This article by Randy Teague originally appeared in National Review. You can find the original article here.
Last month, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested by Russian security apparatchiks. He is now detained in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison, awaiting what Russia intends to be a show trial meant to discourage other Western reporters from reporting the truth on its blatant violations of international law and norms, both including and beyond its war of aggression against Ukraine.
The decision to arrest Gershkovich must have been instigated at the highest level of the Kremlin. This is no small feat; it’s the first time an American reporter has been arrested on Russian government orders since the end of the Cold War. We can assume Gershkovich is being subjected to threatening interrogations about the identities of his sources. In this and much else, Russia’s tactics have changed little since the Cold War.
Gershkovich was simply doing what experienced reporters do: gathering and verifying information from which to report accurate stories of interest to readers, a process made difficult (and profoundly dangerous) by the fact that today’s Russia is a place that conceals truth and punishes those who aim to reveal it. While Americans see Gershkovich’s work as an example of press freedom and truth-seeking, the Russian regime views it as gathering information that bolsters Ukraine’s strength on the battlefield and its stature in Europe, the U.S., and beyond. To stop this, Putin will punish Gershkovich and his sources in the most extreme ways.
Unfortunately, the Russians have turned these and other brutal acts into displays of power designed to bolster their own interests. They assess the risks but proceed anyway, knowing they are better at achieving their objectives through prisoner swaps than President Biden and his team are. Putin thinks strategically, while the Biden team only thinks reactively, a weak substitute for a deterrence strategy.
Putin’s plan here is straightforward: He intends to make a show of punishing Gershkovich in order to scare off other journalists who are still working in Russia, then eventually trade Gershkovich’s freedom for the release of one of Putin’s cronies from an American prison. It’s the same play he ran during the exchange of highly effective arms dealer Viktor Bout for the WNBA’s Brittney Griner after her arrest in Russia.
The U.S. wound up getting the short end of the stick in that exchange. Why? When Biden negotiated the swap, he was rewarded by universal praise by the American media, but the matter did not end there. When Griner returned to the basketball courts, Bout likely returned to securing arms for the Russian military, which will use those arms to increase the number of dead, wounded, or captured Ukrainian men, women, and children in Russia’s quest for a victory there.
Because the U.S. generally imprisons actual Russian spies, while Russia arrests innocents who have exchange value and falsely accuses them of spying, we’re never going to win these prisoner swaps. And it doesn’t stop there. Because of the administration’s reactive posture, Putin keeps winning larger confrontations with the United States, as well. How? The U.S. slaps on sanctions as porous as fishnets, which do little beyond annoying a handful of officials and oligarchs. Abroad, the internationalization of these sanctions is widely ignored, including by key European countries such as Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.
We must think beyond weak sanctions and rigged prisoner swaps toward additional ways to strengthen our position and increase the pressure on Moscow. One place to start is to recognize that the strength of the Russian economy rests mainly on its income from oil exports. In fact, Russia is now earning about $13 billion monthly from such sales. We should target Russia’s jugular by going after that income.
How? Russia wants to increase its income from oil exports even further. Cuts in production by OPEC, as well as Biden administration opposition to building pipelines and increasing U.S. domestic oil production, help raise the price per barrel in global markets and enrich Russia. Instead, President Biden should expand U.S. production, including reopening fracking and streamlining permitting of domestic energy projects. This increase in supply, as well as the initial signals it would send to global energy markets, would reduce the price of each barrel, thereby returning us to the energy independence of the post-Obama years, stoking domestic economic recovery, and inflicting financial pain on Russia and its oil-dependent economy.
While this seems like a mere policy choice, the stakes for the U.S. and other free nations are high. Putin wants the U.S. to end its support of Ukraine so he can fold it back into a reconstituted version of the Soviet Union. Georgia and Moldova would probably be next, because Russian troops already occupy much territory in their neighborhoods. Then, it would be either the Baltics or the Eurasian republics. In the process, Putin would continue to snuff out Western values like freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
It will take more than one policy action to help Ukraine win its freedom and defeat Putin, but staying united around the goal of getting Evan Gershkovich home and closing off Russia’s oil-revenue streams can be major steps in the right direction.
Randy Teague is the chairman of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS).