What Trump understood – and Biden didn't – about holding back Russian aggression

Better late than never, the Biden administration has discovered the benefits of using energy as a tool of American global strategy.

One positive outcome of the president’s trip to Europe last week was the announcement of a new partnership with the European Union to cut Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. Under the terms of the deal, the United States will supply an additional 15 billion cubic meters of liquified natural gas (LNG) for Europe this year and expand sales to 50 billion cubic meters annually by 2030.

This will completely wean Europe off of Russian gas. Meanwhile, Europe will develop expanded gas storage facilities, build port infrastructure to offload shipped LNG and make gas-powered facilities more efficient.

“It’s not only the right thing to do from a moral standpoint,” President Joe Biden said Friday, “it’s going to put us on a much stronger strategic footing.”

Long-term investment in stability

Shifting Europe’s energy dependence away from Russia and toward other sources, especially the United States, is a long-term investment in stability. This might have been underway much sooner had the White House understood the positive aspects of promoting American energy influence.

President Donald Trump at a meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels in 2017.

Donald Trump had laid out this same strategy in 2017, specifically as a means of reducing Russia’s leverage in Europe. The approach was codified as part of a larger trade deal with the EU in 2018.

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However, the Biden administration reversed course on the effort to marginalize Russian energy influence. In 2021, the White House dropped U.S. sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would ship Russian LNG directly to Europe. It was pitched as a means of mending ties with Europe.

Even at the time, it was clear that the deal not only rewarded Russia but also could potentially destabilize Eastern Europe by giving Moscow a gas route that bypassed Ukraine.

Zelenskyy saw danger in building pipeline

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy believed that Nord Stream 2 was a geopolitical weapon being used by the Kremlin to increase European dependence on Russian energy and to marginalize and weaken Ukraine.

A September report noted, “There are fears that Nord Stream 2 could facilitate a possible Russian invasion, as Moscow will no longer have to worry about Ukraine's gas infrastructure to supply its main European customers.”

The Biden team countered that completing the pipeline gave the U.S. “leverage” over Russia, although it was never clear what the leverage entailed or how it could be used if it even existed.

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As late as January, with Russian troops poised to invade, the White House was fighting off attempts to reimpose pipeline sanctions. In fact, Nord Stream 2 handed all the cards to Putin, and the war in Ukraine came as predicted. The American leverage was illusory.

Real strategic leverage comes from using national power and advantage, which is the point of resurrecting the Trump strategy of turning Europe away from dependence on Russia.

U.S. emerged as energy giant

The United States has become an energy giant in recent years by rapidly increasing production of oil and natural gas. In 2019, the United States became a net energy producer for the first time since 1957. That made the country more energy self-sufficient and gave policymakers new strategic tools in shaping global stability.

Higher energy output lowered global prices, denuding the coffers of adversary states like Russia, Iran and Venezuela, while boosting U.S. gross domestic product.

The surge in energy production also decreased the ability of OPEC nations to influence events and gave Washington more flexibility addressing world crises.

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Checking gas prices in Buffalo Grove, Ill., on March 26, 2022.

The current energy price spike, whether caused by COVID-related supply chain issues or the Biden administration’s initial hostility to fossil fuels, illustrates the importance in keeping energy production growing.

Naturally the White House had to give a nod to renewable energy in the new deal – a task force will hold meetings about developing infrastructure for wind and solar power, for example – but this is a token move to placate progressives nervous about increasing production of fossil fuels.

Biden administration reversed course

A more accurate reflection of the Biden administration’s direction came from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission abruptly ramping back on imposing strict new environmental guidelines on natural gas pipelines. Green power is on the back burner.

The LNG deal with Europe is not a quick fix to the Ukraine crisis, but it does reflect a new sobriety and maturity in the Biden administration’s assessment of using American energy as an element of national power.

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James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive," is academic dean ad interim at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump understood, and Biden didn't, that energy was a weapon for Putin