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An Answer to Putin (and Climate Change) in Plain Sight

If the shift in attitudes toward Russia is going to stick, it will have to be backed up by changes in energy policy.
March 2, 2022
An Answer to Putin (and Climate Change) in Plain Sight
Steam rises from the cooling towers of a U.S. nuclear power plant. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty)

Imagine for a moment that Vladimir Putin had used different tactics. Imagine that, in pursuit of his goals to weaken NATO, punish Ukraine’s tilt toward the West, and further lull his admirers in Europe and the United States, he had not only declared the two eastern Ukrainian separatist regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, to be independent states but also offered them diplomatic recognition and sent ambassadors. Imagine further that he then orchestrated a sham election in those regions and declared that they were the only legitimate governments in Ukraine.

If, following those steps, Putin had threatened to cut gas and oil supplies to countries that imposed sanctions on Russia, what would the world have done? We will never know, but it’s a safe bet that the outpouring of sanctions, the universal opprobrium, the NATO unity, the special session of the U.N. security council featuring a moving address by the representative of Kenya (among many others), the firing of a prominent Russian conductor, the deplatforming of RT and other Russian outlets, and the open spigot of military aid to the brave Ukrainians would not have happened. We would not have seen what Jonathan V. Last called a “decade’s worth of geopolitical change in four days” and the Washington Post described as “Europe overhaul[ing] its entire post-Cold War relationship with Russia” in just 72 hours.

No, if Putin had just been a little less nakedly aggressive; if he had worked to undermine democracy and dismantle the post-Cold War architecture with a bit more subtlety; if he had stuck with the tactics he employed in Georgia and Crimea and in American and European elections; he and Russia would not now be the international pariahs they have become. The Germans would still be planning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to cement their dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and Nigel Farage would still be lionizing Putin. Tucker Carlson would still be demanding to know what is so bad about the Russian president (“Did he call me a racist?”), and Donald Trump would still be planting wet kisses on his feet.

The fact is that Putin has done more than enough over the past two decades to earn the hostility and suspicion of free people. He has murdered his political opponents. He has crushed the free press. He committed war crimes against Chechnya, targeting civilians in Grozny, and causing the deaths of up to 50,000. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea. He sided with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, bombing civilian targets including hospitals in Aleppo and facilitating the use of chemical weapons. And through subterfuge he sowed division in Europe, the United States, and around the globe, supporting extremists of the left and the right and undermining confidence in elections. He has deployed a small army of hackers and trolls seeking to sow discord in the United States by, to cite just one example, inflaming the fears and prejudices of white supremacists and African Americans. And he has stolen from the Russian people on a truly grotesque scale.

You can do all of that and more and get away with it. What you cannot do is roll tanks into another country. That, apparently, is the sort of act that finally reminds people of good and evil in this world.

And so, with deep sorrow for the suffering the Ukrainian people are enduring and are yet to experience, we owe them our gratitude. Their heroism in the face of this brutal attack has shocked people into hard-headed realism. Because Putin was impatient, or frustrated, or losing his marbles, he attacked them in a way that galvanized the world. Putin did the one thing that no one can misinterpret or explain away. No more illusions. Aggressors are real. Freedom is worth defending. And yes, it is about freedom. In a speech yesterday that brought tears to the eyes of European Parliament members, Volodomyr Zelensky said “We are fighting for our rights, for our freedoms, for life. . . . But we are fighting also to be equal members of Europe.” A missile had just landed in Freedom Square in the city of Kharkiv. Zelensky vowed that “Every square today, no matter what it’s called, is going to be called ‘Freedom Square,’ in every city of our country.”

The shift in attitudes toward Russia has been vertigo-inducing, but it remains to be seen whether it will stick. The human tendency toward complacency and denial is very strong. (It’s remarkable that the West maintained its vigilance throughout the Cold War, and there were moments when it was iffy.) One way we’ll know if the democracies have truly grappled with the moment is what they do on energy.

Energy policy would seem to be the surest path toward the better world we all hope for. Without energy revenue, Russia is defanged. Oil and gas account for nearly 40 percent of Russia’s federal revenue and 60 percent of exports. The old gibe that Russia is a “gas station with nukes” was only somewhat exaggerated. Europe currently relies on Russia for 40 percent of its energy needs. The Ukraine invasion has spurred the European Commission to look (at last) for alternative sources. “We cannot let any third country destabilize our energy markets or influence our energy choices,” commissioner Kadri Simson told the New York Times. Unfortunately, they seem to be thinking very much inside the box, with an emphasis on “renewables and energy efficiency.”

Another path, better for the climate than liquefied natural gas and more reliable than renewables is in plain sight—nuclear power. The world’s demand for energy is not going to diminish, but only increase in the coming century. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that world energy demand will increase 50 percent by 2050, led by growth in Asia:

The OECD countries cannot in conscience deny development to the world’s poorer nations after we’ve enjoyed the benefits of fossil-fuel-based growth and been responsible for the resulting pollution. Besides, those nations won’t agree to measures that limit their rates of growth. Nor can we delude ourselves that renewables, at the current state of technology, can take up all the slack created by giving up fossil fuels.

Amazingly, there is an existing technology that can produce the energy the world needs without harming the climate. And yet we hesitate.

Nuclear power is the key to limiting climate change and hobbling some of the world’s worst aggressors.

If we’re serious about both problems, we’ll clear the air of superstitions about nuclear power. Nuclear power plants cannot explode like nuclear bombs. They require much less land than solar or wind. Nuclear waste must be handled carefully but new reactors use 96 percent recycled nuclear waste and the rest can be safely buried. The U.S. Navy has been powering ships with nuclear reactors since the late 1950s. Here’s a summary of their safety record from the Naval Post:

U.S. Nuclear Powered Warships (NPWs) have safely operated for more than 50 years without experiencing any reactor accident or any release of radioactivity that hurt human health or had an adverse effect on marine life. Naval reactors have an outstanding record of over 134 million miles safely steamed on nuclear power, and they have amassed over 5700 reactor-years of safe operation. Currently, the U.S. has more than 80 nuclear-powered ships (aircraft carriers, submarines) These NPWs make up about forty percent of major U.S. naval combatants, and they visit over 150 ports in over 50 countries, including approximately 70 ports in the U.S. and three in Japan.

Nothing is perfect. One death from radiation exposure at the Fukushima power plant has been noted by the Japanese government: a worker who died of lung cancer in 2018, seven years after the tsunami and meltdowns.

But if we are in a new hard-headed era, we will evaluate tradeoffs like adults. Are we serious about choking off the source of Putin’s power or not? Are we serious about combating climate change without illusions that wind and solar will do the job? Nuclear power can be a major part of the solution to both challenges.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].