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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Italy’s crisis redoubles European foreboding

Tetiana Kopestyra, 36, and her son Yehor, 4, walk amidst the wreckage of homes and vehicles in Moschun, a village near Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 7, 2022.

By Roger Cohen

An Italian government crisis, once so frequent as to be a near nonevent, has exposed the fragility of a Europe contending with rising energy prices, a plunging currency, faltering leadership, and a war in Ukraine where time appears to favor Russia’s autocratic resolve over the West’s democratic uncertainty.

That uncertainty engulfed Italy last week as Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a symbol of European resolve in the face of Russian aggression, quit in response to a populist rebellion in his national unity government — only to be asked to persevere at least until next week. One of the issues that split Draghi’s coalition is the cost of a proposed garbage incinerator in Rome, not the kind of thing President Vladimir Putin of Russia has to worry about.

“Yesterday, they made a toast in Moscow, because Mario Draghi’s head was served to Putin on a silver plate,” said Luigi di Maio, the Italian foreign minister. “Autocracies are toasting and democracies are weaker.”

Draghi, whose resignation was rejected by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, may yet remain in office. Democracies, which are flexible, often surprise autocrats counting on their flaws. Still, an array of center-right and far-right Italian politicians sympathetic to Putin are waiting in the wings. An early election, possible if not yet likely, could usher one of them to power.

Europe is being tested, not only in its united front to Russia, but in the very resilience of its democracies. Nationalist forces, often skeptical of the European Union and drawn to Russia, have been held at bay in major countries, but not tamed.

As Putin chokes off the gas supplies that cover one-third of the continent’s gas needs, a winter of discontent looms. Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the leaders of France and Germany, sometimes appear adrift as they face the agonizing dilemma of saving Ukraine without provoking nuclear war with Russia.

“Time is the West’s poison and Mr. Putin’s ally,” said one European diplomat, who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “Yet we must prevail in this test of will.”

The test for the West will be acute between now and the end of the year. The euro, the shared currency of 19 European Union countries, has already slumped 11% against the dollar this year and, for the first time in two decades, hit parity with the U.S. dollar this week — a one-to-one exchange rate. Inflation continues to rise. Shortages of some products and the wildfires accompanying a heat wave, even in parts of northern France never previously affected, have fed a European sense of foreboding.

For many Europeans, the euro’s slide to parity is an apt symbol of the ways in which the war in Ukraine poses economic problems to Europe that are far more extreme than for the United States. President Joe Biden’s determination to bolster Ukraine militarily, rather than seek some diplomatic outcome, may come to be resented as winter takes hold.

Already Putin’s gas squeeze has led the German government to warn of an imminent recession. Companies and households are preparing for a winter of gas rationing, while homeowners, schools and cities have begun to lower thermostats, cut back on air conditioning and dim streetlights. There are mutterings about American readiness to fight the war at Germany’s eastern flank down to the last Ukrainian.

Italy is looking to speed up energy independence from Russia, in part by pivoting to Algeria for new gas supplies, while ramping up renewable energy sources and burning more coal to keep homes lighted and businesses running.

France, less vulnerable because of its large nuclear power industry, is pushing an “energy restraint plan” that Macron called necessary in a television interview this week. “This war is going to last, but France will always be in a position to help Ukraine,” the French president said.

That was some distance from his declaration to the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv last month that “Europe is at your side and will remain so for as long as it takes to achieve victory.”

The French leader’s alternating statements — insisting on the need to avoid “humiliating” Russia and saying “we are not here to fight against Russia” at the same time as vowing to ensure Ukraine “wins” — have provoked some exasperation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

Nowhere is the dilemma of Europe felt more acutely than in Germany, a nation viscerally averse to war, uncomfortably dependent on Putin for energy, and torn between moral outrage at Russian massacres of civilians and mortal fear of triggering World War III.

In a much commented essay in May applauding Scholz’s caution, Jurgen Habermas, the prominent German philosopher, wrote: “The West, which, with the drastic sanctions it imposed early on, has already left no doubt about its de facto participation in this conflict, must therefore carefully weigh each additional degree of military support to determine whether it might cross the indeterminate boundary of formal entry into the war — indeterminate because it depends on Putin’s own definition.”

Yet, Scholz’s prudence, evident in the slowness and paltriness of German weapons delivery to Ukraine, can look like weakness. As the Russian onslaught continues into the winter, even with heavy loss of Russian life, Europe’s sense of powerlessness accompanied by impoverishment may grow.

The looming midterm elections in the United States have added to the uncertainty across the continent, with questioning in European capitals about how much power Biden will command and how much resolve he will be able muster in confronting Russia after November. The resignation of Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, one of the most outspoken supporters of Ukraine in Europe, may prove to be a blow to the most uncompromising wing of the West’s fight against Russia.

Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, said she did not see an imminent fraying of Western resolve, despite the crisis in her country. “The levels of Russian violence are so obscene that it’s impossible to reduce Western support or reverse sanctions,” she said.

That, however, could change, “if a cold and expensive winter in Europe, combined with a lull in the war, made the sirens of peace irresistible.”

One measure of Europe’s changing politics has been the unusual importance Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, has assumed. Italy was the first major Western nation to publicly support Ukraine’s eventual membership in the European Union. Steering Italy away from an ambiguous relationship with Putin’s Russia, he has appeared more comfortable with a clear stand against Moscow than either Macron or Scholz.

“Geopolitically, Italy will lose a lot of its strength,” said Lucio Caracciolo, the editor of Limes, an Italian magazine focused on geopolitics, alluding to the possibility of the fall of Draghi’s government. “Draghi was reputable and Draghi was Italy. If he falls, so does Italy.”

Putin recently declared: “I want to say and emphasize that we have many supporters, including in the United States and Europe, and even more so on other continents and in other countries. And their number will grow, no doubt about that.”

Draghi has held the line and confounded Putin’s predictions. He has bolstered Italy with something it has often lacked: predictability. That may go if he goes; and Italian unpredictability would be a concern across an already uneasy Europe.

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