Russian president Vladimir Putin before the Russian flag

Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of Kremlin.ru

This week, Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine. Flouting international censure, Russia has just annexed the breakaway region. The US and its European allies have responded to the crisis so far with sanctions, but  Russia has scoffed at these rebukes, stating they would have “no effect” on Russian policy.

US president Barack Obama has stated that America does not see Ukraine as a piece on “some Cold War chessboard.” But Russian president Vladimir Putin clearly does see the world this way. And he is winning. He has captured Crimea like a pawn and is now likely looking toward other parts of eastern Ukraine, planning his next move. It’s America’s turn, and it is letting the clock run out.

The US and other NATO countries need to stop fooling themselves that they can intervene in Ukraine (here is a very interesting dissection of why). In fact, they should stop pretending that they have any real influence over Russia’s actions. Until Europe no longer depends on Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom for a quarter of its natural gas, there will be no real way to crack down on Russia. The US and its allies need to start developing a long-term strategy to counter Russia’s global influence and aggression, and the key to this will be a comprehensive energy policy: giving Eastern European countries like Ukraine an energy alternative to Russia’s natural-gas monopoly.

At this point, I should admit a personal bias. I was born in the former Soviet Union, in what is now Ukraine. My family comes from Vinnytsia, a city of about 350,000 located roughly halfway between Odessa and the capital city of Kiev. My parents were political dissidents, whose marriage ceremony took place in a prison camp for those who opposed—or just disagreed with—the USSR. While attending Moscow State University, my mother spent her spare evenings bent over a typewriter, manually copying banned manuscripts for underground distribution: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, and other authors I took for granted, reading them in the security of a New England high school years later. My uncle was persecuted by the KGB for his poetry, and ultimately expelled from the country. So, I have no sympathy for Russia’s slow return to totalitarianism over the past decade.

I also recognize the warning signs. Russia’s systemic persecution of minorities, such as recently enacted laws against the gay community. The country’s ever-bolder moves to beat down dissent, such as a literal public flogging of the political punk band Pussy Riot. The moves to silence free speech and the press. Bullying of smaller neighbors to spread Russia’s influence and agenda. Most worrisome, the cult of personality being built around a leader who presents himself as all-powerful and paternal. Russia is marching down a familiar path. And speaking as someone whose family remembers the horrors of Russian pogroms and Soviet purges, I know where the path leads.

America spent forty years and trillions of dollars in the last Cold War with Russia. And now it needs to prepare to do so again. It needs to play Russia’s Cold War-era power game—and win. If left unchecked, Putin will turn the clock back to the Soviet era, recreating the authoritarian police state the retired KGB colonel probably misses and stamping out democratic movements throughout Russia’s sphere of influence.

Russia now effectively controls the southern peninsula of Crimea, the strategic location of the port city of Sevastopol. Now that Putin has annexed the region, he will need to negotiate with Kiev’s new leaders (Crimea relies on mainland Ukraine for most of its utilities). Meanwhile, clashing political protests have turned deadly in several eastern Ukrainian cities that, like Crimea, have ethnic Russian majorities. According to Ukraine’s new government, Russia is inciting the unrest. It may use the violence to justify more military interventions, following the same pattern it used in Crimea—and before that, in South Ossetia, a region it helped separatists to wrest from Georgia in 2008. In a worst-case scenario, this could lead to civil war. However, it is more likely that Putin will simply use the threat of military action as another bargaining chip, to force Ukraine to agree to considerable political concessions. He doesn’t want to destroy the country, but to cement his control over it.

Even if Russia invades other areas of eastern Ukraine, there will be no meaningful military response. After more than a decade of costly and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has no stomach for further armed conflict. And without America’s army, no country will be willing to support Ukraine in a bloody conflict with a former superpower. Ukraine’s new leaders know this. Though they have mobilized their army, they have no real plans to fight Russia. Their troops are merely an attempt to draw a line in the sand, a show of strength to discourage further aggression.

Nor can Ukraine count on Russia bowing to international pressure. The US and its European allies did announce sanctions against Russia this week, restricting the travel and freezing the international assets of a short list of Russian and Ukrainian officials. However, these amount to little more than a wag of the finger—and Russia interpreted them as such. Europe’s dependence on its gas means that few will sign onto the kind of serious economic sanctions that could actually hurt Russia. So instead, we get harshly worded threats—Obama’s warning that Russia will face “greater political and economic isolation”—and other largely symbolic rebukes, such as the push to evict Russia from the G8 club of nations.

