Italy and Bulgaria: Europe’s big tests for Russian energy unity

As Europe stares down winter energy shortages, votes in Italy and Bulgaria could test its resolve on Russian sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev after their talks in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, an advocate of closer ties with Moscow, seen here shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin after talks in Sochi, Russia, in May 2018 [File: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko]

Europe faces two choices this winter. The first is to accept gas rationing, causing likely major, lasting damage to heavy industry and hundreds of billions of euros in outlays to manage spiking 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.

Option two is, of course, wholly unacceptable. Yet Europe’s ability to stay united in rejecting it faces two imminent tests: elections in Italy on September 25 and then in Bulgaria a week later. In both countries, political forces that are more aligned with Putin than the rest of Europe could come to power, potentially threatening a cohesive front on the question of sanctions against Russia.

Let’s be clear. Europe’s energy pain is the result of the economic war that the Putin regime is waging in tandem with its assault on Ukraine.

Moscow isn’t even bothering to hide the fact any more. Whereas the Kremlin has historically denied any accusations that it uses energy as a political weapon – a ridiculous claim to any neutral observer – Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on September 5 said that gas flows would not resume through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline linking Russia and Germany with sanctions in place. It’s the single biggest source of piped gas from Russia to Europe.

Never mind that Russia had originally claimed that the pipeline had gone offline at the end of August for repairs. With the pretence dropped, Putin threatened recently that Moscow would cut off energy supplies if the G7 proceeds with plans to impose price caps on Russian hydrocarbon exports.

Europe must recognise that there is a reason the Kremlin is using its gas weapon more openly than ever before: It is losing both on the sanctions front and in the war in Ukraine.

According to an internal government document accessed by Bloomberg, Russian experts and officials are predicting far deeper damages to the economy than Putin’s government is publicly acknowledging. Sure, sky-high hydrocarbon prices have meant that Russia’s headline GDP is unlikely to contract as much as some had expected, but its telecoms sector, pharmaceutical industry, machine tooling, civil aviation and even agricultural production are being ravaged.

Militarily too, the grinding advances that Putin’s troops are making in the Donbas are coming at a great cost. What was intended to be a lightning operation to decapitate the Ukrainian government, install a puppet regime and seize wide swaths of territory has turned into a quagmire. Gains in recent days by Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kherson and near Kharkiv are shattering what little remains of the myth of Russia’s military might. Meanwhile, Moscow has reportedly had to source drones from Iran and ammunition from North Korea.

Russia’s supposed fraternal ally in China is unwilling to risk sanctions violations to supply it with weaponry, or to offer it access to credit. Beijing reportedly won’t even let Russia freely exchange the Chinese currency it has purchased.

It’s against the backdrop of this bleak strategic position that the Kremlin is trying to weaponise energy to the fullest extent. The Kremlin believes it can freeze Europe into climbing down on sanctions. The threat of a cold winter has already helped Moscow secure support from Hungary, which has expanded Russian gas purchases and is pressuring the European Union to lift sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

The big question: Will Italy and Bulgaria buckle next? In Italy, an alliance of right-wing parties is favoured to win a majority in the coming vote. It includes ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who remains a political force and was famously friendly with Putin. Though no longer in office at the time, his 2015 visit to Russian-occupied Crimea is the only time a former leader of a G7 state has visited the region since Putin annexed it.

Also a part of that coalition is Matteo Salvini, leader of the current largest party in the Italian parliament, Lega Nord. 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 a close aide of Salvini’s discussing procuring Russian money for his party. He has openly called for “rethinking” the sanctions imposed on Russia amid the campaign.

However, Georgia Meloni, who heads the ascendant Brothers of Italy party currently leading the polls, has endorsed the sanctions regime and said that she will stick by the EU and NATO in taking on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Recent polls all show Meloni gaining more than half of the right-wing vote, and potentially twice as many as Salvini’s Lega. A Meloni-led right-wing coalition would certainly have other disputes with Brussels, but it appears she recognises that she can use support for Ukraine and the sanctions to buy room for concessions on other issues.

What about Bulgaria? The reformist government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was among the earliest EU members to reject Russian gas following the invasion. Petkov’s coalition collapsed amid infighting in June.

The interim government appointed by President Rumen Radev – long an advocate of closer ties with Moscow – has been willing to hold talks with Gazprom about renewing gas supplies from Russia.

Polls have only marginally shifted since Bulgarians last voted in November 2021, the third parliamentary election that year. However, Petkov’s party has seen support decline of late.

Meanwhile, Radev’s ally Stefan Yanev, who favours a softer stance on Russia, launched a new political party that might cross the parliamentary threshold.

As Europe picks its political future, maintaining a united front on Russian sanctions is essential to ensure victory in the ongoing economic war. Bulgarian and Italian voters will soon have their say – and all of Europe ought to be watching.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referred to a slight increase in the vote share of Bulgarian Socialists, when the latest polling shows their support has fallen marginally.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.