Talking Points

The moral mess of banning Russian oil

For Americans, the idealistic part of the Russo-Ukraine war is about to end.

The U.S. appears to be closer to imposing a ban on Russian oil imports, part of an effort to cripple the country's funding for its invasion of Ukraine. That should be popular: A remarkable 80 percent of Americans support the move. But that ban will probably result in a closer embrace of countries and regimes that many of us rightly loathe.

For example: Axios reports U.S. officials are considering a trip to Saudi Arabia to persuade that kingdom's rulers to start pumping more oil to replace the lost Russian production. Those are the same rulers who ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and whom President Biden once promised to make a "pariah." Similarly, the Biden Administration is looking to start the oil flowing from Venezuela, a country under sanction since 2017 — and whose leader, President Nicolás Maduro, is particularly detested by U.S. conservatives.

"Rather than produce more American oil [Biden] wants to replace the oil we buy from one murderous dictator with oil from another murderous dictator," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) grumbled Sunday about the Venezuela reports. (At least one major U.S. oil executive says ramping up domestic production wouldn't be quite that easy.) 

The best thing to happen, of course, would be to start a massive shift toward renewable energy, would be even slower. In the meantime, we need energy, and it's not clear Americans will tolerate paying more than $4 a gallon for gas without punishing our leaders. We have only bad choices.

This is what happens in wartime: You make a deal with the devil in order to avert some greater evil. The United States allied with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany, then opened the doors to China — on the cusp of its most violently repressive era — to contain the Soviets. Conflict always means such brutal choices. There's no way to do this cleanly.

"Let me put it this way," Emma Ashford, a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, wrote Monday on Twitter. "You can either have your democracy vs. autocracy frame, or you can have oil sanctions on Russia. Impossible without working with some authoritarian states, just as we did in the Cold War."

It's right to embrace the underdog Ukrainians fighting a tyrant like Russia's Vladimir Putin. But for now, doing so effectively means linking up with regimes — bad guys — we don't necessarily like or find exemplary. It was ever thus.