Putin and his band of oligarchs have a lot in common with the lords of the 19th century “Cotton Kingdom,” the “slave power” that took the Southern states to war to defend their empire, the catastrophe known as the American Civil War. Just as the South’s antebellum economy was almost solely dependent on cotton, the Russian economy is heavily reliant on energy exports. A “gas station with nuclear weapons” is how the late Senator John McCain aptly described it.
Russia has long-since ceased being a “country” in the usual sense; it’s a kleptocracy that serves as a home base for Vladimir Putin and several hundred oligarchs who own and control its vast riches. Much of the oligarch’s wealth may actually belong to Putin, but given the volume of money laundering, shell companies, and offshore tax havens employed it’s hard to know for certain who owns what. No matter, the major source of that wealth is energy exports. Meanwhile, the majority of Russia’s citizens remain poor and powerless in the good old tradition of serfdom. (A situation all too similar to the antebellum South, where the majority of the populous consisted of dirt-poor whites and enslaved African Americans.) Although similar authoritarian kleptocracies exist around the globe, with the notable exception of China they’re much smaller and don’t have nuclear weapons or seats on the United Nations Security Council.
The U.S. and the rest of the world are right to aim their sanctions at Putin and his oligarchs rather than the Russian people, who should not be held responsible for the horrors being committed against Ukraine. To the degree they support the war, it’s because they are fed a barrage of misinformation by Russian state television, including Putin’s ridiculous, obscene contention that the war’s objective is “denazification.” The majority of the Russian people are already suffering hardship based on economic disruptions and the crash of the ruble, and there’s reason to think that targeting Putin and his oligarchs directly is more likely to hurt the beast where it counts.
Why didn’t the U.S. and the rest of the world sanction Russian oil and gas back in 1999, when Putin killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Chechnya, leveling the city of Grozny (the UN called it the “most destroyed city on the planet”), or in 2015, when he killed thousands more in Aleppo, Syria? It isn’t just fear of Russia’s nuclear arsenal; politicians’ fear of higher energy prices is a pretty sorry excuse for not cutting off Russia’s main source of income.
This Time Putin Should Be Tried for War Crimes!
Russia’s primary source of wealth has not been sanctioned, however—its energy exports, the very heart of the “gas station.” To really hurt Putin and his oligarchs, the world (including India and China!) needs to bite the bullet and ban Russia’s energy exports. Don’t forget, the Southern “slave power” only existed for as long as it did because it used cotton to hold the world captive. You might recall the words of one defiant Southern senator in the years leading up to the war: “You dare not make war upon cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king.” Unfortunately, today oil and gas are king.
The big difference, of course, is that the slave power didn’t have the world’s largest nuclear arsenal; thank God the atom bomb wasn’t invented until some 80 years after the Cotton Kingdom’s demise. The antebellum slave power controlled 60% of the world’s cotton production, but Russia only controls 17% of the world’s natural gas and 12% of its oil, so if it weren’t for the nuclear threat, Putin and his oligarchs would have considerably less clout than their spiritual forbearers.