Europe faces two choices this winter. The first is to accept gas rationing, which will likely cause significant and lasting damage to heavy industry and hundreds of billions of euros in spending to manage soaring energy costs and accelerate the energy transition. The second option is to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s destruction of the Ukrainian state and his plotting of future wars of aggression.
The second option is, of course, completely unacceptable. Yet Europe’s ability to remain united in its rejection faces two impending tests: elections in Italy on September 25 and then in Bulgaria a week later. In both countries, political forces more aligned with Putin than the rest of Europe could come to power, potentially threatening a cohesive front on the Russia sanctions issue.
Let’s be clear. Europe’s energy pain is the result of the economic war that Putin’s regime is waging alongside its assault on Ukraine.
Moscow doesn’t even bother to hide it anymore. While the Kremlin has historically denied any accusation that it uses energy as a political weapon – a ridiculous claim for any neutral observer – Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on September 5 that gas flows would not resume. not via the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany with sanctions in place. It is the largest source of piped gas from Russia to Europe.
Never mind that Russia initially claimed the pipeline was taken out of service at the end of August for repairs. With the contention dropped, Putin recently threatened that Moscow would cut energy supplies if the G7 goes ahead with plans to impose price caps on Russian hydrocarbon exports.
Europe must recognize that there is a reason why the Kremlin is using its gas weapon more openly than ever: it is losing both on the sanctions front and in the war in Ukraine.
According to an internal government document Consulted by Bloomberg, Russian experts and officials predict far deeper damage to the economy than Putin’s government publicly acknowledges. Sure, sky-high oil prices mean that Russia’s overall GDP is unlikely to contract as much as some had predicted, but its telecommunications sector, pharmaceutical industry, machine tools, civil aviation and even its agricultural production are devastated.
Militarily too, the meteoric advances made by Putin’s troops in the Donbass are very expensive. What was supposed to be a whirlwind operation to decapitate the Ukrainian government, install a puppet regime and seize large swaths of territory has turned into a quagmire. The gains made in recent days by the Ukrainian counter-offensives in Kherson and near Kharkiv shatter what little remains of the myth of Russian military might. Meanwhile, Moscow should have procured drones from Iran and ammunition from North Korea.
Russia’s supposed brotherly ally in China does not want to risk violating sanctions to supply it with weapons or offer it access to credit. Beijing wouldn’t even let Russia freely exchange Chinese currency he bought.
It is in the context of this dark strategic position that the Kremlin tries to militarize energy to the maximum. The Kremlin thinks it can freeze Europe into waiving sanctions. The threat of a cold winter has already helped Moscow win support from Hungary, which has increased purchases of Russian gas and pressured the European Union to lift sanctions on Russian oligarchs.
The big question: will Italy and Bulgaria wrap up next? In Italy, an alliance of right-wing parties is favored to win a majority in the upcoming vote. It includes former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who remains a political force and was famous for his friendship with Putin. Although no longer in office at the time, his visit to Russian-occupied Crimea in 2015 is the only time a former leader of a G7 state has visited the region since Putin l ‘has annexed.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the current largest party in the Italian parliament, Lega Nord, is also part of this coalition. He, too, has previously praised Putin and in 2017 signed a cooperation agreement between the Lega and Putin’s ruling United Russia party. In 2019, a series of recordings revealed that a close associate of Salvini was discussing obtaining Russian money for his party. He openly called for a “rethink” of the sanctions imposed on Russia during the campaign.
However, Georgia Meloni, who leads the ascendant Brothers of Italy party currently leading the polls, endorsed the sanctions regime and said she would stick to the EU and NATO to take on Russia. about his invasion of Ukraine. Recent polls all show Meloni getting more than half of the right-wing vote, and potentially twice as much as Salvini’s Lega. A right-wing coalition led by Meloni would certainly have other differences with Brussels, but it seems to recognize that it can use support for Ukraine and sanctions to buy room for concessions on other issues. .
And Bulgaria? The reformist government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was among the first EU members to reject Russian gas after the invasion. Petkov’s coalition collapsed amid infighting in June.
The caretaker government appointed by President Rumen Radev – long a supporter of a rapprochement with Moscow – has shown itself willing to discuss with Gazprom the renewal of Russian gas supplies.
Polls have changed only slightly since Bulgarians last voted in November 2021, the third parliamentary election that year. However, Petkov’s party has seen its support wane lately, while the traditionally pro-Russian socialists – who have cooperated with Petkov’s government – have seen their fortunes recover slightly.
Meanwhile, Radev’s ally Stefan Yanev, who favors a softer stance on Russia, has launched a new political party that could cross the parliamentary threshold.
As Europe chooses its political future, maintaining a united front in the face of Russian sanctions is essential to ensuring victory in the ongoing economic war. Bulgarian and Italian voters will soon have their say – and all of Europe should be watching.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.