Reviving the aborted US plan to set up a missile-defense system in Poland might deter Russia. And stripping it of the honor of hosting the 2018 World Cup would certainly bruise Putin’s pride. But even if Europe and the US retaliated in these harsher ways, they would be unlikely to change Russia’s bellicose foreign policy. The fact that Russia invaded Crimea right after spending years of effort and many tens of billions of dollars trying to improve its reputation with the lavish Sochi Olympics proves how little international opinion matters to it. Putin is willing for his country to be the world’s black sheep, as long as it is one of the most powerful ones in the flock. Domestically, his aggressive stance in Ukraine has actually caused his popularity to skyrocket, making it even less likely that he will back down.

In all honesty, Kiev’s only viable option is to negotiate a diplomatic agreement with Russia to end the crisis—one that will likely be more of an appeasement than an agreement. In the short term, there is little that the international community can do to help.

However, short-term thinking is part of the problem. So far, the international media have largely focused on Russia’s belligerent actions on the ground. Yet Russia’s chief geopolitical weapon is not its troops, but its energy resources. Russia has 47.8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, almost five times as much as the US. And Russia is not afraid to use Gazprom as a weapon to punish recalcitrant nations, as it proved when it shut off gas to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009. Now it is threatening to call in Ukraine’s $1.5 billion gas debt, which may collapse the country’s already unstable economy. It may cut off gas to Ukraine once again. (Luckily it is now March—the last time Russia withheld gas was in the middle of a brutal winter.)

If America hopes to put an end to Russia’s growing antagonism and totalitarianism, it needs to fight fire with fire. The US has newly tapped reserves of natural gas, thanks to the recent boom in shale-gas production. In a few short years, it will go from being a major importer of natural gas to being an exporter. Expanding existing hydraulic fracturing operations in the Marcellus, Bakken, and Eagle Ford shale plays will expedite the production of this strategic energy resource. More importantly, the US can enact policies to promote the export of natural gas to Europe. In this way, the US can weaken Russia’s sway over the continent and make sure its allies’ energy dependence no longer hobbles any international efforts to keep Russia in check.

In countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, nuclear power is another means of shielding these countries from Russian influence. Ukraine, for example, has fifteen nuclear power plants. Most of the logistical support and fuel for its nuclear infrastructure comes from Russia. Imagine if this assistance came from the US instead. Beyond technical assistance and partnerships, the US can also intervene more directly in the energy market. For instance, when price disputes in 2009 prompted Russia to retaliate by turning off Ukraine’s natural-gas supply, the US could have subsidized nuclear-energy prices, neutralizing the Kremlin’s strong-arm tactics.

If the US invests in nuclear reactors in Eastern European countries, it would also counterbalance Russian power in the region in more subtle ways. The natural partners in these co-ventures would be the billionaire oligarchs who already control most of the infrastructure in these countries. These men wield great, almost feudal, power. Lucrative energy agreements with them would allow the US to buy their influence—and counter that of Russia.

Ukraine is currently trying a similar strategy, appointing oligarchs to governorships in the eastern part of the country. The gamble is that by tapping these men for leadership posts, Kiev’s leaders can indirectly win support and prevent these regions from seceding. The risky strategy seems to be paying off. In the eastern city of Donetsk, the billionaire Serhiy Taruta was appointed regional governor; soon after, the city’s police force evicted pro-Russian protesters from the parliament building they had occupied and arrested Pavel Gubarev, an organizer of mass demonstrations pushing for Donetsk to separate from Ukraine. While partnering with shady oligarchs can be a politically unsavory course of action, it could prove effective.

Fracking and nuclear power have serious environmental risks. But it is important to remember that Russia’s former satellites are already heavy users of these two sources of energy—about half of Ukraine’s electricity is produced from its nuclear reactors. And there is no reason that the US can’t help these nations build an infrastructure of solar panels, wind turbines, and other alternative sources of energy, too. Along with natural gas and nuclear energy, investing in green technologies would not just help America kick its addiction to Middle East oil, but would also enhance its ability to defend Ukraine and other fragile democracies around the world.

In the twentieth century, our Cold War conflict in Russia was waged just as much in the laboratory—to win the Space Race and the nuclear-arms race—as on any battlefield. Now, America and its allies are engaged in an energy race—and are woefully behind. The US can’t just respond to each new crisis manufactured by Putin with ineffective sanctions and stern words. It needs to take the long view. For once, it needs to think about its endgame.

Editor’s Update, March 27: President Obama stated yesterday that Europe needs to “diversify and accelerate energy independence,” and America could play a role in this: “The United States as a source of energy is one possibility, but we’re also making choices and taking on some of the difficulties and challenges of energy development, and Europe is going to have to go through some of those same conversations as well.”

Correction, March 22: An earlier version of the article mistakenly listed Ray Bradbury, rather than George Orwell, as the author of a banned manuscript. 

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