The current moment is one of those that arises in history when patterns of evil are brought into stark relief. In simple and absolute terms, the choice between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky is clear. It is the choice between right and wrong, life and death, dictatorship and democracy, good and evil. There is no nuance, no equivocation, no grey areas, no doubt, no debate. It is of utmost importance then that any state, corporation, religious grouping, or political organization not engaged in the global efforts to punish Russia for the horrors perpetrated on the citizens of Ukraine be branded as collaborators with Putin. Putin has declared war on all that is human. Putin has declared war on us.
When examining the sources of continued support for Putin around the world, two common themes emerge: the role of the fossil fuel industry and the appeal to right-wing religious ideology. The power of oil and integral Christian conservative identity are two forces that Putin has cultivated and exploited in his rise to power over the last three decades. Money is the dark force funding the various bigotries that have captured the minds of the right wing masses. Much of that money derives from states and corporations founded in the fossil fuel industry. These states and corporations are the focus of today’s reflection.
As asserted in my previous post, Vladimir Putin has chosen this moment to undertake his assault on Ukraine because he believed that the western democracies lacked the unity and will to oppose it over any protracted period of time. He and his intelligence agencies have worked successfully to sow discord within and between the states of the NATO alliance over many years. To sustain his efforts, Putin has assembled a financial network of corrupt billionaires around the world who are tied to mineral wealth and the investment banking system organized around that mineral wealth.
There is overwhelming and growing proof that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US was the greatest Russian intelligence success in centuries. The flows of champagne in the Russian Duma the night Trump was elected in2016 provides anecdotal evidence as to how Putin embraced his new partner in Washington. The Mueller Report’s expansive documentation of Russian interference in the 2016 election provides more substantive indication of the ways in which Russia successfully interfered in that election. That Russia invested in the election of Trump is beyond dispute but is not the focus of this post. For now, it is important only to understand how under Putin and Trump the world’s established and aspiring dictators thrived. From Pyongyang to Brasilia, Ankara to Budapest, Riyadh to Moscow, Delhi to Manila, the network of dictatorial regimes expanded their power and influence on a global scale during the Putin/Trump regime.
Trump’s embrace of Putin, with the full acquiescence of elected Republican members of Congress, helped consolidate the role of Russian oligarchs in the global economy and advance Russian interests around the globe. Trump convinced the Republican National Committee to remove a statement of support for Ukraine from its 2016 platform. Trump then undermined economic sanctions that would have begun to erode the economic foundation for Putin’s dictatorship years ago. There was no meaningful Republican resistance to efforts to hold Putin and his oligarchs accountable. Republican consent signaled to Putin that he would have a free hand to continue his internal repression, his media consolidation in Russia, and his foreign aggression without limit.
As a result, during Trump’s term Putin prevailed in Syria; consolidated Russia’s military presence in Crimea and the Donbas; expanded influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia; established strong ties to right wing forces throughout the world; surrendered US interests in Afghanistan; and enlarged the Russian role in global energy markets. In moves that further enhanced Russia’s global standing, Trump weakened the military bonds as well as the financial and ideological ties that have sustained the leading US role in Europe and Asia. In short, Trump worked hard to undermine the very idea of American democracy both at home and abroad while paving the way for Putin’s authoritarian expansion.
Characteristically, Trump’s response to the gruesome Russian attack on a sovereign state began with the obscene and quickly pivoted to the absurd. Trump initially praised Putin’s assault as a “savvy” move and called the Russian troops in Ukraine keepers of the peace. Once he realized that this line of Putin support offended many within the broader MAGA movement, he asserted that the US should put Chinese flags on F-22 fighter jets and “bomb the shit out of Russia.” That a recent American president could be so stupid has to be a source of deep satisfaction for Putin. Putin understood well that the American political system is so corrupted and the American public so stupid that a feckless inanity like Trump could become president. That is why Putin invested so much into his election.
THE PATHOLOGY OF OIL
While the biggest existential challenge to the world today is its continued overconsumption of fossil fuels, the biggest political challenge to the world is the corruptive role of the fossil fuel industry in undermining democratic movements endeavoring to address climate change. It is not surprising then that the two most destructive figures in the world are the heads of the two states that export the most oil: Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The sadistic pathology of both Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Vladimir Putin is beyond question. Yemen, Georgia, Syria, and Chechnya all illustrate the bloodlust of these unaccountable leaders. One of the most disturbing moments in a recent history full of disturbing moments occurred at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires in 2018. There, MBS greeted Putin in a way that could be described as perversely affectionate considering the deadly activities in which both were engaged. The evident bond between these two comes despite their states’ support for opposing factions in the horrific Syrian Civil War. The 2018 summit occurred in the broader context of the ghastly Saudi war in Yemen and a few days after the US journalist Jamal Khashoggi was tortured, killed, and sawed into pieces in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Putin, meanwhile, had expanded his assault in the eastern territories of Ukraine and had attacked and captured Ukrainian sailors in the open seas.
