End All Russian Oil and Gas Imports, Including into Europe | Opinion

President Joe Biden's leadership in addressing Russian aggression in Ukraine has in many ways been masterful. He has inspired unity in NATO, led the way for an economic assault on Russian financial infrastructure and even levied personal sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Biden has also coordinated efforts to seize assets from Russian oligarchs that have long enabled financial corruption and controlled much of Russia's economy. He has coordinated with European allies to bar Russia from the SWIFT global banking system, imposed stringent export controls and other measures targeting all 10 of Russia's largest financial institutions and put restrictions on institutions holding Russian banking sector assets. Perhaps most important, President Biden announced today that the U.S. will ban imports of Russian oil and gas.

The hope is that as Russia burns through the limited emergency reserve funds it is still able to access, and as its miscalculations and military blunders add up, Russia's military campaign is likely to come under ever increasing strain and will ultimately crumble. Under the pressure of overextended supply lines, under-resourced and poorly trained troops, crushing economic pressures at home and growing dissatisfaction with the lack of civil liberties and increasing Russian government repression, Putin's ironclad control over his people may be starting to wane. Even without the widespread support of the Russian people, and in the face of international condemnation, however, it seems that Putin is capable of wreaking destruction and inflicting war crimes on civilian populations, as the world tragically learned in 1999 from Russia's destruction of Grozny in Chechnya. With Russian forces now deliberately targeting civilians fleeing Ukraine, even along humanitarian routes identified by both sides in the conflict as reserved for civilian evacuation, it has become reasonably clear that the combined U.S., European and NATO strategy, impressive though the coordination has been, will likely fail to forestall a massacre of many innocent Ukrainian citizens in the very near future.

What more can be done without risking a direct military conflict between the U.S. and Russia, such as would likely result from imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Zelensky has implored the U.S. and NATO to undertake?

The most important economic weapon to use now against Putin is for Europe to join the U.S. in a ban on Russian oil and gas imports. Europe is resisting such a move, however, as might be expected from the fact that 60 percent of Russian crude oil exports go to Europe, whereas the U.S. imports less than 10 percent of its oil from Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that Germany has "deliberately exempted energy supplies from Russia from sanctions," and argued that Germany has no way to replace Russian energy sources.

The impact on the United States of forsaking Russian oil and gas imports turns on whether and how we implement one or more of the following three alternatives:

—Produce more domestic oil and gas, which has the benefit of reducing dependence on foreign countries, but this may be opposed as threatening the environment.

—Ask other foreign nations to increase supply, such as Saudi Arabia or even Venezuela—despite horrendous records on human rights from many oil-laden countries.

—Reduce consumption of oil and gas and look to cleaner energy, which is difficult to do quickly and may require conservation strategies that are unpopular with voters.

Regarding the first possibility, the United States can temporarily ramp up production of ethanol as a temporary substitute for Russian oil and gas.

President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House March 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

On the second option, we can look to oil producing Middle Eastern and South American countries, but we will have to disregard such acts as the murder and dismembering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis, or the political repression of authoritarian Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

In the long run, the only feasible option is the third one, namely reduce oil and gas consumption by improving conservation, enhance the production of clean energy and accelerating our shift to electric vehicles.

Reducing U.S. consumption of oil and gas will increase heating bills and the cost of transportation for the average American. While some burden is understandable a price for fighting for freedom and democracy, the economic burdens of war should not fall disproportionately on the least privileged. Congress should therefore provide an emergency tax refund for middle- and lower-income families to help weather these price spikes.

The U.S. ban on Russian oil and gas imports will not be truly effective unless Europe participates. Europe may refuse to cut off all Russian oil and gas imports overnight, but the European Union (EU) can at least reduce imports substantially. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which the German government has temporarily suspended, should remain permanently closed until Russia has left Ukraine and Putin has left the Russian presidency. Abstract theorizing about the post-Cold-War world order and blissful ignorance about Russian attacks on democracy should have evaporated when Putin flattened Grozny in 1999, when he bombed cities in Georgia in 2008 and when he interfered in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

In any event, that naïve world view is gone now in Western Europe and elsewhere. American diplomats should make sure that this new realism and commitment to defending democracy remains the center piece of U.S. and EU military, diplomatic and economic relations. Business executives, former diplomats and others should stop lobbying for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or other business ties with Russia and should join together to present a unified economic front against Russian aggression.

The U.S. can help defend Europe, but Europe must also defend itself. Reducing Russian oil and gas imports is a better alternative than either leaping into direct military intervention or passively waiting for the Russian military to implode under the weight of current sanctions. Passivity on Europe's part will provide a license to Russian aggression to devastate other European countries or end in nuclear catastrophe.

The moment is long overdue to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels. Now Russia has forced the hands of the U.S. and Europe. Clean energy has become an immediate national security imperative, necessary to protect us from totalitarian dictators as well as the threat to our climate. Freeing the world's democracies from dependence on authoritarian petrostates is no longer merely a sensible thing to do; it is essential to the survival of democracies everywhere.

Claire O. Finkelstein is the Algernon Biddle professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Eric W. Orts is the Guardsmark professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Richard W. Painter is the S. Walter Richey professor of corporate law at the University of Minnesota Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.