Demonstrators protest in front of the European Parliament after a special plenary session on the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels. Image: Twitter / Screengrab

FLORENCE – “Unity of Europe is a paramount concern, as dividing us is one of the main objectives of the war waged by Russia,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month.

Macron, who has billed himself as Europe’s top leader since the departure of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has sought to maintain internal coherence and cohesion within the European Union (EU) while also maintaining functional communication channels with Russia amid the raging war in Ukraine.

After closing ranks and displaying remarkable unity in face of Russia’s aggression earlier this year, however, cracks are beginning to appear within the EU.

On one hand, Macron enraged many leaders in the Baltics and Eastern Europe when he characterized them as “warmongers” and insisted that “a few states on our eastern flanks” should not be allowed to “act alone” against Russia.

Meanwhile, populist parties, many of them with pro-Kremlin sympathies, have been gaining ground in major capitals, most especially in Italy. Latest polls suggest that a far-right coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni (Brothers of Italy) and flanked by Matteo Salvini (Northern League) and Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia), is set to take the helm of Rome later this month.

In a bid to win over mainstream voters, Meloni has struck a more traditional line on the Ukraine crisis, but her key allies and other European populist forces in the region will likely press for the reversal of anti-Russia sanctions ahead of a looming energy crisis this winter as Moscow curtails gas supplies.

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni makes a point. Image: Twitter

After spending decades on the margins of EU-level decision-making in Brussels, the Baltics and Eastern Europe have managed to gain a greater voice in continental politics in recent months.

This partly reflects their correct assessment of the likelihood of Russia’s kinetic action against Ukraine, which major Western European nations such as France repeatedly dismissed until the 11th hour.

Following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year, Macron even insisted that he had secured assurance against a full-scale war over Ukraine.

“President Putin assured me of his readiness to engage,” Macron confidently said following his visit to Kremlin in early February. “There is no security for the Europeans if there is no security for Russia,” he added.

Since the advent of war, Baltic and Eastern European countries have also taken up the cudgels for Ukraine, pressing for expanded military and humanitarian assistance to Kiev.

The Baltic state of Estonia has, on a per capita basis, been the biggest contributor to both humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine in recent months. In gross numbers, Poland has been the largest contributor in the EU, and second only to the US within the NATO alliance.

The scale of their assistance to Ukraine can’t be overstated. Last month, Poland signed a US$5.8 billion defense deal with South Korea in order to refurbish its armory, which has been heavily depleted due to large-scale military assistance to neighboring Ukraine.

Aside from direct aid, the EU’s eastern flank has also shown greater willingness to make economic sacrifices amid the knock-on effects of new sweeping sanctions on Russia’s energy exports and financial sector.

Despite suffering from a 23% inflation rate, the highest on the continent, Estonians have largely backed a new wave of sanctions against the Kremlin.

A protester holds Ukrainian and Estonian flags during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Image: Twitter / SOPA / LightRocket via Getty Images

In Poland, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has approved a raft of new legislation, including a moratorium on mortgage payments, in order to blunt the effects of Russia sanctions and Moscow’s response.

Having spent centuries within Moscow’s sphere of influence, EU’s eastern flank members have generally advocated for a far tougher stance, including the imposition of blanket visa bans against Russian citizens. 

Last week, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics announced that Baltic countries, including Estonia and Lithuania, are set to almost completely shutter their borders, with few exceptions, for Russian citizens holding Schengen visas.

Following a meeting last week, eight Baltic and Nordic foreign ministers announced a joint agreement that “in principle” heavily restricts the entry of Russian citizens into the EU. National governments are yet to finalize details of the new agreement, which will likely face heavy scrutiny in Brussels.

“What we have seen in the last couple of weeks and months, is that the number of border crossings by Russian citizens holding Schengen visas have dramatically increased. This is becoming a public security issue, this is also an issue of a moral and political nature,” Latvia’s diplomatic chief said.

Despite gaining a greater voice within the EU, there are still lingering tensions within the bloc. A Polish member of the European Parliament recently complained that leaders in Paris and Berlin “still aren’t listening and continue to get it wrong. This means that their policy towards Russia was intentional and not based on any misunderstanding,”

Having resisted full-scale sanctions on Moscow’s energy exports, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also opposed calls for a complete travel ban on Russian citizens.

For his part, Macron has insisted on the need for maintaining open communication lines with Moscow. “We must assume that we can talk to everyone, especially those with whom we disagree,” the French president said earlier this month, just a day after Russian giant Gazprom stopped gas supplies to its French counterpart, Engie. 

Macron and Putin have maintained lines of communication, though often at a distance. Image: Handout

With Russia sanctions driving up inflation across Europe and sparking massive protests in key countries, Kremlin-friendly populists have been gaining ground across the continent. This is most especially the case in Italy, which has been plunged into political turmoil following the collapse of the centrist coalition led by former prime minister Mario Draghi.

In recent weeks, the far-right coalition led by Meloni has gained a double-digit lead over their center-left rivals under the Democratic Party. Sensing her political moment, the willy populist known for her ideological dexterity, has vowed to stay the course on Russia sanctions.

Yet her top allies Salvini and Berlusconi are seen as broadly sympathetic to the Kremlin, no doubt influenced by the rising cost of living and a looming energy crisis in the EU’s third-largest economy. Salvini’s electoral base in northern Italy has been heavily hit by rising energy costs and declining business with Moscow.

For his part, former leader Berlusconi has had a long history of cozy relations with Putin. Referring to allegations of high-level contacts between Russian diplomats and right-wing Italian leaders in recent months, members of the former ruling coalition have gone so far as accusing Moscow of facilitating the downfall of the Draghi government.

 “We want to know whether it was Putin who brought down the Draghi government. If that was the case it would be of the utmost gravity,” said Enrico Letta, leader of the center-left Democratic Party

But Salvini has dismissed such allegations as baseless accusations by a “desperate and divided left, with some foolish servant in some newsroom [who] passes their time to look for fascists, Russians and racists which don’t exist.”

A top member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia has similarly dismissed accusations of pro-Kremlin sympathies in the party by insisting that “[a]ny change of position must be taken at the European and NATO level” and that anti-Russia “sanctions are inevitable and we must continue to impose them.”

It’s unclear whether the impending victory of a far-right coalition in Italy will dramatically alter the country’s foreign policy, especially on Ukraine.

What’s clear is that there are simmering tensions within the EU on how far they should go in supporting Ukraine militarily and diplomatically against Russia, which is leveraging its stranglehold on Europe’s energy markets to political and economic effect.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian