Biden warns Russia about more sanctions, but not US 'energy weapon'

Crimean and Russian leaders signed an agreement Tuesday, annexing the Ukrainian peninsula as part of Russia. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden promoted European energy security in Poland and Lithuania, but stopped short of aggressive US oil and gas intervention as a way to counter Russia.    

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, right, pose for media before heading for talks on Eastern Europe’s security, in Warsaw Tuesday. As Moscow tightened its grip on Crimea, Mr. Biden promised additional economic and military protections against Russian incursions into Eastern Europe, at meetings with NATO allies.

Europe is on its own in efforts to wean itself off Russian fuel – for now, at least. 

As Moscow tightened its grip on Crimea, Vice President Joe Biden promised additional economic and military protections against Russian incursions into Eastern Europe, at meetings with NATO allies Tuesday.

The vice president encouraged Europe's own efforts to boost domestic energy production, but stopped short of the kind of aggressive US energy support many have called for in Washington and Brussels. Meanwhile, Russian and Crimean leaders signed an annexation agreement, according to the Kremlin, bringing Moscow a step closer to securing access to Black Sea oil and gas, and further blocking Eastern European forays into energy independence. 

"It’s a simple fact that Russia’s political and economic isolation will only increase if it continues down its current path and it will in fact see additional sanctions by the United States and the EU," Mr. Biden said in Warsaw Tuesday. "Unfortunately, Russia’s leaders have responded with a brazen military incursion, with a purposeful ratcheting up of ethnic tensions inside of Ukraine, with a rushed an illegal referendum in Crimea that was not surprisingly rejected by virtually the entire world – and now today with steps today to annex Crimea."

Boosting US energy exports, or curbing Russia's, would counter the aggression from Moscow, some say, and offer Europe an alternative to the Russian oil and gas it relies on for heating, transportation, and electricity. 

But shipping US oil and gas overseas is easier said than done. The US does not currently have the capital-intensive infrastructure necessary to export gas to Europe, and it isn't likely to have it for at least a couple more years. Oil is technically easier to export, but it would require the reversal of a decades-old ban.

Both options could increase domestic energy prices, and aren't guaranteed to displace Russia's strong grasp on European energy markets. Producers might opt instead to send gas to Asia where they can get a higher price. It's why the White House hasn't rushed to open the spigot, and has opted first to encourage internal European efforts to diversify energy sources and supplies.

"This will help improve energy security and it will ensure that no nation can use the supply of gas as a political weapon against any other nation,"  Biden said. "Today, the Prime Minister and I spoke about steps Poland is taking to reverse natural gas flows into some pipelines to help the Ukrainians access additional supplies of gas if needed."

Another option would be to impose sanctions on Russia's oil and gas industry, which makes up about half of the federal government's revenue. It's a significant debate in Europe, where Russia supplies nearly a third of the European Union's total gas imports. But Russia doesn't provide any gas to the US and makes up only 5 percent of US oil imports, so the administration has yet to include energy as part of its package of sanctions.

"[W]e’re obviously looking at what the United States can do domestically that serves both US interests and European interests," a senior administration official said in a background briefing late Monday. "But in terms of more specifics, we’ll have an opportunity to talk further in the next couple days."

Earlier this month, ambassadors from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia wrote House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, asking Congress to fast-track approvals of natural gas export terminals in a bid to counter Russia's gas influence.

"The presence of US natural gas would be much welcome in Central and Eastern Europe, and Congressional action to expedite LNG exports to America’s allies would come at a critically important time for the region," representatives from the Visegrad countries wrote in the letter. "Energy security is not only a day-to-day issue for millions of citizens in our region, but it is one of the most important security challenges that America’s allies face in Central and Eastern Europe today."

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