Joseph Webster is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and edits the China-Russia Report, an independent newsletter. This article represents his own personal opinion.
With Ukraine’s forces routing Russian forces on the battlefield, President Vladimir Putin appears to be flailing desperately.
He has ordered a huge — and politically risky — draft, implemented a “stop loss” order to extend service times, apparently hinted that he will sabotage Europe’s natural gas network and even threatened potential nuclear escalation. Yet, despite significant tactical setbacks in Ukraine, Putin may well believe strategic victory is still within his grasp.
Putin still holds fast that the economic pain caused by energy disruptions and the food crisis resulting from his invasion of Ukraine will tip the scales for Kremlin-friendly populists in Western elections, bolstering him in his confrontation with constitutional democracies — and he could be right.
Western policymakers need to recognize the scope of the Russian autocrat’s ambitions and rapidly decouple from Russian energy.
Putin’s long-standing hostility toward multiracial and pluralistic constitutional democracy is — from his perspective — entirely rational and self-interested.
Such democracies threaten Putin’s domestic political control due to the strength of human dignity movements, as well as the appeal of Western living standards. And in this regard, Ukraine’s peaceful transfer of power provided an uncomfortable precedent.
Moreover, the Washington- and Brussels-led democracy bloc challenges Putin’s foreign policy interests through the development of clean energy, which could sharply reduce Russian energy export earnings over the medium and long term.
With Russian oil and gas exports comprising anywhere from 20-30 percent of Russian GDP, Putin’s energy interests are an important, if often underrated, element of his foreign policy. The Russian state amplified anti-shale gas organizations in Europe in the mid-2010s, and supported Marie Le Pen in the 2017 and 2022 French presidential elections as she, coincidentally, promised to shutter already-constructed onshore wind capacity.
Putin then eagerly backed former United States President Donald Trump in his 2016 and 2020 election campaigns, with his victory in the former providing a major financial windfall to the Russian energy industry. Trump’s opposition to clean energy stymied the development of renewables in the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. Moreover, his sanctions on Iranian crude artificially raised crude oil prices — particularly of Russia’s Urals blend — and prevented gas-rich Iran from establishing liquefied natural gas exports to European energy markets.
Putin continues to try and influence Western elections today, as Russian state media approvingly quotes Trump in authoritative publications, Italian politicians with deep ties to the Kremlin amplify Russian disinformation narratives, and Moscow repeatedly threatens to unleash politically destabilizing refugee flows to Europe.
The Kremlin’s most important lever of political influence in 2022, however, has been an economic one.
Moscow hopes the higher energy and food prices will bolster Kremlin-curious or pro-Kremlin populists in Western elections — and it’s not an irrational bet.
A large, and possibly decisive, voting bloc is highly attentive to personal living standards but indifferent to seemingly abstract, normative concerns, such as the rule of law. Moreover, the invasion of Ukraine is weighing on markets: The Federal Reserve’s latest estimates suggests 2022 annual U.S. GDP growth will total just 0.2 percent, while inflation is projected to reach 5.4 percent. In March, before the global impact of the invasion had been felt, the projection was annual GDP growth of 2.8 percent, with inflation at only 4.3 percent.
While there’s more than one macroeconomic variable at play here, Putin’s invasion is indisputably dragging down economic growth, raising inflation and harming constitutional democracy’s performance legitimacy.
Meanwhile, Western policymakers’ response to Putin’s energy weapon has been insufficient.
To improve the free world’s performance legitimacy and weaken Putin — as well as promote domestic jobs while fighting climate change — constitutional democracies should accelerate renewable energy deployment, build up more nuclear energy, and accept additional oil and gas infrastructure when needed. With the free world experiencing a profound energy crisis, it’s time to update outdated assumptions and adjust to new realities.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Putin’s high-risk bet against constitutional democracies will pay off. Much will depend on the course of the war, the outcome of upcoming Western elections, and unpredictable events in Russian domestic politics. But there is no question that in the meantime, Western policymakers must continue supporting Ukraine and vigorously defending democracy by rapidly building out new energy supplies.