Russia is at odds with the rest of Europe because its dependence on the sale of fossil fuels has made it a classic petro-tryanny, incompatible with European institutions and afraid of the example they set. The Russian autocracy’s power will fade as we wean ourselves from fossil fuels.
Fiona Hill tells us that World War III has already been underway for some time, and that what we see now in Ukraine is a continuation of the struggle for control of Europe which broke out in 1914. It is useful, then, to remember that the World War I and the European theater of World War II were, for the most part, European civil wars, to which the USA arrived very late. US support for Ukraine and Putin’s complaints about NATO expansion make it easy to put the current conflict in Cold War terms, but I think that is a mistake: this about Europe, not world domination.
What makes today’s conflict different from the earlier ones is that Russia is on one side alone, and much diminished. It is neither allied with any great powers to its west as it was in the two world wars, nor in control of central Europe as during the Cold War. Moreover, Russia itself now constitutes a particularly corrupt and retrograde corner of Europe, the government of which happens to have both nuclear weapons, and a corner on the European natural gas market. And, while this war is not about gas, Russia’s dependence on gas and oil sales has done much to keep it apart from the rest of Europe, and to shape this conflict. Dependence on oil and gas also does not promise much of a future – I’ll come back to that.
Since 1945, and even more so since 1989, most of Europe has achieved a mode of peaceful coexistence. That has been the fundamental purpose of the European Union since its inception, and it has been a remarkable success. Putin says he objects to NATO expansion, but it may well be, as Robert Person and Michael McFaul argue, that what bothers him more is a europeanized Ukraine. Being large, next door and with Russian language media, from the Russian autocrat’s standpoint Ukraine has been setting an increasingly a bad example with its relative prosperity, free speech and free elections – that is, by being part of Europe as that is now understood. Rafael Behr shows us how the Russia-Ukraine war is misread if seen from the Brexit-Britain worldview of Boris Johnson, which ignores Europe and sees the US and Russia as the important players. In fact, Behr says, the story is that Ukraine wants to be part of Europe, and Russia objects.
Russia is of course asserting the venerable privilege of a great power’s sphere of influence. When that is framed as a matter of contending spheres – as being like the Cold War, Soviet sphere vs US sphere – it sounds vaguely legitimate. That is the logic behind saying “well, Putin felt threatened, what with NATO troops in Estonia and Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO”, as if he should have his troops on the border but his neighbors should not. The Polish anarchist Zosia Brom calls this “westsplaining”; Klaus Richter argues that, within the West, it is a view most prevalent among those of us who were politicized before 1991. Whatever the source, faced with that kind of argument it is good if we understand the difference between the expansion of the EU now, and the long Cold War faceoff between blocs.
The European Union has the design, and the effect, of superseding the system of great powers and their spheres of influence within Europe. What it offered to countries of central and eastern Europe was not the patronage of Paris or Berlin, but participation in a continental governance system. That system has a robust legal and regulatory framework and is accountable to its members states – and increasingly accountable to the citizens of those states. It has presided over a very long period of peace among its members, and always has a queue of others waiting to join. It is this new Europe, not “the West”, that Putin finds threatening.
Why, though, has it come to the point of being Russia versus Europe, rather than Russia as part of Europe? Three former Soviet republics and six other former members of the Warsaw Pact are members of the EU; two other former Soviet republics – Ukraine and Georgia – are candidates for EU membership. Why not Russia?
There are two answers we could give to this. One is that Russia’s leaders want it to be a great power, as of old, and that this ambition is incompatible with being part of Europe. The other is that Russia is a petro-tyranny – in many ways typical for a country whose main exports are fossil fuels, but in this case happening also to have both a large population and a nuclear arsenal.
Neither imperial ambitions nor petro-tyranny would make Russia a good fit for the European Union. And in fact we can see that prevail today. The good news, for the prospects of a peaceful future for Europe, is that the fossil fuel business has no tomorrow, and neither does a government founded on it. Moreover, Russia’s autocratic form of government is in part a result of its fossil fuel business, and the imperial project of its autocrat is financed entirely by fossil fuel sales. Let me unpack that a bit.
