Given the unfolding situation in Ukraine, the United States has decided to ban the import of Russian oil and gas. In a similar vein, the United Kingdom has also expressed its desire to phase out Russian energy products by the end of this year.
While sanctions on several economic sectors have been slapped on Moscow to constrain its actions in Ukraine, the recent prohibitions on its energy industry have the potential to deepen the level of insecurity and discord in the international system.
The first point that needs to be made is that Russia is the second-largest producer of natural gas and a major producer of crude oil. Given the role of geography, some countries are inevitably going to be significantly more dependent on Russian energy resources than others. This general asymmetry in consumption shows how crucial the role of resource distribution is.
At a time when countries all around the globe are trying to bounce back from a plethora of economic challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to the already high inflation rates and oil prices due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, more stringent measures on energy resources will create great stress and panic among people around the world.
Furthermore, such a measure may serve as a platform for domestic unrest, which may create dangers for national governments.
Interestingly, in a Wall Street Journal poll, around 79% of respondents supported US President Joe Biden’s ban on Russian oil. In fact, even the opposition is seen to support the government’s position as well.
This, however, does not come without risks. While the US can be considered energy independent, it still has great difficulty controlling its production. Accordingly, while Russian oil comprises less than 10% of total US oil consumption, it will be quite arduous to speed up new oil production within a few months amid the already exacerbating problem of inflation and high fuel prices.
Additionally, the inability of Washington to get key countries in the Middle East to get on board willingly adds another layer of complexity.
Moreover, while the Biden administration was successful in securitizing the Russia threat and diverting the attention of Americans from socio-economic to political issues, the opposition will be watching closely for the potential negative impact of the decision on the welfare of the people. This may eventually serve as a critical political leverage against the government.
Furthermore, the plan to import oil from Venezuela or Iran would significantly undermine the legitimacy of the US as the chief promoter of liberal democratic values. This will inevitably result in an inconsistent foreign policy.
This decision of the US to ban Russian energy resources will also have an impact on the cohesion and function of its alliance network. Europe depends on Russia for 40% of its natural-gas supply and a quarter of its crude-oil imports. While the UK announced its gradual exit from importing Russian energy resources, other European countries may not be able to do so.
In fact, Germany has emphasized how doing so will be impractical for the country, because of the possibility of experiencing major energy insecurity. Similarly, other key members of the US alliance in Europe will be reluctant to impose such sanctions, which might create domestic instability and challenge the political power of national governments.
A similar scenario took place when the US sanctioned Iran’s energy industry, which forced its key strategic partners such as Japan and India to stop imports. This created challenges for their national development and interests, given the difficulties of looking for an immediate and practical alternative.
With the economically crippling effects of the pandemic, national governments will be extremely cautious on taking steps that could compromise their development and public support. This reluctance may deepen fault lines within the alliance network and create more obstacles for collective action in the future.
The most important step to take at this point is to create a conducive environment for dialogue and negotiations between the parties involved in the ongoing crisis. Actions that can further aggravate the situation not only in Ukraine but also across the globe may not be the most rational step given the thousands of lives already lost and the millions who are seeking refuge.