“Shoot me down, but I won’t fall,” warbled singer Sia in the 2011 hit “Titanium.” The song, an ode to resilience, chose its metaphorical metal wisely. As strong as steel but almost half the weight and nearly impervious to corrosion, titanium is prized for its use in everything from hip implants to the international space station.
While there’s a little titanium almost everywhere on earth, including in the human body, only a few countries commercially produce the metal, and Russia is one of them. Russia is a mineral powerhouse beyond titanium, too, mining everything from platinum and gold to cobalt and lithium. While there’s much discussion of the Russian influence over global oil and gas markets, the attack on Ukraine could have a significant impact on the global supply of these materials — and on the US economy.
Titanium is one of 35 minerals the US government has designated as “critical,” both for their importance to the digital-age economy and because the United States is “heavily dependent” on imports. Many of these minerals are also important for critical infrastructure, clean energy, and military uses. In the case of titanium, military uses include including aircraft frames, jet and helicopter engines, satellites, ships, submarines, and ground vehicles.
While the United States does not directly import much titanium from Russia, the company VSMPO-AVISMA, located in Russia’s self-styled “titanium valley,” is one of the world’s largest titanium manufacturers. Boeing is a customer, as is its European rival, Airbus, both benefiting from Russia’s “artificially low-priced finished titanium goods,” according to the US Department of Commerce. The United States does import other critical minerals directly from Russia, including palladium, chromium, niobium, germanium, and scandium (one of the 17 so-called rare earth elements).
Of course, the Russian mineral industry pales in comparison to that of China, which is a top supplier for about half of the minerals on the US critical list. That vulnerability is at the heart of the Biden administration’s Feb. 24 announcement of new measures to strengthen mineral supply chain security. Considering that Russia invaded Ukraine the same day, the news of the initiatives was understandably drowned out, but they’re important to US prosperity and national security, and not unrelated to the current conflict, given Russia’s mineral wealth.
First, the administration is making investments in the diversification of sources. That includes funding for the departments of Energy and Defense to develop domestic reserves of rare earth elements, lithium, and nickel, promote recycling and refining of materials, as well as recovery of minerals from waste sources, such as coal ash. There are also some policy changes, such as an update to the list of critical minerals, reforms to antiquated mine-permitting laws, and revised environmental standards. The Department of Defense will work with other agencies to strengthen the National Defense Stockpile, which is just what it sounds like — a physical stash of critical materials for emergencies.
For some reason, the State Department was not part of the Feb. 24 announcement, but the diplomatic work to diversify the source countries for minerals is just as important as developing more domestic supplies, given rising demand and natural limits on some US resources. This engagement is crucial for competitiveness, which the Chinese have long understood and accordingly invested in mines and processing facilities around the world. Finally, given that environmental, social, and governance challenges tend to go hand in hand with mineral extraction — and the corruption and autocracy in Russia are a case in point — the US Agency for International Development has an important part to play in US policy, too.
While all of these initiatives are a welcome step forward, the Biden administration should pull them all together into a comprehensive strategy. In addition to the near-term risk of mineral supply disruptions, there are even bigger stakes in the coming years. As the transition toward a high tech, clean energy economy picks up speed, demand for these materials may grow anywhere from 400 to 4,000 percent, so the revamped policies are also about sustainable growth for the future.
Russia could play a bigger part in the mineral economy of the future, just as it plays an outsized role in the fossil fuel economy today. Investors are unlikely to show much interest, however, as long as President Vladimir Putin of Russia continues to attack other countries, assassinate political opponents with chemical weapons, and suppress his own population.
Ironically, Ukraine also produces titanium, an apt metal for a resilient people. Hopefully, Ukraine will soon be able to harness its own mineral wealth to a better future.
Sharon E. Burke is president of Ecospherics. She served in the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, most recently as an assistant secretary of defense.