Russia is so corrupt it is often called a Mafia state. Its wealth inequality is extreme even by today’s standards. Its government is a brutal autocracy. But all of this is just typical of states whose wealth comes from oil and gas. Look at Saudi Arabia, or at the huge research literature on the “curse of natural resources.” Indeed, the process by which a little clutch of civil servants became billionaires almost overnight in the privatization of Soviet state assets, is a great saga of the resource curse condensed to the length of a Warner Brothers cartoon: rigged auctions create a new class of illegitmate super-rich; the overriding need of that new class is political protection which can best come from an autocrat, which gives us Putin. Putin thinks himself the new Tsar, which probably annoys or even terrifies some of the oligarchs, but it’s too late.
Fossil fuels, however, are yesterday’s industry. To keep climate change under control we will need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground. Carbon emissions in Europe are not falling fast enough, but they are falling. Installing renewables is now cheaper than building and fueling gas-fired power plants. The war in Ukraine will lead European countries, and perhaps others, to accelerate their transitions to renewable energy. Russia will eventually move on to other things, but that will take time: as with almost all countries rich from fossil fuels, other parts of Russia’s economy are stunted by the corruption brought by this form of wealth.
The Cold War parallel and the spectre of World War III may make us think of Russia as a still, almost, a superpower. Yet in today’s world Russia is no giant. In terms of overall economic output – GDP – Russia ranks 11th, behind mighty Brazil, Italy and Canada, and just ahead of South Korea. In terms of population it ranks 9th, behind Brazil, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, and just ahead of Mexico.
Russia does have a nuclear arsenal, and that makes it dangerous. But danger on its own is not power: North Korea creates danger, but projects little power beyond its borders. The threat of nuclear attack must, in almost all cases, remain a terrifying bluff. That bluff is used not on its own but to back up the exercise of power by other means – we’ve seen exactly that from Russia in recent weeks.
Putin’s power to sway European politicians has lain not in nuclear weapons but in the fact that Russia sits astride the natural gas pipelines to the rest of Europe. The gas comes not only from Russia’s own gas fields, but from those of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. This is not power from fossil fuel per se, but from Europe’s lock-in to a particular supplier. Europe’s reckless use of piped gas as a transition fuel – weaning itself of coal but only too slowly developing renewables – has gifted Russia this power.
In addition to nuclear weapons and the ability to shut off Europe’s gas, Russia’s oil and gas revenues fund a considerable army. But as demand for fossil fuels falls, its budget for arms will dwindle. There is no avoiding this: Putin’s imperial strivings are the dotage of the aging autocrat.
Five years ago, after the UK’s Brexit referendum, I argued that Putin’s imperial ambitions and his need to forestall the demise of his fossil fuel business, were difficult to distinguish. This can be seen in the tenor of his efforts to keep Europe, and the West generally, divided. He has supported Brexit and Trump, supported far right nationalist parties in many countries, and corrupted some leading German and British politicians. He promotes social division through conspiratorial ideation – on climate, on public health measures, on geo-politics – via social media and a whole tribe of what Lenin called “useful idiots”. Through most of these efforts, there is a thread of denial or delayed action on the climate change front.
And in all its efforts to divide and pacify Europe and to split Britain and the US from Europe, Russia has been pushing against an open door, because we are fossil fuel addicts. As such we are susceptible to stories that make us comfortable smoking that pipe and indulging our suppliers.
This is the darkness; it is already a great tragedy for Ukraine and we don’t yet know how much darker it may get. We do know, though, that the dawn will reveal a falling demand for gas and oil; with a little luck it will reveal not a Russia sitting on its own in a puddle of that oil, but the metamorphosis of Russia’s economy and society. Russian oil and gas sales do not benefit the Russian people – they benefit an oligarchic class led by Putin. The challenge of sustainability will be for Russia’s economy to transition from selling hydrocarbons, to making good use of the far greater resource of its well-educated population. That would make it a better place for most. It would probably also make it comfortable in Europe. The more quickly we in the rest of Europe can get away from gas and oil, the more quickly peace and prosperity across all of Europe – including Russia – can finally be established.