The urgent search for a sustainable transatlantic energy strategy

For nearly its entire administration, the Obama team has been caught in a constant loop of crises. From Tahrir Square to Maidan Square, from Fukushima to the ADIZ, the 44th president has been unable to attend to the hard work of getting the American economy — and the global economy it anchors — onto a prosperous, secure and sustainable footing. Now a window is opening to do that hard work, and Washington should not let it pass.

Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimea and continued Russian provocations in Eastern Ukraine in recent days has pushed the Obama Administration to consider more robust options. In a series of meetings happening this week in Washington, the Obama Administration is conferring with EU and German leaders over how to put pressure on Moscow to reverse course and return to the status quo ante. There is talk among Americans of invoking NATO's Chapter 5, requiring collective self-defense, for those NATO members closest to Russia.

Except this is not what the Germans want. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression against Ukraine cannot stand, military options are not on the table. Berlin is clear-eyed on this: Neither Europeans nor Americans are willing to die for Ukraine — why escalate in a direction neither wants to go? A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed more Americans want to pull back from an activist foreign policy. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and there is no treaty obligation. Further, the Germans have seen what happens when America draws a line in the sand and then does nothing.

Bigger than sanctions: A move away from carbon

Make no mistake, the Germans I spoke with this week are serious. Putin invaded Georgia. Putin annexed Crimea. Now, his apparent determination to keep all of Ukraine from entering the 21st century has confirmed his true nature and intentions. It is time to deal with the Putin problem.

Instead of a symbolic and provocative military deployment, the Germans want to explore an aggressive economic strategy. But don't think sanctions. Think bigger. Putin needs to be stopped. Russian forces and surrogates need to withdraw from Ukraine. To do this without troops requires an implosion. Historically, this would be similar to when Eisenhower prepared to collapse the British pound if the U.K., France and Israel did not withdraw from the Suez Canal in 1956.

Oil rig image by ekina via Shutterstock.In fact, it's bigger than Suez. It is not sufficient to brandish the threat and allow Russia to withdraw its forces and just wait for his next aggression. Given Putin's record, this is about ending Russia's ability to coerce its neighbors through control of Eurasian oil and gas supplies and transit routes. The only way to do that is to dramatically and permanently reduce European purchases of Russian oil and gas. Because Putin's regime is completely dependent on revenues from European sales of oil and gas, the effect of such a policy may well trigger the second collapse of the Soviet Union.

Berlin has good reason to contemplate this course of action. Germany's Energiewende, or post-Fukushima transition to renewables, already has shown that modern economies can make a rapid and profitable shift away from hydrocarbons — without relying on nuclear energy or fracking. In addition, Europe has invested significantly in updating its infrastructure to be able to shift natural gas supplies around the continent, retrofitting pipelines to make them reversible. It even has a decent strategic gas reserve.

However, the Germans I spoke with are not so keen on just shifting their dependency, even to North America. Nor will they frack their own land. Far more keenly than their American partners, they understand the bigger picture — that any major investment in new energy infrastructure in Europe has to be consistent with putting Europe and the global economy on a path toward mitigating the threat from catastrophic climate change. In the great scheme of things, Russia's pugilistic irredentism is a sideshow compared to the devastation that would ensue if we cross the climate's point of no return, somewhere between 1.5-2.0 degrees of warming, a point not far off.

Further, these climate risks are mounting at the same time the data clearly indicate lasting supply constraints in the oil market. Oil production is not keeping up with demand, conventional oil production is falling, and the industry is paying trillions to prop the system up.

Add it all together, especially in light of the significant number of jobs created in the last three years of German energy transition, and you'll see that the country's leaders are looking at more than just a bargaining tactic. Europe, indeed the entire world, needs to transition away from fossil fuel combustion. Putin has now delivered the excuse to initiate an economic transition to which it would have been otherwise very difficult to rally Europeans and Americans.

Three steps to reduce European and U.S. carbon dependency

It's time for Obama to be the visionary leader he was elected to be and craft decisive strategic energy partnership between the United States and Europe that embraces our shared climate responsibilities and forces Russia out of Ukraine and onto a productive strategic path.

To do this, we'll have to make history.

First, we'll have to improvise a transitional supply of natural gas while Europe builds a better energy system and shift oil cargoes to European ports and use our own strategic reserve to ease prices. Second, we'll need to make sure Europe gets the distributed generation, smart grid components and mobility infrastructure it cannot source internally. Third, Germany will have to commit to finance a new Ukraine.

Here in America, we'll need an overarching grand strategy to position America to lead the larger global transition to sustainability this policy would trigger while assuring markets that we're not going to strand all that unburnable carbon and cause a market shock.

Or, we can roll the dice with a military escalation, without the support of our key European allies, or our own people.

History is being made in Ukraine. The question is, will we be its authors, or its victims? The choice is ours.

Alternative energy image by jaroslava V via Shutterstock