Op-Ed: Russian oil is as morally tainted as Confederate cotton during the Civil War

A Russian pipe-laying ship against a cloudy sky
A Russian ship in 2020 lays pipe for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, part of an effort to expand natural gas sales to Europe.
(Jens Buettner / Associated Press)

One of the disconcerting ironies of Russia’s war against Ukraine is that NATO is largely paying for it.

While sanctions have restricted other exports, Russia is selling $800 million of oil and gas to Europe a day. (The European Commission did say Friday that it will phase out imports of Russian coal over the next four months.) Energy is not only bankrolling Putin’s war, but also bolstering Russia’s faltering economy by boosting the value of the ruble, which has rallied sharply since the war’s early days.

Putin’s reliance on the West recalls the famous (if apocryphal) comment by Lenin, that he could obtain the rope to hang the capitalists from profit-hungry capitalists who would sell it to him.


Europe’s trading with the enemy also recalls a verified historical episode — in the American Civil War. Despite anguished protests from generals such as Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, the United States authorized and pursued a vigorous trade in Southern cotton.

As with Europe now, the Union had its reasons. Lincoln and his Treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, wanted to strengthen the Union’s balance of payments by hawking cotton for hard currency overseas.

They wanted to supply the textile mills in New England, most of which had been forced to close for want of cotton. Similarly, they wanted to avert a depression in England and France, where hundreds of thousands of mill workers had been sacked. The U.S. feared that mass unemployment in Europe would prompt those nations to intervene in the American war on the Confederate side.

But Lincoln’s policy was mistaken, precisely for the reason that NATO’s policy of energy imports from Russia is mistaken now. Gen. Sherman said it best: “We cannot carry on war and trade with a people at the same time.”

Lincoln’s policy was designed to sidestep the Confederacy by authorizing cotton purchases from private citizens. Legislation enabled the Treasury Department to issue licenses to designated traders to buy cotton, and other goods, in occupied territory from vendors who swore an oath of loyalty to the United States.

But such oaths proved hardly reliable. Lincoln was swarmed with requests for cotton permits from would-be profiteers, including from family members and political cronies. Approvals were largely haphazard. Once money passed into occupied Southern territory, it inevitably found its way into Confederate coffers.


Sherman was contemptuous of the notion that all on the other side were not enemies. Although that wasn’t literally true — just as not all Russians support the invasion today — Sherman’s point was that trade strengthened the Southern economy and its ability to sustain the war. In his view, the distinction between military and civilian goods was hollow. As he advised Grant: “Money is as much contraband of war as powder.”

Grant heartily agreed. Notified that a steamer “loaded with sugar and coffee” had received official license to go South, presumably to be swapped for cotton, the general sarcastically wrote the war secretary: “I have positively refused to adopt this mode of feeding the southern army unless it is the direct order of the President.” Lincoln rescinded permission.

Although the North needed the cotton, the South needed the business more. Trade propped up the Confederacy at its weakest link — its collapsing economy. Russia’s fragile economy could also prove its weakest link. While Russia has the troops to sustain a long battle, its people likely would not tolerate a long-term economic depression.

For NATO, forgoing Russian energy would impose painful sacrifices — perhaps rationing and lower thermostats in winter (and higher in summer). America should be willing to share the pain by increasing exports of fossil fuels and encouraging, over the medium term, increased fossil fuel production at home. All policies, including climate change, involve trade-offs. Halting the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine should be the priority.

As in the Civil War, when cotton was morally tainted by slavery, Russian energy is tainted by mounting evidence of war crimes. NATO and America should take a cue from Gen. Sherman. The trade should stop.

Roger Lowenstein is the author of “Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War.” @RogerLowenstein