Biden Bans Russian Oil Imports

It’s a symbolic move—with potentially big geopolitical consequences.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on March 8.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on March 8.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on March 8. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Putin’s War

The United States announced Tuesday that it would ban Russian oil and gas imports, its latest effort to choke Russia’s economic lifeline nearly two weeks after Moscow invaded Ukraine again.

Banning Russian oil is a significant shift for Washington, which has long resisted targeting the sector out of concern for the West’s energy security. Even as Western nations unrolled a slew of unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia, they were always careful to avoid Russia’s oil and energy sectors, upon which Europe is heavily reliant. Russia is the world’s third-largest oil producer, and more than half of its crude oil exports are sent to Europe.

“Russian energy sanctions are the ultimate economic trump card,” said Nikos Tsafos, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We thought we were going to play it much later.” 

The United States announced Tuesday that it would ban Russian oil and gas imports, its latest effort to choke Russia’s economic lifeline nearly two weeks after Moscow invaded Ukraine again.

Banning Russian oil is a significant shift for Washington, which has long resisted targeting the sector out of concern for the West’s energy security. Even as Western nations unrolled a slew of unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia, they were always careful to avoid Russia’s oil and energy sectors, upon which Europe is heavily reliant. Russia is the world’s third-largest oil producer, and more than half of its crude oil exports are sent to Europe.

“Russian energy sanctions are the ultimate economic trump card,” said Nikos Tsafos, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We thought we were going to play it much later.” 

The United States imports a tiny amount of crude oil from Russia, and a bit more in processed products. Experts say that Washington’s decision was a largely symbolic one, reflective of mounting political pressure and the economic ramifications of the escalating war. On Monday, oil prices rose to their highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis. In recent days, oil giants Shell, BP, and Exxon Mobil also announced that they would break off ties with the country and phase out their operations there. 

The U.S. ban on oil imports “doesn’t deliver a lot of pain to Russia, but it is an indication of where things stand,” Tsafos said. “Russian energy looks a lot more precarious today than it looked two weeks ago.” 

Now, the question is whether European allies—all of which are much more dependent on Russia’s supply of energy—will follow suit. As pressure grows, several other European countries are also expected to target Russia’s oil sector, albeit less severely. On Tuesday, Britain announced that it would gradually phase out Russian oil imports by the end of 2022, while the European Commission pledged to cut its imports of Russian gas by two-thirds in the same time frame and become energy independent by 2030. It amounts to an explicit rebuke to a country that has sought for years, despite repeatedly using energy for blackmail, to portray itself as a reliable supplier.

“We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”

Other countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have been publicly hesitant to sever ties, citing their dependence on the Kremlin’s supply, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte calling their dependence a “painful reality.”

The Kremlin was, unsurprisingly, angered by the possibility of a ban on energy exports. As the United States weighed the decision on Monday, Russian officials threatened to halt gas shipments through the original Nord Stream gas pipeline to Germany and warned of skyrocketing prices. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced that he would severely limit both exports and imports of certain raw materials and goods.

“It is absolutely clear that a rejection of Russian oil would lead to catastrophic consequences for the global market,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said. “The surge in prices would be unpredictable.”

To cushion some of the potential economic shocks and secure alternative oil supplies, the United States is now attempting to strike deals with oil-rich countries once seen as pariahs in their own right. Biden administration officials are reportedly considering visiting Saudi Arabia about its oil supply, according to Axios. This past weekend, several senior Biden administration officials also visited Venezuela, home to the world’s biggest oil reserves, to discuss its oil imports. The Biden administration is also in talks with Iran on a revised nuclear deal that could free up oil for the global market.

“If we’re going to try to totally boycott Russian energy exports to the West or Russian oil exports to the West, you’re going to have to get every barrel you can get, wherever you can get it, to make do,” Tsafos said. “You got to talk to everyone.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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