at home, but to be a bulwark with our supplies against the kind of intimidation we see going on from Russia.”
No wonder analysts believe a Clinton presidency will result in icier relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just ahead of the U.S. presidential election, Paris investment bank Societe Generale predicted: “The relationship between the U.S. and Russia may not improve if Clinton is elected,” noting that Clinton is unlikely to ease up on economic sanctions against Russia. “In fact,” the bank said, “it may deteriorate further.”
There are plenty of signs that Moscow isn’t pleased with the prospect of a Clinton presidency. In recent months, Russia made a series of bold moves that harked back to the 1980s, offering tours of Cold War bomb shelters, staging intercontinental ballistic missile tests on state television and announcing war rations in case of a conflict with the U.S. And then there was the WikiLeaks dump of Clinton campaign emails and private speeches throughout the election season, which Clinton’s camp and U.S. intelligence experts say appeared to come from hackers associated with the Kremlin. WikiLeaks, an international nonprofit that publishes secret and classified information from anonymous sources, hasn’t revealed the source of the leaked materials.
Russia’s consternation also stems from the fact the U.S. has already started its energy war. As of January, America began exporting crude oil for the first time in four decades. This March, it also began exporting more liquefied natural gas than it was importing for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was president, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Timothy Hess tells Newsweek. As energy companies race to build more facilities along the Gulf Coast, Hess expects exports to continue rising. Because the U.S. is only starting to ship out natural gas to other countries, he says it’s still a “pretty small amount,” but expects the current rate to double by December 2017. As Clinton noted, this is the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail directed “right at the source of Russia’s wealth.”
Russia depends on its revenue from oil and gas for more than half of its federal budget, according to its Ministry of Finance. That, combined with weak energy prices in recent years and Russia being stuck in its longest recession in two decades, leaves the country and Putin in a very precarious position. Much of its petroleum export revenue comes from countries in the European Union, many of which are U.S. allies. Mindful of this, Clinton told Deutsche Bank in October 2014, “I want to export gas, especially to our friends in order to undercut, in Europe’s case, the pressure from Russia.”
Moscow is well aware of this vulnerability. As Clinton noted in mid-2014, Russian state-owned company Gazprom was taking over strategic energy infrastructure across Europe, including its largest underground gas storage facility in Germany and engaging in what she called “pure power politics.”
“That’s why, as secretary of state, starting in March 2009, I pushed the Europeans to get serious about finding alternative energy sources and to invest in real resources in their infrastructure, so they wouldn’t be at Putin’s mercy,” she said in the July 2014 speech. March 2009 was also when Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a symbolic “reset” button in what turned out to be an ill-fated attempt at mending relations.
Why would Clinton pursue a Russian reset while embarking on an energy war? A speech in April 2014 reveals a possible reason: While secretary of state, she witnessed an abuse of power by Putin so severe it led to civilian deaths. “I cannot say I saw this coming, but what I saw was that in 2006 in January, he cut off gas to Eastern Europe. I think like a dozen people froze to death in Poland,” she said. “He did it again in 2009, primarily focused on Ukraine. He has used his energy as a weapon to intimidate Europe.”
Clinton’s speeches even outlined where pipelines would need to be built to ease Europe off its Russian oil and gas fix, including sites in the former Soviet Russia. “How far this aggressiveness goes I think is really up to us,” she said in March 2014. “I would like to see us accelerating the development of pipelines from Azerbaijan up into Europe. I would like to see us looking for ways to accelerate the internal domestic production.”
Eroding Russia’s energy dominance is a much shrewder way to handle it than direct conflict or even cyberwarfare, says retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, former head of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency under George W. Bush. (He is one of the intelligence experts who believes Russia was probably behind the hacks of Clinton’s speeches and campaign emails.) “How about we just make it an American policy to wean our European allies off Russian oil and gas?” Hayden suggests. “Sure, it will take five to 10 years to build the infrastructure to bring energy supplies to our allies, but we should do it and make it a point to get it done.”
Hayden also thinks the U.S. should look past the recent spate of leaks in assessing how to handle Putin, whom he says is leading a revanchist country, not a resurgent one. “My feeling is we need to push back more consistently, boldly and strongly,” he says, “But don’t drop this in the ‘We’ve got a cyberproblem’ box. Make this a ‘We have a Russia problem.’ Maybe the response is through the energy domain, not the cyberdomain.”
Meanwhile, Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump, appears to be embracing Moscow. On the campaign trail, he’s lauded Putin’s “very strong control” over Russia and stated he would gladly partner with any country willing to help the U.S. defeat Islamic terrorism, including Russia. “If they want to join us by knocking out [ISIS], that is just fine as far as I’m concerned,” he said while stumping in September. “It is a very imperfect world, and you can’t always choose your friends.”
After Clinton’s South Carolina speech, an audience member echoed Trump, asking her why the U.S. doesn’t work with Putin. “A lot of our problems [are] because we have a competition with the Russians,” he said.
At the time, Clinton seemed moderately hopeful. “Look,” she said, “I would love it if we could continue to build a more positive relationship with Russia.…You just keep going back and keep trying.”
She may soon get that chance.