To make Putin pay, Biden must ramp up US energy production

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Despite the constant media drumbeat to what seems like an inevitable war, Russian President Vladimir Putin understands one thing: He can’t make Russia great again by launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

If Moscow made a full-out ground assault and annexed Ukraine in its entirety, Putin would be opening a Pandora’s box he’d never be able to close. The ensuing outrage, massive sanctions and a costly counterinsurgency could mean the end of his rule. The price of trying to swallow Ukraine whole is death by geopolitical asphyxiation.

But Putin is no fool. And President Joe Biden must recognize that and act accordingly — which means having a long-term strategy to suffocate the strongman, not merely doing short-term damage control.

Take stock of what the Russian strongman has already accomplished. His slow rollout of a maximum-pressure strategy was carefully calibrated to dial up the pressure in Ukraine, NATO and the Western democracies. His goals have never been in doubt: to get Ukraine to declare it will never join NATO while ensuring Kyiv’s economy and military are weakened to such an extent the West will have no choice but to abandon it.

To put it simply, Putin wants to damage Ukraine, not destroy and conquer it.

So far, his actions have well served his goals. Russia has massed 190,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, increasing dramatically the pressure on Kyiv, scaring off international investments and creating a siege mentality. Putin sent Russian troops into the separatist Donbas region, stating that Ukraine doesn’t deserve to exist.

Pumpjacks are photographed on the Inglewood oil field in Los Angeles, California, USA, 26 January 2022.
President Joe Biden must revamp America’s oil infrastructure on top of sanctioning Russian banks.

And while Russia will surely press for additional pieces of territory in Ukraine in the days ahead, Putin understands the limits of his capabilities and the dangers of pushing too far. Expect him to keep dialing up pressure to see what he can get away with for as little cost as possible.

So why is Putin doing even this? Russia, in many respects, is truly a lost great power in the throes of a long decline that shows no sign of slowing down, and a self-created crisis over Ukraine distracts the average Russian from clear problems that have no easy solutions. While Moscow is blessed with trillions of dollars in natural resources and a rebuilt military that can kill billions with the flick of a switch, its demographic trends point to a nation in descent. Its life expectancy is poor compared with that of Western nations, with alcoholism and drug abuse reaching dangerous levels.

And Russia is looking more like China’s junior partner by the day. Putin appearing to be returning Russia to the glory days of the Soviet Union is the shot in the arm he thinks his nation needs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already deployed his troops into allied separatist regions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already deployed his troops into allied separatist regions.
NY Post Illustration

Look too to history. While the Russian president loves to say Ukraine and Russia are one nation, it is through the flatlands of Ukraine that Russia has suffered invasion after invasion, with millions of Russians dead from the Napoleonic era to the days of Adolf Hitler. For Putin, carving out as much of Ukraine as possible as a buffer as cheaply as possible makes sense.

But while Putin might not want to pay the high price of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the situation in Eastern Europe could still spiral out of control. Biden must respond strongly but proportionally to any escalatory action Putin tries.

What Biden must really understand is that he needs to keep global energy prices down and supplies robust to deny Russia the resources it needs to continue its aggression far into the future.

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden could easily make Russian President Vladimir Putin regret his decision to invade Ukraine.
Getty Images

“We’re closely monitoring energy supplies for any disruptions” was Biden’s tepid statement in his address to the nation Tuesday.

That’s not enough. America must ramp back up oil and natural gas production to at least Trump-era levels. US oil production peaked in 2019 at 13 million barrels per day. Now, thanks to Biden’s burdensome regulations, production has stalled at 11.6 million barrels.

Biden can’t fear progressives more than Putin. He simply must start incentivizing domestic production, especially by removing all restrictions on new drilling on federal lands. Driving energy prices down is one of the best ways to make Putin pay over the long term.

Plainly, we have at least several tense weeks ahead with Russia doing all it can to weaken Ukraine to the point that it becomes a failed state. America and the West must clearly understand Putin’s intentions and capabilities to mount an effective response — because Moscow isn’t taking its hands off Ukraine’s throat any time soon.

Harry J. Kazianis is the senior director at the Center for the National Interest. Twitter: @Grecianformula

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