In a interview about fracking and the implications of making the United States less dependent on foreign sources of energy, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the Washington Examiner that the US Navy has the ability to blockade Russia from controlling energy supplies in the Middle East.
"The United States has that ability, with our Navy, to make sure the sea lanes are open, and, if necessary, to blockade... to make sure that their energy does not go to market," Zinke said on Friday at a Consumer Energy Alliance event in Pittsburg.
The comments came as Russia, Germany and other European partners move forward on the Nord Stream II pipeline — something President Trump has vehemently opposed because of the leverage it gives Russia over Europe, and something which US officials have discussed sanctions over if Russia decides to play dirty with the pipeline.
Zinke continued, "Russia is a one trick pony," and explained Russia's ability to sell energy is paramount to its economic survival: "I believe the reason they are in the Middle East is they want to broker energy just like they do in eastern Europe, the southern belly of Europe," he said.
While Russia has been engaged in military action in Syria since 2015 at the request of the Syrian government, the West has long accused Moscow of seeking a permanent presence in the Middle East to ensure oil and gas access.
In the process, Moscow and Tehran have grown closer as the two come under aggressive US sanctions and gained international pariah status. Secretary of the Interior Zinke explained of the Iran situation: "National security-wise, how are you going to deal with Iran?" Zinke asked. "Well, there are two ways."
"There is the military option, which I would rather not. And there is the economic option," he said. "The economic option on Iran and Russia is, more or less, leveraging and replacing fuels."
He added, "We can do that because... the United States is the largest producer of oil and gas."
Understandably, Zinke’s statements provoked an angry response from Moscow, which equated a potential maritime blockade to an “act of war,” while calling the internal secretary’s assumptions “nonsense.”
“A US blockade of Russia would be equal to a declaration of war under international law,” Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov said, commenting on Zinke’s words. Russia does not currently export any energy to the Middle East, which itself is a major oil exporting region. The whole idea is an “absolute nonsense,” the Senator argued.
Meanwhile such US Naval jostling to keep sea lanes open in contested regions is already happening in the South China Sea, where China's series of man made islands are being used of Beijing to expand and claim territory.
A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Sunday, a U.S. official told Reuters, potentially angering Beijing at a time of tense relations between the two countries.
And just last week Beijing denounced recent US-B52 bomber flyovers of the South China Sea and East China Sea, calling the military maneuvers "provocative".
The UN estimates that one-third of global shipping passes through the expansive area claimed by China — and crucially there's thought to exist significant untapped oil and natural gas reserves.
There's been a series of incidents over the summer involving US aircraft and ships, as well as that of regional powers like the Philippines, which have involved Chinese military warning off the foreign vessels and aircraft.
Also last week China denied a US warship's planned port visit to Hong Kong in what was a stunning symbolic rebuke in response to new tariffs enacted by the Trump White House.
With Russia now maintaining its own naval build-up in the Mediterranean after repeat US threats to attack Syria over the past month, we could soon see more confrontation over shipping lanes in the region and the West seeks to disrupt Moscow's access to Middle East energy markets.