Even if EU countries speed up the end of oil purchases, that may be too late for Ukraine
MELBOURNE, Australia – Is it right for European countries to continue to pay Russia €1 billion ($1.1 billion) a day for energy when they know that they are funding Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine?
Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that European countries prospering from Russian energy are “earning their money in other people’s blood.” Russia did not need to take peace talks seriously, he suggested, because of the billions it receives for its oil and gas exports. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the Russian oil company Yukos, now in exile, told the BBC that an embargo on Russian oil and gas would be a serious blow to President Vladimir Putin, causing him “to lose over half his revenue.”
Yet no immediate cut-off is being considered. European Union Economic Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said only that the EU would reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas by two-thirds by the end of the year, and to zero by 2027. And while Germany, the biggest European purchaser of Russian energy, has moved up its initial end-of-year timeline for halting oil imports to the end of this summer, with gas imports continuing, that may still be too late to help Ukraine.
In Poland, where almost 3 million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, are finding shelter at the moment, the government waffled, initially calling for a European embargo on Russian oil and gas and then voting against it. They were saved from hypocrisy only by Russia unilaterally cutting off the supply to both Poland and Bulgaria, because they are “unfriendly” and refused to pay for the gas in rubles. These countries now have the chance to show the rest of Europe that life can continue without Russian gas.
How much pain should Europeans be willing to accept? The Wall Street Journal recently quoted Giovanni Staunovo, a commodity analyst at UBS Group AG: “The European Union fully sanctioning Russian oil would be like saying tomorrow you cut your salary by 40% and you need to continue to live as if nothing has happened.”
But why should Europeans continue to live as if nothing has happened? Russia invaded Ukraine, causing 11 million people to leave their homes, including 5 million who have fled to other countries. As many as a half-million Ukrainians may have been forcibly deported to Russia. Mariupol, not long ago a peaceful city with a population of more than 400,000, has been totally destroyed, and many other cities have been severely damaged. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people, both civilians and members of the Ukrainian armed forces defending their country, have been killed and many more wounded. There is strong evidence that Russian soldiers have committed war crimes, including murder, torture and rape.
European countries might have responded to Russia’s clear breach of the United Nations Charter by declaring war on Russia and using their own armed forces to assist Ukraine in its resistance. Instead, they took the less risky course of imposing economic sanctions and sending weapons to Ukraine. Viewing the sanctions as an alternative to military action puts into perspective the sacrifices that it is reasonable to expect from those paying Russia for the energy they are using. If ceasing to use Russian energy will mean economic hardship, is that really too much to ask?
Moreover, the sacrifice would not be a purely altruistic one. The war in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine. A Russian military commander recently said that, “Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are also facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population.” Transnistria is a separatist region of Moldova. Such supposed “facts of oppression” of Russian-speaking people were, of course, the pretext for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They could be alleged in several other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and have Russian speakers among their population. Ukraine is therefore the frontline of resistance to Putin’s aim of re-establishing Russian dominance over regions dominated by the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian czars.
If the Ukrainians had simply laid down their arms in the face of the apparently overwhelming Russian invading forces, as Putin seems to have expected, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland would have had to fear for their own security. And because all are members of NATO, the burden of their defense would have fallen on all members of the alliance. For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy and the international rule of law.
The moral imperative to cease paying blood money to Russia is also an opportunity for European countries to fulfill their commitments, made in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Lesia Vasylenko, head of the Ukrainian Parliament’s climate subcommittee, has suggested that Ukraine’s devastated industries should be rebuilt with new technology to run on clean energy. The EU now has an additional reason to accelerate the timetable for reaching its goal of making Europe the first climate-neutral continent.
Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is founder of the charity The Life You Can Save. His books include “Practical Ethics,” “The Life You Can Save,” “One World Now,” and “Ethics in the Real World.” © Project Syndicate, 2022