Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 once again reminded the world that energy and national security go hand in hand.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin points to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and NATO’s subsequent expansion into its former states and sphere of influence as provocations for the invasion, Ambassador Richard L. Morningstar remembers things differently.
“We thought that we would be able to cooperate with Russia, that Russia would develop into a more or less democratic, market-driven society,” the former ambassador to Azerbaijan and the European Union recalls in the interview that follows. “We hoped that Russia could potentially become part of NATO, and that was even suggested at various times.”
Morningstar had a ringside seat to history when world power was shifting—helping the Clinton administration navigate the post-Soviet era of optimism followed later by the Obama administration’s challenge of responding to an increasingly aggressive Russia.
As a lawyer turned business executive turned diplomat, Morningstar’s expertise lives at the convergence of national security, energy, and climate change—in the geopolitical hotbed of Europe, Russia, and the Caspian Basin.
In April 1995, he was appointed special advisor to the president and secretary of state on assistance to the Newly Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union and then for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy. He oversaw all bilateral assistance and the trade and investment activities of the 16 U.S. government agencies engaged in technical assistance, trade and investment, exchange, weapons dismantlement, and other programs in the NIS. And he maximized coordination both within the executive branch and with other governments and international organizations, while promoting U.S. policies on regional energy development and transportation.
In 1999, the year Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were granted membership into NATO, Morningstar was appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union, serving until the end of the Clinton administration—until 10 days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He then took a hiatus from government service when he was a visiting scholar and diplomat in residence at the Institute of International Studies at Stanford University, the Herman Phleger Visiting Professor at Stanford Law School and then lecturer until 2009, and an adjunct lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Following the election of Barack Obama, Morningstar returned to government, appointed in 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as special envoy for Eurasian energy. Here again, his focus was supporting the United States’ energy goals in the Eurasian region, working on key energy issues relating to Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Central Asia, and the Caucasus and providing strategic advice on policy issues relating to development, transit, and distribution of energy resources in Eurasia.
Morningstar was named U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in 2012—the same year the United States marked 20 years of diplomatic relations with the oil-rich nation on Russia’s border. During his Senate confirmation hearing, he emphasized the relationship between security, energy, and democratic and economic reform.
Morningstar began his tenure in government service at the age of 48—after more than 20 years of business, policy, and legal experience. He practiced law from 1970 to 1981 with Peabody & Brown (now Nixon Peabody) in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was head of the litigation department. He then moved into business, ultimately serving as chairman and CEO of Costar Corporation, listed by Forbes as one of the top 200 small companies in the country and recognized as one of the nation’s fastest growing exporters.
His route to the diplomatic corps was serendipitous.
Long active in Massachusetts politics, he served as Barney Frank’s treasurer for his first Congressional campaign and was very active in former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign. It was while campaigning in 1988 that Morningstar visited Arkansas, meeting with then Governor Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. “We were in the same circle when I was at Harvard and my wife, Faith, was at Wellesley, just a year ahead of Hillary,” he recalls. “We lost touch for a long time but quickly became friends again.” Morningstar campaigned for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race and joined the presidential transition team advising the Department of Commerce on international trade and technology issues and preparing an analysis of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. He was then nominated for an opening at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, where he served as senior vice president from 1993 to 1995, coordinating OPICs finance and insurance programs in the former Soviet Union and other difficult areas of the world.
During his time with the Clinton administration, Morningstar developed a close working relationship with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, JD ’49, and with the country’s first female Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He remembers when the president had nominated him in 1999 to become U.S. ambassador to the EU, but Jesse Helms, the then Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had a hold on all nominations. With an important U.S.-EU summit approaching, pressure was mounting to break the logjam.
“I got a call from Steve Biegun, the majority chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at that time, who said, ‘Gee, I see that maybe we should be getting you confirmed before this summit,’ ” Morningstar recalls. “I said, ‘Well, that’s great, Steve, but it’s sort of late.’ It was Thursday and it started on Sunday. Literally an hour later, I was unanimously reported out of committee and unanimously confirmed on the floor. But, unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell Secretary Albright that I’d been confirmed. I knew her from my previous positions. I got there and she looked at me and she said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, well, I got confirmed. And she said, ‘Well, I guess we better swear you in.’ So, she took me to her hotel room, pulled out from the desk a Gideon Bible, and swore me in so that I could participate in the summit. And then when President Clinton introduced me at the summit meeting, he said, ‘I don’t know if I can trust Dick anymore because I can’t get anybody confirmed and somehow, he got confirmed.’”
Looking at the Russian war in Ukraine, he says, “Madeleine would argue, thank God for NATO expansion or who knows what else Putin might be doing today.” Morningstar continued to stay in touch with Albright after stepping down as ambassador to Azerbaijan in 2015 and became a senior advisor at the former secretary of state’s Albright Stonebridge Group. He founded the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, where he served as director and now is founding chairman.
