President Joe Biden’s urgent global search for assistance in cutting off Russia’s oil revenues is leading to regimes he once sought to isolate or avoid.
Over the weekend, Biden administration officials traveled to Venezuela for talks about potentially allowing the country to sell its oil on the international market, thereby helping to replace Russian fuel. Biden may travel to Saudi Arabia as the US attempts to persuade the kingdom to increase its output. Furthermore, a looming nuclear agreement could bring significant volumes of Iranian oil back onto the market.
Prior to the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict, Caracas, Riyadh, and Tehran would have seemed unlikely sources of relief for a Biden-led Western alliance. However, Russia’s invasion has upended international relations, forcing the United States and other countries to seek solutions in places they had previously avoided.
Officials in the Biden administration are weighing a variety of factors in determining the next steps. Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, which has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, has put enormous pressure on Western countries to cut their energy ties with Moscow, including from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for a ban on Russian energy in a videoconference call with American lawmakers on Saturday.
US imports from Russia account for a small portion of the energy universe, accounting for roughly 8% in 2021, with crude oil accounting for only about 3%. Officials say White House economic officials have been debating how to handle any decision to halt those imports for more than a week. According to the Department of Energy, Russian oil imports dropped to zero in the last two weeks of February as US companies severed ties with Russia, effectively enforcing their own ban.
These efforts have intensified in recent days, and according to three sources familiar with the decision, Biden is expected to announce a ban on Russian energy imports on Tuesday morning.
Top American allies have said publicly and privately that if the US targets Russian energy imports, it will most likely be acting alone. This has raised its own concerns, as US officials are wary of taking any action that would destabilize the carefully coordinated alliance that has served as the focal point of the response thus far.
Russia typically exports about 5 million barrels of crude per day, with half of that going to Europe. Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, could help close the gap, but the country has been plagued by persistent output problems. Iran produced approximately 4 million barrels per day prior to the imposition of sanctions. Saudi Arabia has spare capacity to increase output, but it has been unwilling to do so thus far.
The effort to identify oil supplies, even in autocratic regimes, demonstrates Biden’s willingness to go to great lengths to inflict serious pain on Moscow. He has long framed his presidency as a defense of democracy against creeping authoritarianism, accusing his predecessor of cozying up to the world’s strongmen. However, reducing the world’s reliance on one autocrat’s energy supplies may necessitate turning to another.
It’s unclear whether the administration’s efforts will bear fruit. Venezuela’s socialist leader, Nicolás Maduro, is Russia’s most important Latin American ally. Saudi Arabia has so far refused to increase production, though officials remain optimistic about a breakthrough. And a resurrected Iran nuclear deal remains elusive, owing in part to new demands from Russia, a partner in the international talks.
Nonetheless, Biden administration officials remain focused on identifying potential energy supplies that could replace Russia’s exports. While US officials believe it is not in Russia’s best interests to weaponize its energy exports, the risk that this could happen, as well as the need to protect European allies, has influenced the efforts, officials said.
On Monday, it reached its highest level since 2008. Brent crude, the global benchmark, briefly reached $139 per barrel, representing a more than 35% increase in just one month. The ramifications of significant price spikes have been a significant concern inside the White House, with Biden bringing up the need to mitigate the issue in private meetings.