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Work at a Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline construction site, in Lubmin, northeastern Germany, on March 26, 2019.TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Europe’s big unity tests began Tuesday morning, only hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine and poured “peacekeepers” into those areas.

Within minutes of the formal takeover of Donetsk and Lugansk, the United States and several European countries threatened to hit Russia with immediate sanctions. This was predictable. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the sanctions came fast – and some are still in place.

But the extent and intensity of the new sanctions are hard to predict. By rights, they should be at Crimea-level times 10, since Moscow’s recognition of the two separatist regions is a clear violation of international law and may be a prelude to a wider war. British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News Tuesday morning “that you can conclude the invasion of Ukraine has begun.” U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a similar message later in the day.

Russia-Ukraine crisis live updates: Canada to send more troops to Europe, slap fresh sanctions on Russia

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz removed some doubt about the sanctions package Tuesday when he said he had stopped the certification of the new Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to northern Germany. Nord Stream 2 was completed in the autumn but had yet to deliver any gas, so Germany will not lose deliveries.

Still, cracks formed in the West’s resolve on hitting Russia with sanctions even before Mr. Putin sent his troops into eastern Ukraine; those cracks may not fully close even if the audacity of Mr. Putin’s move should automatically dictate across-the-board unity among NATO and European Union countries.

Within hours – minutes, actually – of Russia’s incursion, the leaders, senior cabinet ministers or ambassadors of several Western countries, including Poland, Lithuania, Britain and the United States, called for tough sanctions.

Whether they will be truly tough is as yet unknown; early indications are that a few big countries will withhold some or most of their economic firepower, at least at this stage.

Mr. Biden was quick to sign an executive order that economically isolates Donetsk and Lugansk. Not a big deal, that one. Those areas were isolated from Ukraine already, and now they and their 3.5 million residents are forever off Kyiv’s payroll, which may secretly please the government. On Tuesday, he doubled down by placing sanctions on VEB, the Russian state development bank, and the military bank. Other sanctions were aimed at preventing the Russian state from raising funds on U.S. financial markets.

Some big countries’ hesitancy to clobber not only Russia but Mr. Putin himself and his gang of oligarchs, with whom he has a symbiotic relationship, may be strategic and calculated. If they unleash all their sanctions firepower now, Mr. Putin might be encouraged to take the rest of Ukraine in the belief that the West’s powder keg is empty and he would have nothing more to lose.

At the moment, he may be gambling that tough sanctions could damage a few European countries as much as his own.

That reality might explain why Germany, Italy and France, while quick to condemn the annexation of eastern Ukraine, were not quick to reveal a range of savage sanctions beyond the move to stop the certification of Nord Stream 2. Other sanctions could include blocking Russian banks from the global SWIFT payment system; a ban on the sale of Western technology to Russia; and booting Russian companies and oligarchs from the London capital markets, which are widely believed to function as the oligarchs’ laundromat.

Europe’s gas pipelines

Gas pipelines

Entry stations

RUSSIA

Nord Stream 2

NETH.

Yamal

BRITAIN

Sudzha

Mallnow

BEL.

POLAND

UKRAINE

Sokhranovka

FRANCE

CZECH REP.

Russia exports around

16 billion cubic feet

per day (bcfd) of

natural gas to Europe

ITALY

TURKEY

GRAphic news, Sources: BP Review of world

energy; Reuters

Europe’s gas pipelines

Gas pipelines

Entry stations

RUSSIA

Nord Stream 2

NETH.

Yamal

BRITAIN

Sudzha

Mallnow

BEL.

POLAND

UKRAINE

Sokhranovka

FRANCE

CZECH REP.

Russia exports around

16 billion cubic feet

per day (bcfd) of

natural gas to Europe

ITALY

TURKEY

GRAphic news, Sources: BP Review of world

energy; Reuters

Europe’s gas pipelines

Gas pipelines

Entry stations

Nord Stream 2

RUSSIA

NETH.

Yamal

BRITAIN

Sudzha

Mallnow

BEL.

GERMANY

POLAND

UKRAINE

Sokhranovka

CZECH REP.

FRANCE

ITALY

Russia exports around 16 billion

cubic feet per day (bcfd) of

natural gas to Europe

TURKEY

GRAphic news, Sources: BP Review of world energy; Reuters

Take Italy, which imports about 90 per cent of its gas, with Russia being the biggest supplier. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi knows his country is already suffering from surging hydrocarbon energy prices – Italy has no nuclear generating power and scant hydro power – which are causing pain for businesses and families and triggering inflation. He doesn’t want the pain to intensify.

So on Friday, Mr. Draghi, no doubt well aware that the situation in Ukraine would deteriorate, in effect drew a line in the sand on the sanctions front. “We are discussing sanctions with the EU and in the course of these discussions we have made our position known, that they should be concentrated on narrow sectors without including energy,” he said, a comment The Wall Street Journal said constituted “pre-emptive surrender.”

How ironic. Mr. Draghi, a former boss of the European Central Bank and a former Goldman Sachs executive, is known as the supreme Europhile and Atlanticist. But the leader of the EU’s third-largest economy appears to be taking an every-man-for-himself approach to punishing Russia.

Germany is, too, because the country has made itself a slave to cheap Russian gas in the past two decades – to the point that it is one of the few coastal countries on the continent without a liquefied natural gas import terminal. Mr. Scholz had vowed a united sanctions front but was non-committal until Tuesday about Nord Stream 2.

While the certification process has stopped, the pipeline may not be dead. If the Russian invasion of Ukraine goes no further, Russia may be able to persuade Germany to put it into operation. Germany has an aggressive plan to close its coal burners to meet its net-zero goal; the country will find it next to impossible to achieve that goal without ample Russian gas supplies.

Elsewhere on the sanctions front, it appears the EU countries are losing interest in cutting Russia out of SWIFT. SWIFT works both ways. It would mean that Russian financial institutions could not make payments to creditors in Europe.

Mr. Putin is no doubt enjoying the disconnect between the strong language and the trepidation among some countries to implement strong sanctions, more or less a repeat of his Crimea experience, where the sanctions deterred him not one bit. He might be overconfident – the next round of sanctions could be monstrous. Still, sensing some hesitation by Italy and a few other countries, he is gambling they won’t be.

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