Morningstar attributes part of his career success to his legal training. “I think from an analysis standpoint, it has helped for me to see things from all sides of an issue. I’ve had basically five or six careers at this point, and I’ve found that you have to look at issues from many sides. There are going to be legal aspects, political aspects, economic and commercial and relational aspects. For any lawyer, it’s never just the legal issues. There are always other things that have to be thought through,” he says.
The following is an edited version of an interview that took place on April 12, 2022. It was conducted by Allen Weiner, JD ’89, senior lecturer in law, director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law, and director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation. Weiner is an international legal scholar with expertise in such wide-ranging fields as international and national security law, the law of war, international conflict resolution, and international criminal law, including transitional justice. His scholarship focuses on international law and the response to the contemporary security threats of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and situations of widespread humanitarian atrocities. Before joining the Stanford Law School faculty in 2003, he served as legal counselor to the U.S. Embassy in The Hague and attorney adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State. —by Sharon Driscoll
ALLEN WEINER: Ambassador, you have had an incredible array of critically important diplomatic positions over the course of your career. But I’d like to start with one of your early ambassadorial roles—as U.S. ambassador to the European Union. What was your perception at that time about the role of the EU as a potential competitor to the U.S. and a potential challenger to NATO in the security domain? And how would you evaluate how things have gone in the years since?
RICHARD MORNINGSTAR: When I was at the EU, beginning in 1999 and up to 10 days after 9/11—even then, I don’t think the EU was taken all that seriously. Those two-plus years were a transition period and we definitely had issues. We fought about Airbus and Boeing. We argued about bananas and genetically modified organisms and so forth. We resolved some issues too during that period, but there were trade disputes at the WTO, and the relationship, at least up until that time, was primarily economic and trade and not so much on the political and security side. That changed a lot while I was there. That was when the whole concept of European defense started. And that’s what caused angst among people in Washington. A lot of people in NATO and the State Department, for example, found it hard to understand why Europe would need to go in this direction. And one of the jobs that I had as ambassador was to try to bridge those differences. I worked very closely with Sandy Vershbow, who was the ambassador to NATO. Prior to then, the U.S. ambassador to the EU and U.S. ambassador to NATO might as well have been in different countries. But we worked very closely. There was the Political and Security Committee that was set up by the EU, and Sandy and I would both attend those meetings. But there were people in Washington who just sort of threw up their hands and said why is this happening?
Having said that, I don’t mean to be overly negative, because we did cooperate on a lot of things. At the end of the day, whatever differences we may have had on these trade disputes, on the security questions, and on some of the European defense questions, there was never a question that our values were the same or strongly similar and that at the end of the day we would stick together. I was there for 9/11 and the solidarity among the Europeans and at the EU during that time was unbelievable. My experience working in the Obama administration on energy issues with the EU was excellent. And, if there is a silver lining to the Ukraine situation, which is hard to even say, I think that this new administration pulled us back together and we’re very much united again.
WEINER: Ambassador, you’ve mentioned Ukraine, and one question that arises when we assess that crisis is how the current situation reflects choices that were made around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. You were ambassador to the EU, but you were an ambassador prior to that—ambassador and special adviser to the president and the secretary of state on assistance for the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union from 1995 to 1998. Our goal, I think, was to try to facilitate the ability of those states to transition from centralized authoritarian states with command-driven economies into sovereign states governed on the basis of democratic free market principles. In hindsight, how well did we do in terms of our policy toward the Newly
MORNINGSTAR: I think there were two or three major parts of the thinking. One was that the relationship with Russia at that time was quite different—very different from today. We thought that we would be able to cooperate with Russia, that Russia would develop into a more or less democratic, market-driven society. We hoped that Russia would become part of NATO, and that was even suggested at various times. There was a NATO-Russia Council set up to work together and cooperate on various issues.
As far as Ukraine today, NATO is really a red herring issue. That’s not what’s driving this war. Ironically, there’s a greater likelihood that Ukraine, if it survives this war, will be a member of NATO. What’s driving Putin is the fear of democracies on its border, the desire to rebuild a Russian empire, one that he considers Ukraine to be an integral part of.
As far as countries that have joined already, I’m glad that they are now part of NATO. I think that given where Putin is coming from, if these countries had not become members of NATO, the situation would be even worse, that he would be more prone to go into the Baltics that were part of the Soviet Union, and maybe other Central and Eastern European countries.
WEINER: Your assessment is that Putin’s concern is the spread of democracy on his borders and that it could spread to Moscow. But when you look at the Newly Independent former Soviet states, the record has been quite mixed. The Baltics have really embraced a democratic and pro-Western approach, while Ukraine has had a rocky transition, Armenia has had some ups and downs, and Azerbaijan is more authoritarian—as are Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan. Did you anticipate that these states would have difficult and idiosyncratic development paths after independence?
MORNINGSTAR: I always thought that it was going to be difficult for the former Soviet states. … None of those countries had a history of democracy, so it was going to take time. The people who came to power in most of those states, particularly when you look at countries like Azerbaijan and all of the Central Asian countries, were former party secretaries and they were always going to resist real democracy.
But I do think that in virtually all of those states, there was also a real desire to be independent. Even the ones that are autocracies. Azerbaijan always has had a policy of trying to balance relationships with Russia, with the United States, with Iran, with Turkey. And I think we have to work with them to do everything to maintain their independence and slowly and incrementally to encourage them to become more market-oriented and democratic. But they have different cultures.
WEINER: I think there was once a belief, at least among Europeans, that a Russian connection to Europe in the form of energy trade would help integrate Russia with Europe. The U.S. was skeptical of this, going back to the Reagan administration, when the we imposed sanctions on European entities that were engaged in pipeline construction between the then-Soviet Union and Western Europe. What was your view about the role of energy as a tool of security and diplomacy and the approach Europe should have been adopting toward Russian energy? What policy should the U.S. have been adopting toward the Europeans?
MORNINGSTAR: First of all, when we talk about Europe, it is not monolithic, and there are different views in different countries. The views in Germany, for example, are a lot different from the views in Poland or in the Baltic States. And you’re right. It does go back to the 1980s when Germany was working with the Soviet Union to pipe gas into Germany and other parts of Europe. And we very much opposed that, but it got done and Germany has taken the position up until literally a couple of months ago that this is primarily a commercial relationship.
That view, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, changed a lot beginning in 2006, but more in 2009, when Russia cut off transit through Ukraine and it froze a lot of people in Eastern Europe, in Bulgaria, and other places. And Russia did use energy as a political weapon. I was meeting with the energy minister some years ago, and he said to me, “Do you really think we’re using energy as a political weapon?” And I asked, “Well, are you?” And he said, “No, we just want to make as much money as we can.” Well, it’s hard to separate that. I think they were using energy for purely political power purposes and to maximize their revenues, which also had a political aspect to it.
So there were issues relating to Ukraine going back several years. And one of the reasons Hillary Clinton asked me to come back into the government in 2009 was to deal with these issues and to try to work with Europe cooperatively, to lessen dependence on Russian energy, and to find alternative sources.
But it’s also not going to happen overnight. Ironically, more gas is being sold to Europe by Russia almost two months into the invasion [at the time of this recording on April 12]. So, there are many issues that still have to be worked through.
WEINER: Let’s talk about that a bit. You recently co-authored an article with colleagues from the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center exploring steps that Europe should be taking to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas. Around the same time, we see in Germany a commitment to reducing reliance on nuclear energy, a fairly significant part of Germany’s domestic energy supply, which in some ways increases German reliance on Russian national gas. President Biden, as you know, announced that we’re going to accelerate the delivery of LNG, liquified natural gas, to Europe. But it will take time. What should Europe be doing to reduce
its dependence on Russian energy?
MORNINGSTAR: First, the transition to renewable and other clean energies and finding alternatives to the dependence on Russian oil go hand in hand. And that decision by Germany to phase out nuclear energy was a huge mistake. It was a political decision that came a few weeks after the Fukushima accident when in the Baden local elections the Green Party got 24 percent of the vote, which was much more than ever before, and then Germany made this decision. Not only has it increased Germany’s reliance on gas, it has increased their reliance on coal as well. So it has not helped in reducing their emissions.
But it would be unfair to say that Europe has done nothing to transition to renewable energy and away from its dependence on Russian oil. They have made progress in the last seven or eight years. Much more has to be done as a result of the Ukraine situation to finally eliminate the dependence. One, the LNG supply has to be increased, not just from the U.S., but from other sources as well. Terminals can be built to take in LNG, but it’s not going to happen overnight. There has to be a basic recognition that gas and the energy transition is not an either/or proposition. And, at least for the short- to mid-term, gas will continue to be important and is a lot better than coal and some other forms of energy. We have to do what we can to increase alternative resources of gas, including LNG for the short- to mid-term, while at the same time, we have to double down on the green transition, whether it be renewables, whether finding improved uses, improved nuclear technologies, like small modular reactors, hydrogen, other clean energy technologies.
Frankly, Europe has even more at stake than the United States with respect to what’s happening in Ukraine, given all of the members of the EU that are sitting on the Russian border. And if their economy suffers some temporary setbacks, well, maybe that’s something that they have to bear. On the other hand, the politics in Europe aren’t easy. You do have populists who could benefit from that and Europe could end up taking a step backward.
