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Say no to Russia: A good bipartisan push to reduce energy purchases

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Sens. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), left, and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) are part of a bipartisan effort to reduce U.S. use of Russian energy.

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A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, are leading a bipartisan charge on an important national security and foreign policy issue — reducing America’s use of Russian energy.

To many, it may come as a surprise that America relies at all on energy from a longtime rival. We do, and others do, too. Much of Europe relies on Russian oil, natural gas, and electricity. U.S. use of Russian energy has continued even as America’s leaders recalibrate other aspects of the foreign-trade calculus — taking on China’s steel-dumping, targeting South Korea over cheap washing machines and re-examining ties with the European Union, for example.

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U.S. military bases use “significant” amounts of Russian energy, senators noted last week in a statement warning the Pentagon to begin making alternate arrangements. The senators formally raised the issue in a July 25 letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis. Some of the signatories, including Pennsylvania’s Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey are known for working together on various issues despite Washington’s partisan rancor, so their meeting of the minds on this issue is not unusual.

Co-signing the letter, however, were 11 colleagues representing the breadth of the political spectrum, including Democrats such as Mr. Brown and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona. This unusual chorus of voices shows just how important and urgent the matter is.

The National Defense Authorization Act, the annual budget bill for the military, includes language calling for reduced use of Russian energy. The senators’ letter was either a gentle reminder or a kick in the pants, depending on one’s point of view.

“As the Department of Defense continues to fulfill its mission in Europe,” the senators wrote, “it is imperative that our military’s operations are insulated from any possible Russian manipulation or disruption of the energy supply.” Despite the directive to reduce the use of Russian energy, they noted, the Army may make the decision to power a new medical center at Rhine Ordnance Barracks in Germany with a generator requiring Russian natural gas.

It isn’t just that Russia’s manipulation of energy could disrupt American military operations. They can disrupt the operations of our allies, too, and even bend some nations’ foreign policy to Russian will.

In a paper last year, Gabriel Collins of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy identified at least 15 instances, dating to 1990, in which Soviet or Russian officials “used price and physical volume manipulation of crude oil or natural gas supplies—often amid political tensions—to pressure consumers located in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries.” Often, he said, the officials used customer disputes or debts as a pretext for action really taken for geopolitical reasons.

What does the future hold? Mr. Collins suggested that access to Russian energy could be used to dissuade one country from coming to the aid of another threatened by Moscow or of opposing sanctions against Russia.

America would safeguard its interests by cutting back on Russian energy sooner rather than later. As the senators’ letter noted, such a move also would set an example for other nations that need to cut back themselves.

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