Was Biden Right to Ban Russian Oil?

Some readers say it’s a moral imperative; others say there’s no way to buy oil with a clean conscience.

gas price sign
Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Friday, he publishes some thoughtful replies.

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Earlier this week I asked readers if Joe Biden made the right call when he banned energy imports from Russia, acknowledging that doing so would cause gas prices to rise even higher than they were before.

Jack supports the move despite the burden to American consumers like him:

Assuming that Biden’s decision not to fire a live round in a war is wise and final, then he’s stuck with driving in the economic dagger as damagingly as possible. From here on out, every move will be weighed against an imperative to raise costs for Putin. Cutting off oil sales hurts badly. It pains me, but it pains Putin more. No brainer. Twist the knife.

Nancy argues that solidarity with Ukraine compels the ban on Russian oil:

Asking if Joe Biden made the right call is essentially asking whether we believe that paying more for gas is an acceptable cost for preventing civilians being killed. If we, as citizens of the world, do not stand up for and together with the people being savaged, the terror will never end.

Stephen agrees:

We must adopt a wartime mentality. We are fighting against a cruel, despotic interventionist and should not be enhancing his coffers by the importation of his nation’s oil. We need to display the same sort of determination and resoluteness that the Ukrainians are, and do our part to repel Putin’s efforts to impose his will on a sovereign nation.

But Scott is against the ban on Russian oil, and critical of the larger American approach to the crisis, echoing allegations by the GOP that U.S. involvement in the country is driven by greed:

Biden made the wrong call. China and India will probably consume most of the oil that the US and the EU have sanctioned and now we are going hat in hand to Libya, Iran and Venezuela begging for oil, while Jen Psaki gaslights the country about why we can’t drill domestically. This will bring great pain to Americans already suffering from historically high prices as a result of our inflationary policies during the pandemic for very little benefit to the Ukrainians. If we had really wanted to avoid war there, we would have withdrawn the needlessly provocative invitation to NATO. But then I guess that would have limited the elite’s ability to participate in graft and corruption there. Instead, we tendered the offer without commitment and now the Ukrainians are suffering.

Errol is opposed to the ban, too:

If we stop buying from Russia, then we’re just supporting other authoritarian regimes with our money. Stephen Colbert said “A clear conscience is worth a buck or two.” Well, how clear is your conscience knowing that instead of Putin getting your money, it’s Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or Iraq, or Iran. How good can we feel shifting one bad guy for another? It just doesn’t make sense on any level other than not looking bad in the moment. It’s a fatalistic view to say that there’s no way to buy dead dinosaurs with a clean conscience, but that’s the truth. It’s a pretty big downer. You shouldn’t buy gas at all if you’re worried about who you’re supporting, and that’s aside from environmental impact.

“Well we have to do something.”

Yes, we do. Make electric cars cheaper and cooler. And have fewer regulations on clean energy. We are in a crisis that involves the future of the people on this planet and the funding of anti-democratic countries. We have to switch to nuclear, solar and water power asap, and that means making it faster and cheaper than current regulations allow.

Dean is skeptical of sanctions more generally as a response to this conflict:

To what end are we sanctioning Russia?

Zelensky has excoriated the West’s sanctions as being “not enough,” and he has a point. If the thought is that sanctions will make the war in Ukraine too costly for Russia to carry out (whether because of insolvency or more indirect costs), I’m skeptical that the sanctions will have this effect in the short term. In the short term, the sanctions could even create a perverse incentive for Russia to intensify its war efforts in hopes of achieving a military victory before the coffers run dry and the sanctions achieve their purpose.

Why, then, do we sanction Russia? I see little more than posturing on the West’s part. While Ukraine suffers from the continuation of the war, the West has satisfied itself that it has done something meaningful. It has not. Sanctions will not force Russia to the table to negotiate a peace anytime soon, but Ukraine, if it is to avoid ruination, needs peace now. If the West truly cared for Ukraine, it would be working tirelessly for a peaceful resolution to the war now, rather than working tirelessly to develop an increasingly elaborate scheme of sanctions that will do little material good in the short term.

And Eric argues that even before recent spikes in the cost of gasoline and the accompanying sticker shock at the pumps, we were paying a high price for this commodity––we just didn’t fully realize it:

The price of oil was already high if you account for the damage and suffering that carbon-fueled climate change inflicts. And Vladimir Putin’s machine of cruelty isn’t the only repression that oil finances. The top 10 oil producing countries account for 72% of global production. Of those 10, Freedom House rates only three as free, with an abysmal average score of 39 out of 100 for the entire group. Because the world largely refuses to pay for the negative externalities of pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the price of oil is artificially cheap. Before sanctions, oil already cost the world dearly.