Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake hands at a summit in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.
After his submissive appearance alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki last month, President Donald Trump faced some of the most severe and unanimous criticism of his chaotic political career. Members of Trump’s own party called the president “treasonous” and “disgraceful” while commentators speculated that Putin must have serious kompromat on Trump to make him behave so obsequiously. As the media and the FBI connect the dots of Putin and Trump’s relationship, their most obvious common interest in oil goes largely undiscussed.
The oil connection received a lot of attention when Trump appointed ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson Secretary of State. Tillerson had been awarded Russia’s distinguished Order of Friendship and was negotiating an Arctic drilling arrangement, potentially worth trillions of dollars, between Exxon and the Russian government. Sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration in response to Putin’s invasion of Crimea scuttled that deal. Tillerson’s tenure as Secretary of State ended prematurely after reports alleged he called Trump “a fucking moron,” but while in office Tillerson sought “flexibility” on Russian sanctions.
Because Russia did so brazenly interfere with American elections — by hacking emails, spreading fake news, and potentially through direct tampering of voting machines — it has been politically impossible for the Trump Administration to lift sanctions. In fact, Trump has imposed more sanctions on Russia since taking office, though seemingly begrudgingly. Many of those sanctions have impacted Russian oil barons, the top kingpin of whom may be none other than Vladimir Putin himself.
In 2012, Forbes reported that the Russian state-owned energy company Rosneft had surpassed ExxonMobil to become, temporarily, the world’s largest oil producer. Forbes described Rosneft as “Vladimir Putin’s vehicle to reassert state ownership over a fair chunk of Russia’s oil fields.” Under CEO Igor Sechin, Rosneft brutally conquered its competition in the Russian oil industry. In 2016, the Russian government sold a $12 billion share of Rosneft to an undisclosed private buyer. All along the way Putin has benefited, with financier Bill Browder estimating his net worth at $200 billion.
Modern Russia is sometimes described as a mafia state, with Putin as its godfather. Following the collapse of communism, the Russian state solidified its power by “not simply taming but absorbing the underworld,” according to author Mark Galeotti. Galeotti argues that the new Russian oligarchs “are not interested in challenging or undermining the West, but in enjoying the opportunities it provides,” and that it’s up to Western institutions to resist the “common temptation to turn a blind eye to money that is slightly grubby.”
It’s debatable whether Donald Trump is up to the task of turning down dirty money. Like Putin, he has used the position of the presidency to further enrich himself. Also like Putin, Trump understands that one of the surest paths to wealth and power is alignment with Big Oil.
In 2016, the oil and gas industry pledged more than $900,000 to Trump’s campaign (and nearly as much to Hillary Clinton, a measure of the industry’s political reach). According to the Center for Public Integrity, Big Oil lobbying increased 11 percent during the first few months of Trump’s presidency, and the industry contributed some $10 million for Trump’s inauguration. Trump personally holds stock in Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and TransCanada, the company behind the infamous Keystone XL pipeline cleared by Trump.
One of the central missions of Trump’s presidency has been dismantlement of the EPA. In its first year, the Trump Administration granted six out of eight provisions on the American Petroleum Institute’s wish list. This included a particularly gratuitous effort to undo the “Waters of the United States” rule, which protected streams and rivers that millions of Americans depend on for drinking water. Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are aggressively shrinking national parks to make way for oil companies. The administration now plans to roll back fuel efficiency standards for cars.
Even Trump’s saber-rattling toward Iran is likely driven by their perch atop the world’s fourth largest supply of oil. Unlike most politicians who deceive the public about Middle East wars, Trump repeatedly and loudly proclaims his desire to steal the region’s oil, saying bluntly of Iraq, “To the victor belong the spoils,” and of Libya, “I would just go in and take the oil.” Since long before Trump, US foreign policy in the Middle East has revolved almost entirely around oil.
Russia and the United States are, together with Saudi Arabia, far and away the world’s largest oil producers. Half of the world’s 10 biggest companies are oil and gas. The issue underlies virtually every other and provides sources of both cooperation and friction for Putin and Trump, in the Arctic and the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine that Trump and Putin didn’t discuss oil during their top-secret two-hour meeting in Helsinki. They appear to be getting along on the issue.
Neither man has any interest in addressing climate change. Putin has said, “The warming, it had already started by the 1930s… when there were no such anthropological factors, such as emissions… The issue is to somehow adapt to it.” The Republican Party’s denial of climate change is unique in world politics, and Trump is the most extreme denier of all, calling the issue a “hoax by the Chinese.” In a sick irony, the Arctic drilling sought by Trump and Putin is only available because of melted ice due to climate change.
Trump’s record of corruption, fraud and sleaze is virtually unmatched, making the conspiracies about Russian blackmail tantalizing. Putin needs no dirt to win Trump’s cooperation, though. So long as civilization depends on oil, the kingpins of that industry will run the world. Right now, those kingpins just might be Trump and Putin. Normalized, de-nuclearized, and peaceful relations with Russia are vital, but Trump and Putin are deadly dangerous allies. Together, they have done all they can to accelerate climate change and hasten Earth’s ruin. That is the scariest collusion of all.