Much of the world is united in opposition, not to mention in revulsion, to what Joe Biden is now calling “Putin’s war” in Ukraine, which, every day, seems to be increasingly a war directed toward Ukrainian civilians.
Soon, we’ll find out if the opposition includes American consumers, now that Biden has put a total ban on Russian exports to America of oil and gas. Gas prices, already sitting at more than four bucks a gallon, are expected to go higher. If you believe the polls — and this once, I do and without reservations — we should already know the answer.
According to every poll I’ve seen, Americans are overwhelmingly prepared to make this sacrifice. After all, how big a sacrifice could that be when compared with what we see from Ukranians every day on cable TV news as we check in on the latest devastation.
In announcing the ban Tuesday, Biden conceded that “defending freedom is going to cost.”
But here’s a suggestion. We may want to recall those numbers — 71% in favor of Biden’s ban on Russian exports of oil and gas, via the latest Quinnipiac poll — when Republicans inevitably blame Biden and Democrats for high prices at the gas pumps in time for the November midterm elections.
We’re already hearing from the expected quarters that if Biden hadn’t canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, we’d have plenty of oil to spare. Let’s call the pipeline story what it is — a pipe dream. In any case, the pipeline wouldn’t be completed for at least a year, and it’s not as if the oil is just sitting there in Canada waiting for Biden’s approval.
Biden made the move although European allies weren’t quite prepared to begin a ban — yet. Great Britain says it will have a complete ban in place by the end of the year. From the European Union, which is far more heavily reliant on Russian gas and oil than the U.S. or the U.K, the promise is for an eventual two-thirds reduction.
According to an interesting piece in The Atlantic, the war also risks an impact on world food supplies, as Russia and Ukraine combine to account for nearly 25% of the world’s wheat exports.
The longer the fighting goes on, the more pain everyone will feel, and not just Putin’s oligarch buddies, those unseemly billionaires who, tragically, have seen their mega-yachts seized by some of the world’s most effective repo men.
Most of the pain, of course, is felt in Ukraine, from which, we’re told, more than 2 million refugees have already left despite broken Russian promises for “humanitarian corridors” that would allow ordinary Ukrainians to leave cities under siege. It seems to be easier to get Western arms into Ukraine than it does to get food and medicine there. In a rare piece of good news, though, Russia did apparently allow a few hundred Ukranians to escape from the constant shelling in Kyiv on Tuesday. It could be a humanitarian gesture. Or it could also be part of the legal case Putin is building should he ever be charged with war crimes.
It’s amazing, in this high-tech world, how successfully Putin has been able to block much of the news of Ukraine from getting into Russia. I guess it helps if you’re a dictator who can prevent reporters from using words like “invasion” or “war” to describe what’s happening in Ukraine. This is not a suggestion; it’s a new Russian law, one that threatens as much as 15 years in jail for printing or broadcasting “false information,” which is apparently the Russian equivalent of “fake news.” I can think of at least one former president — hint: he’s also among Putin’s few remaining allies — who must be envious.
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In a surreal scene Tuesday, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the British Parliament in a video streamed from his office in Kyiv. Zelenskyy, whose leadership and personal bravery have already accorded him hero status in Ukraine and much of the world, was cheered in London. And give credit to Zelenskyy, the former comedian and actor. He knew his audience.
Evoking Churchill, Zelenskyy told Parliament, “We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, on the shores, in the streets.”
He moved on to Shakespeare: “The question for us now is to be or not to be,” Zelenskyy said. “I can give you a definitive answer: It’s definitely to be.”
Zelenskyy is growing even bolder. The fact that Zelenskyy refused advice from nearly everyone to leave Kyiv is given much of the credit for the surprisingly stiff resistance Ukrainian soldiers and citizens have put up against the superior, in numbers and weaponry, Russian troops. But now that the Russian military knows that Zelenskyy actually spends time in his office, that puts him at even greater risk.
As we know, Russia never expected this kind of opposition. Putin clearly thought that Ukraine would fold quickly, but after two weeks, it’s the Russian military that is under assault, especially from the ex-generals doing color commentary on your favorite cable TV news station — whether left, right or center. And the sanctions much of the world has placed on Russia have been deep and apparently effective.
Still, banning Russian oil is a big step, particularly in a time of inflation, and one that Biden was not eager to take. Some are saying that Biden is walking into a political trap, but I guess he already knows as much. The fact is that his disastrous polling numbers have begun to inch up since his handling of the Ukraine crisis. And however Americans come to view gas prices in, say, November, public opinion gives Biden little choice today.
The question now for America and its allies is how much more they can do. In his speech to Parliament, Zelenskyy again begged for NATO to institute a no-fly zone. It’s not going to happen. The risks are too great. Even Senate hawks like Marco Rubio say it “means starting World War III.”
There was the one obvious thing left to be done — and that was banning Russia’s oil exports, which will hurt its economy far more than any other available sanction. It’s a political gamble for Biden, but I don’t think he had much choice. Even though many Americans were unwilling to make the great sacrifice of wearing a mask during a pandemic, they seem prepared to sacrifice this time when it comes to paying more at the pump.
At least for now.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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