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It has been very difficult to grasp why President Biden waited this long to decide–and he was clearly pushed–to ban Russian oil and gas imports.
By finally taking that step yesterday, Biden was bowing to the reality that Congress was going to move against Moscow without him.
If the war against Ukraine is the great moral test of our time, as the president has been framing it, one that justified crushing economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime, how could this one be left off the list?
The glib answer is that he was worried about the impact of rising energy prices here at home. But for all the media hand-wringing about that, it’s been easy to lose sight of the fact that less than 10 percent of our oil imports come from Russia.
That’s not to minimize the political potency of soaring gas prices, which the Republicans would undoubtedly blame on Biden.
But when you look at 2 million refugees fleeing Ukraine, civilian neighborhoods under bombardment, the death toll rising, it does seem rather wimpy to exclude Russia’s biggest export–the only product that other countries really want to buy.
Biden, of course, had to consider one major factor that the pundits do not, and that was moving in concert with our NATO allies. Europe is far more dependent on Russian oil and gas, for about a third of its needs.
In the end, he is acting alone–Britain phasing out Russian oil by year’s end is an empty gesture–and that greatly limits the impact on Moscow. But symbolism matters in American politics.
What was really driving the president’s move was a surge in support within his own party. Republicans pretty strongly favored a boycott of Kremlin oil, but Democrats started jumping on the bandwagon.
When Nancy Pelosi said Monday that she’d introduce an oil ban this week, it seemed like only a matter of time before the White House got on board, given her control of the House.
At the same time, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, was supporting a bipartisan bill championed by Joe Manchin, whose coal state could benefit. How would Biden explain why leading Democrats wouldn’t back his position?
A Politico story yesterday morning reported that the president was trying to avoid a fight with Congress over Russian oil “as he faces the increasing possibility that his own party will act if he doesn’t.”
That, my friends, is the sound of a train leaving the station, with or without the conductor.
The piece said Biden wanted to avoid legislative provisions that could tie his hands and “the potential embarrassment of lawmakers appearing tougher on Putin than the president.” There was a point in Barack Obama’s second term when the New Yorker dubbed this “leading from behind.” But at least Biden got there. He took no questions yesterday.
The president was careful to say that what he called “Putin’s price hike” is “going to cost us as well.” He was pointed in warning oil companies that “it’s no time for profiteering or price gouging.”
He also denied that he is holding back domestic oil exploration, and pointed to his release of millions of barrels from the strategic reserve as a way of cushioning the blow of higher prices.
After two weeks, Putin’s military has sustained some serious losses, with Ukrainians still managing to shoot down jets and destroy tanks while waiting for the West to supply new military equipment through Poland and Romania. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defiant video from his presidential office, declaring that he’s not in hiding, captured the country’s determination to make Putin’s erratic military fight block by block.
But these setbacks are also pushing the Russian autocrat toward more destructive action, such as indiscriminate firing of long-range missiles.
If Biden’s latest sanction has an impact on Russia, where the ruble is worth less than a penny, some U.S. analysts fear that Putin might be driven to more desperate attempts to destroy its neighbor. He could, of course, stop this war today, grab some face-saving compromise, and declare victory. But the world no longer expects Putin to act like a rational person.