Vladimir Putin’s inflammatory speech, in which he set out his aim to reconstitute the Russian empire and blamed Lenin for its demise—and his decision to back this up with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine—signals the return of geopolitics.
Until now, Western leaders have been saying that the biggest threat to the world is climate change. Now comes Putin, armed with nuclear weapons, tanks, and thousands of troops declaring his intent to overthrow Europe’s post-Cold War order. The dilemma for the West: You can’t win a geopolitical conflict lasting years or decades with an economy powered intermittently by wind turbines and solar panels.
From the start of the Biden presidency, tensions existed within the administration between geopolitical realists, notably Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and climate hawks led by the president’s climate envoy, John Kerry, who saw friendly relations with China as an essential ingredient for any global deal on the environment. Although Blinken’s position that Chinese expansionism is the biggest threat to the interests of the United States now has the upper hand, the administration’s anti-fossil-fuel policies will progressively degrade America’s capacity to prevail against its geopolitical adversaries.
It could be even worse. If John Kerry and the climate hawks had their way, the United States would be like Europe. The European Union is a paper empire. Its power is bureaucratic, deriving from rules and regulations. It is institutionally incapable of thinking and acting geopolitically, because the EU is meant to be the exemplar of a post-geopolitical world in which national sovereignty is dissolved in a supra-national rules-based order. Net-zero and the U.N. climate process represent EU-style supranationalism at a global level.
The Soviet Union began supplying gas to western Europe in the 1960s. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt quickly saw a political opportunity to do business with Moscow based on his belief that Moscow held the key to German reunification (for the same reason, the East German communist regime strongly opposed the burgeoning Soviet-West German gas trade). Not once during the Cold War did Moscow renege on a gas contract. In this respect, Putin, who has a deep understanding of the gas industry, is different from his Soviet predecessors. As a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia ended up with the gas and Ukraine the pipeline and transit fees—a source of intense frustration to Putin.
In 2009, the Russian gas company Gazprom temporarily cut off exports to Europe. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, like Nord Stream 1, takes the most direct route from Siberia to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Credit the Biden administration for helping German Chancellor Olaf Scholz over the line in suspending Nord Stream 2—but if Moscow controls Ukraine, Putin will have solved his Ukrainian transit problem by extinguishing Ukrainian independence. On the other hand, Germany’s and the EU’s net-zero policies will deepen their dependence on Putin’s goodwill as they increase their exposure to unreliable wind and solar, phase out coal, and—in the case of Germany and Belgium—prematurely close their nuclear power stations. Strategically, that’s a win for Putin.
In an age when Russia invades a sovereign state on a baseless pretext and denies its right to exist, it’s high time Western leaders got real. The West either understands what is at stake and plays by the rules of geopolitics or the West loses. The speed with which the West adjusts to this new reality will determine how much ground Russia and China can take.