Up to now, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has been playing a weak hand in Ukraine very well. I mean, how strong are you when your allies insist on wearing masks? But Putin thinks he knows his adversaries better than they know themselves. He thinks the Americans will never be serious about energy, that the Europeans will never be serious about sanctions, that the Ukrainian reformers will never be serious about governance, and that he can control the separatist forces he’s unleashed in eastern Ukraine and dial them up or down as he pleases.
The outcome of the Ukraine crisis rides primarily on whether he is right about all this. How’s his bet going so far?
There has been much talk about President Barack Obama’s “leadership” of late. All I know is that, if Obama wants it, Ukraine provides him an ideal legacy leadership opportunity. With one initiative he could simultaneously make America stronger, Putin weaker, the planet healthier and our grandchildren safer.
Since we’ve ruled out sending troops, our short-term ability to influence Putin has to rely on targeted sanctions. But the serious way to weaken Putin, whose economy and government budget is hugely dependent on $100-plus-a-barrel-oil, is with an American domestic grand bargain on energy that unleashes forces that, over time, begin to affect the global price and availability of oil and gas.
Obama should summon the congressional leadership to Camp David and put his own plan on the table: Offer the Republicans the Keystone XL pipeline, expanded oil drilling and fracking (but only at the highest environmental standards) and, in return, demand a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a national renewable portfolio standard that would require every utility in America to gradually introduce more renewable power, and a national California-level home building code for energy efficiency. I would also toss in incentives for expanding the share of nuclear power in our energy mix.
I hate Keystone, which brings disgusting tar sands oil from Canada, and I worry about fracking at low environmental standards, but I’d take this deal in a second because, soon enough, a proper carbon tax would make oil from tar sands uneconomical, and fracking that is paired with a renewable portfolio standard would ensure that natural gas replaces coal, not solar, wind and other renewables.
The White House just released a study that found the effects of human-induced climate change impacting every corner of our country, not to mention the world. So such a grand bargain could not be a more timely and necessary win-win-win strategy. It would simultaneously increase our leverage against Putin and Mother Nature. And it would drive a suite of technologies down their cost-curves so we can deploy them at scale and ensure that America is the leader in the next great global industry: clean technology. Obama should throw caution to the wind and go big. If Republicans won’t meet him even halfway on this (yes, I know, unlikely) it would expose them as unwilling to do the things that would meaningfully deter Putin, not to mention buy some insurance against climate change with policies that would make us stronger and healthier even if climate change turns out to be milder.
Go big, Mr. President. Get crazy.
But, as I said, Putin thinks he knows us better than we know ourselves, that we are all hat and no cattle. He is not without reason: For decades, both parties in America have failed to develop an energy strategy, and we’ve paid for it — with oil price shocks, wars, pollution and climate change. Are we forever condemned to be takers, not makers, of energy policy?
And Putin thinks he knows the Europeans better, since so many are beneficiaries of his oil and gas. So far, Europe’s response has been more hand-wringing about Putin than neck-wringing of Putin. They talk softly and carry a big baguette.
The Ukrainian reformers, too, have a huge role to play. They must find a way to conduct free and fair elections in as much of Ukraine as possible on May 25 and then quickly move to parliamentary elections and constitutional reform to put in place the basis for decent governance. The last thing Putin wants is a fairly elected reformist government in Kiev that would have the legitimacy to associate Ukraine with the European Union. Therefore, it’s the first thing Ukrainians must do.
But Putin needs to beware. The separatist allies he ginned up with his agents and Goebbels-scale propaganda campaign in eastern Ukraine could spin out of control. The Putin-inspired separatists could persuade western Ukraine that there is no future with the East, and Kiev might just let them all fall into Putin’s lap — and economic responsibility.
Putin may think he’s Superman, but, the fact is, America, Europe and the Ukrainian reformers collectively have the ability to generate the Kryptonite that would render him powerless: European unity, Ukrainian government legitimacy and U.S. energy. Those are the things of which he is most afraid. What they all have in common, though, is that they’re hard, entail serious choices and will require extraordinary leadership to achieve. So watch all these fronts. I can assure you that Putin is.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.