Americans are worried about the price of gas at the pump, fueled by the panic in the world oil market caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thus far, comprehensive Western sanctions meant to bring Russia to its economic knees have avoided measures relating to fossil fuels. This has allowed Russia to exploit its chief means of obtaining hard currency from seriously dependent customers in Europe and elsewhere, even as it struggles to cope with other increasingly debilitating economic constraints.
Which begs the question: Why have the West’s sanctions against Russian aggression in Ukraine not included limitations on the lucrative oil and gas sales that keep Vladimir Putin and his cronies in power? And why hasn’t the U.S. announced expanded production, further release of reserves and export of petroleum, and a plan to increase the availability of natural gas to make up for any Russian shortfall?
Economists and energy experts will argue both sides of the question. But from a political perspective, it appears that no one wants to risk a 1970s-like energy crisis, or force Americans to pay too much for wars and international crises. In other words, there is bipartisan reluctance to ask Americans to sacrifice too much in pushing back against the Russian dictator. But if we are really serious about nonmilitary measures to stop a belligerent country from invading and attempting to swallow its neighbors, killing thousands of civilians and setting off a wave of millions of refugees, perhaps we need to consider taking some greater financial risk in order to achieve a moral result.
The analysis is even more complicated for Israel. As a Western democracy, Israel is being called upon to participate in the economic and political boycott of Russia. In the UN General Assembly, Israel was among 141 nations that voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s reach extends to Israel’s northern border, where Iran works to spread its influence in Syria and Lebanon. From time to time, Israel launches air strikes into Syria, which Russia permits, and Israel cannot afford to lose that cooperation.
In addition, there are 600,000 Jews in Russia and tens of thousands of Israelis, many of whom want to return to Israel. Their lifeline to Israel is twice-daily flights on El Al. But once the international sanctions began, insurers of those flights dropped their coverage. And so, at an unannounced 1 a.m. meeting last Thursday, the Knesset Finance Committee agreed to cover uninsured losses up to $2 billion, so that El Al could continue to fly its Tel Aviv-Moscow route.
Then, in a surprising development last Shabbat, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who was criticized for his initial lack of outrage over the Russian invasion, flew to Moscow to meet with Putin. Their three-hour meeting — reportedly preceded by consultations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Biden administration, among others — fueled speculation about Bennett serving as a mediator in the Ukraine conflict. That may be wishful thinking.
Either way, if Putin’s merciless aggression continues in the rapidly deteriorating Ukraine war, the West is going to have to make some hard choices.