Russian aggression against Ukraine undermined a planned meeting between Putin and Trump at the 2018 G20 meeting. The US and Russian presidents did meet briefly but according to Trump there was “no discussion.” While it is difficult to grasp how two leaders could meet and have no discussion, the meeting paralleled almost all conversations between Trump and Putin in that there were no other accountable advisers to witness and record the meeting. Trump has had numerous such meetings with Putin. The Trump administration blamed the Mueller investigation for undermining relations with Russia, not the inherent aggression of Russia against the democratically elected government in Ukraine. Trump has always sided with the dictator Putin over democratic Ukraine.
Soon after the G20 summit in November, Trump resumed advanced weapon sales to the Saudi government so that it could continue its deadly campaign in Yemen. In order to justify this $14 Billion sale to the Saudis, Trump falsely claimed that the sales were vital to the American economy. He also claimed that if we did not sell the arms to the Saudis, either the Chinese or Russians would. The real question, though, is whether selling arms to horrific leaders is in the best interests of the US. Selling the most advanced US weapon systems to a psychopath like MBS is morally comparable to selling assault weapons to drug dealers. (Which we do, BTW.)
Bloody Oil, Bloody Politics
The oil industry in general and MBS in particular are already mustering their forces to weather the storm created by the crisis in Ukraine. The recent $2 billion Saudi loan to Jared Kushner on extraordinarily favorable terms came against the advice of Saudi financial experts in charge of the sovereign wealth fund. MBS’ decision to override the advice of the fund managers is an indication of the level of confidence the Saudi ruler has in the return of the party of Trump to power in the US. The Saudis also loaned $1 billion to Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury Secretary, on slightly less favorable terms in a move that further invests the oil sheikhs in a Republican victory. It is no surprise, then, that the Saudis have refused to do anything to alleviate the global supply crisis in oil precipitated by the Russian attack on Ukraine. The Saudis, like Putin, are invested in the return to power of the Republican Party.
The oil sheikhs work hand in bloody glove with Putin and the oil industry to make sure that gas prices remain high. Moreover, oil companies have used the crisis in Ukraine to inflate stock values rather than invest in production that would lessen consumer pain at the pump and in the supermarket. While rivers of blood fill the streets of Ukraine, cash has flowed into the pockets of oil executives and oil industry shareholders. War profiteering is the nicest way to describe the policies of the fossil fuel industry. They are, in fact, aiding and abetting Putin’s terrorism in Ukraine. The bottom line for the oil companies is the bottom line. If the lives and democratic institutions of Ukraine must be sacrificed to ensure unfettered profits, then so be it.
The cost-push inflation generated by the rise in oil prices will ensure voter anger against the Democrats. The victory of Trump’s party in the upcoming midterms will put to rest once and for all concerns that fossil fuels might be contributing to the destruction of the planet. A victory by Trump’s party this November will also ensure that the fossil fuel industry will never again have to submit themselves to a public reckoning for undermining efforts to address the climate crisis as well as their role in generating it.
Once Republicans are again in charge of Congress, any pretense that the US is anything other than a corporate authoritarian state will soon disappear. Republicans and their SCOTUS appointees will continue to undermine access to the ballot and ensure that elections becoming less free and less fair. The Party of Trump will continue to breed fear and hatred against racial minorities, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community while failing to present policies that address the real problems faced by the nation. The freedom of children to attend school safely will once again give way to the freedom of crazy people to possess assault weapons. The big winner of Republican victory in the midterms will be Putin. He has invested heavily and effectively in undermining the very idea of democracy.
PUTIN’S WAR OF ATTRITION
While Putin may not have anticipated the persistent resolve of the Ukrainians and the extent of support for Ukraine by the western democracies, he remains firm in the belief that support for Ukraine will erode over time. He has invested a lot in the inherent corruption of western institutions as well as the selfishness of the public in western democracies. Eventually, Putin believes, people in the West will sacrifice Ukraine for better gas prices.
The two countries of NATO whose democratic institutions are barely on life support, Turkey and Hungary, have already betrayed Ukraine for cheaper fuels. In an ideal world, NATO would expel both Hungary and Turkey and replace them with Finland and Sweden. In an ideal world, the United Nations security council would expel both Russia and China and replace them with countries who better represent the core freedoms to which all people aspire.
Democracy is hanging by a thread. There is a direct correlation between what happened on January 6 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year later. What happened on January 6, 2021 has its precursors in the March on Rome and Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. History is not kind to those who surrender the beautiful mess of democracy for the illusion of security.
PLEASE GO AWAY, HENRY
No one in our lifetimes has contributed more to the rise of corrupt dictatorships than Henry Kissinger, and it is thus no surprise that he recently weighed in against Ukraine. He asserted that Ukraine should surrender territory so as to placate Russian perceptions that somehow their state has not been treated with due respect in the post-Cold War era. Volodymyr Zelensky properly indicated that this is the same logic that surrendered Czechoslovakian territories to Hitler in 1938.
Just go away, Henry. Your world has always been that of global oligarchs, corporations, and dictators. Only your narcissism exceeds your arrogance. The world you created inevitably produces Trumps and Putins. You never had even a smidgen of respect for the principals that underly constitutional democracies and the ideals of the country you purportedly represented. Your legacy is our shame.
This is our Munich moment. Ukraine is fighting for us. It deserves our full and unequivocal support. In the meantime, the fossil fuel industry needs to be held accountable for how it has exploited this situation.