Given the sheer wealth and power of the place, America is not an easy country to discipline. It probably takes more than a hashtag, at least.
Reuters reported the other day that a bunch of young Russians have started (spontaneously, I’m sure) an aggressive social media campaign to mock and belittle President Obama over his — and the rest of the now-G7’s —economic retaliation against Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. It’s called “My Sanctions,” and is supposedly taking the nation by storm. Apparently hip cool Russian dudes are supposed to make these custom memes wherein they proudly declare what comically personal thing they’re not going to “let” Obama do anymore, like borrow their skateboard or whatever.
Maybe it loses something in the translation.
Or maybe it’s just that the humor of Russian “retaliation” against America already peaked when the Kremlin imposed actual sanctions against what it perceives to be the American ruling elite last week. The nine targeted muckity-mucks include Democrat leader Harry Reid, obscure Indiana Senator Dan Coats, 32-year-old White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and of course, noted non-president John McCain. Not one of them seems to consider their reprimand anything but a bizarre badge of honor, with McCain perhaps having the best line of all — “I guess my spring break in Siberia is off!”
Tit-for-tat spite, no matter how petty, seems to be one of the trademarks of the Putin regime. We may recall that last year Moscow imposed an across-the-board ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans after Washington froze the US assets of 18 apparatchiks associated with the death of crusading anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a move, which like the politician sanctions, didn’t actually hurt the US so much as make a very uppity point.
But the balance of power between the two nations isn’t entirely tilted in America’s favor, either. In announcing his government’s latest package of sanctions last week — which targeted the holdings of several Russian billionaires and banks — President Obama cautioned that doing much more of this sort of thing “could be disruptive to the global economy,” given Russia’s economic clout.
These days, the vast majority of Russian trade involves oil, with petroleum representing about two-thirds of the country’s exports. More than half of this goes to western Europe, with more than half of that going to Germany, the world’s third most powerful economy.
Europe’s Russian dependence, in turn, is seen to be critical enough to threaten American economic interests by proxy, even though direct US-Russian economic ties are quite weak (at around $24 billion a year the economic relationship between the two one-time superpowers is only worth about half the relationship between America and Italy, and only about 3% of America’s imported oil comes from Russia). In a globalized world, one is always hesitant to instigate a chain reaction of unknowable consequence.
To the extent sanctions ever work (and it’s widely disputed if they do), they work best when the sanctioner is vastly more powerful than the sanctionee, as was the case with the western boycotts against apartheid South Africa, the decade-long international isolation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or our current embargoes against nuke-happy Iran and North Korea. If the two parties are equally co-dependent, or equally independent, however, the outcome is doomed to remain stagnant in the status that defines Russian-western relations today: rhetorically fierce but functionally flaccid.
Which isn’t to say the goal of isolating and weakening Russia is impossible, it just requires a united west willing to make a long-term commitment to two complex and challenging goals: energy development and free trade.
This isn’t a big part of the narrative, but one of the benefits of Keystone XL — the proposed transcontinental pipeline to ship bitumen-derived crude from western Canada to refineries in the Southern US — will be an increase in North America’s ability to export petroleum overseas. Since both Canada and the US are well on their way to becoming energy self-sufficient within a decade or two, eventually much of the Keystone oil will be, by definition, excess. Why not let Europe take several million barrels off our hands?
That, however, would first require Europe to lessen its current fussy practice of labelling bitumen-derived oil as fundamentally worse for the environment than other sorts, a designation that limits the amount of such oil EU countries can import under their complex climate change-battling regulatory regime (and one the Canadian government claims lacks “sound scientific justification”). The relevant laws are currently in the process of revision, and Canada’s been lobbying hard to get them ditched. The Euros would be wise to do so.
But North America can’t do it all. Europe would also be wise to get more vigorous about developing their own presently-untapped petroleum reserves, particularly the vast amounts of shale oil lying within their borders. But that too will only happen once more EU countries are willing to lessen their dogmatic bans on the fracking technology necessary to harvest it.
All this is the nightmare scenario of hardcore environmentalists who fear the dawn of a new age of oil. But it would be no less a fright for Putin as well. Once countries like Germany are able to gradually pull themselves from the energy orbit of the Russian petrostate, the west will have a much freer hand in managing their relationship with Moscow; one no longer quite so severely restrained by the pragmatic calculations of the present.
Energy independence won’t be a quick, easy, or magic solution, of course. But at the same time, one wonders if there wouldn’t be some strategic advantage, as President Obama and the American EU ambassador recently seemed to imply, in just talking about the goal more loudly and often.
At the very least, it will probably grab more attention than a few Russian kids on Twitter.