WEINER: In the United States, we learned a lesson back during the 1973 oil embargo about our dependence on foreign fuels. But now the United States has become an oil exporter. Have we forgotten the lesson about the importance of energy trade as a critical element of geopolitics and international security?
MORNINGSTAR: Not totally, and I certainly preach the importance. First of all, we’re an energy exporter, but we also still import a lot as well. And 3 or 4 percent of our crude oil, as well as 7 percent of imported refined products or petroleum products came from Russia prior to the war. And we’ve shut that off. At the Atlantic Council, we did a task force report maybe four or five years ago where we argued very strongly that oil exports and natural gas exports were critical from a national security standpoint. I think that there had been mixed messaging from the administration because people who are very strong on the environmental side really don’t want to have anything to do with gas and increasing domestic production.
But I think President Biden and people around him recognize how important, primarily, our natural gas is. We’re talking about energy security. We’re talking about national security. We’re talking about climate because there should be standards with respect to methane emissions, with respect to carbon capture, with respect to flaring, that would make it much cleaner than it is today. And from a dependency standpoint, the more gas we can produce and the greener the technologies that are used for energy renewables, the less dependence from a geopolitical standpoint on fossil fuels, whether from Russia or the Middle East or wherever.
WEINER: I want to turn briefly to your experience as a special adviser to the president and the secretary of state for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy. Can you tell us about the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline and why it was important?
MORNINGSTAR: There were significant resources in the Caspian area, whether offshore Azerbaijan, or places like Turkmenistan, certainly in Kazakhstan. And these countries in the very early ’90s broke off from the Soviet Union and wanted to be independent and maintain themselves as independent countries. And we, meaning the United States, wanted that to be the case. So our policy going back to the mid-’90s was to develop multiple sources of these resources, gas and oil, and multiple routes so that there’d be no reliance on any one route.
The only route other than through Iran or Russia was through Georgia and on to Turkey. So the policy was developed to help diversify resources, to help maintain the independence and sovereignty of these states that had broken off from the Soviet Union. And also one that may sound surprising now is for Turkey to have a significant role in the region because so many of the countries were Turkic countries. And if things did go bad with respect to our relationship with Russia, as things later have, that Turkey could be a balance. And ironically, even with all of the differences with Turkey that we’ve had, and there have been many in the past years, it has provided a balance to some extent, even today, particularly with respect to Ukraine and also in the Caucasus.
WEINER: Although I can’t help but wonder when we think about Russia using its energy sources as a political weapon, whether the existence of this alternative source of energy had a way of emboldening Azerbaijan, which is a country that you know well, having served there as ambassador. And I’m thinking in particular about the most recent Azeri offensive to retake some of the territory that it lost to the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
MORNINGSTAR: My feelings with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh and the issues that you are raising are somewhat nuanced.
I do think on Nagorno-Karabakh that there are no angels in that situation. We do have to remember that 20 percent of the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan was occupied by Armenia during the prior wars in the early ’90s and Armenia had a stronger military at that point in time, which did change in part because Azerbaijan’s economy became stronger because of energy and they were able to buy arms. But they didn’t get arms from the U.S. because of the famous Section 907 but from other countries, like Russia, which gave arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
WEINER: And Turkey was a big supplier.
MORNINGSTAR: Certainly Turkey. And Israel. So they were able to develop a stronger military capability and ultimately took action to get back those territories. Would it have been better if they didn’t have energy? I don’t think it would’ve improved democracy and human rights. And I’ve always made the argument that at least with respect to central Asia and the Caucasus, that energy should not become the victim of democracy and human rights abuses because without energy, it might even have been worse from that standpoint. And there are countries that are a lot worse.
WEINER: We’ve talked about Russia and Ukraine. As an experienced diplomat, do you believe there’s a way out?
MORNINGSTAR: I wish I knew. I can’t imagine how there could be any quick settlement at this point. I think what would be more likely is that after heavy fighting, perhaps more heavy fighting now in Eastern Ukraine and possibly in Southern Ukraine, maybe all the way to Odesa, that things sort of settle into some kind of a stalemate.
I can’t imagine that Putin will just walk away. I wouldn’t be counting on regime change. You never can tell, but I think his control is such that it is relatively unlikely. And can we ever get back, while Putin is president of Russia, to any kind of normal relationship?
WEINER: I struggled as well trying to imagine what possible outcome would be sufficiently face-saving for Putin that he could essentially concede that this was a bad idea and pull out. I can see some kind of arrangement around a commitment on non-membership in NATO, Ukrainian neutrality, but I don’t know how you solve the status of the territories in eastern Ukraine, which just seems to be insoluble. Thank you, Ambassador, for being so generous with your time and sharing your insights with us.
MORNINGSTAR: It was my pleasure. Thank you. SL