In the economic war between Europe and Russia, Italy’s elections Sunday are an early test of Western stamina, coming before a winter of painfully high energy bills.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has throttled natural-gas deliveries to the European Union, is hoping that economic pain and public discontent will force Europe’s democracies to reduce support for Ukraine and relax sanctions on Moscow.

The anti-Putin forces are expected to strengthen in Italy on Sunday. Mr. Putin’s threat this week to potentially use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, coupled with his call to mobilize reserves, make it harder for even pro-Moscow politicians around Europe to advocate for concessions such as restoring trade with Russia.

However, voter frustration and political divisions could intensify in coming months if Italy and Europe don’t get a grip on energy prices.

Sanctions emerged as the most contentious issue in Italy’s election campaign, drawing fire from politicians with pro-Russia sympathies and complaints from some businesses and households burdened by rising energy costs.

Yet Italians are expected to elect a Parliament significantly tougher on Russia than the previous legislature, according to polls. The surveys suggest that the next government, as well as the opposition, will be led by pro-Western leaders who have promised to stand by Kyiv.

“We are fully committed to supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia,” said Raffaele Fitto, a senior member of the Brothers of Italy party, which leads a right-wing alliance that polls suggest could win around 60% of the seats in Parliament. “Sanctions must be supported,” he said, “no if’s or but’s.”

Italy’s pro-Ukraine politicians see a hard winter ahead—when many households and businesses will face unaffordable gas and electricity bills, challenging public patience and the new government’s unity.

Mr. Fitto said Rome and the EU must ease the war’s economic fallout by capping the price of gas and decoupling gas from electricity prices. “Helping families and businesses is the top priority,” he said.

Another leading figure on the Italian right, Matteo Salvini, has, however, questioned the measures against Moscow. “I just wonder if sanctions are harming those we would like to harm,” Mr. Salvini, head of the League party, told a business conference this month on the banks of Lake Como.

“That doesn’t mean we should surrender tomorrow to Putin, but I ask myself as a European, and I ask Europe, if this is the right way,” Mr. Salvini said.

The issue has caused tensions between Mr. Salvini and his right-wing ally, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, who is favorite to become Italy’s next leader.

Ms. Meloni told the same conference she would maintain the economic pressure on Russia. “If tomorrow our country breaks with its allies and turns toward the other side, the sanctions will remain anyway, but we will have lost credibility,” she said.Around 43% of Italians support the sanctions while 37% oppose them and 20% say they don’t know, according to a survey this month by Quorum/YouTrend. More than half of Italians supported sanctions early this year, said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of the polling institute.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, condemned Mr. Putin’s plans to annex more Ukrainian territory and said sanctions were weakening Russia’s war machine.

Mr. Draghi, who leaves office well-regarded by most Italians, sent weapons to Kyiv and became one of the EU’s leading advocates for strict sanctions. Divisions soon erupted in his broad-based parliamentary coalition. Some party leaders criticized the arms deliveries and said Italy should act as a diplomatic broker with Moscow, not as a sponsor of Ukraine’s defense.

One critic was Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire former prime minister and leader of the Forza Italia party, who has described Mr. Putin as a personal friend. Mr. Berlusconi called sanctions “a painful tool that also hurts our economies,” although he said Italy must stay on the side of its European partners.

Giuseppe Conte, another ex-prime minister and head of the left-leaning 5 Star Movement, has tried to revive the party’s antiestablishment vigor, including by criticizing Italian arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Mr. Draghi’s most unpredictable coalition member was Mr. Salvini, an anti-immigration firebrand. He often expressed admiration for Mr. Putin before the war. In May, with help from the Russian embassy, Mr. Salvini booked a flight to Moscow to discuss peace in Ukraine. He canceled the trip after a backlash in Rome, including within his party.

Messrs. Salvini, Conte and Berlusconi withdrew their support for Mr. Draghi’s administration in July, triggering snap elections. Although clashes over domestic policies played a role, Mr. Draghi’s allies noted that he was upended by three leaders with a history of warm relations with Moscow.

Mr. Draghi has criticized some Italian media for giving generous airtime to Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Political talk shows often feature Italian intellectuals who oppose Western support for Ukraine.

Philosopher Diego Fusaro, a frequent talk-show guest, is among those who argue that it is time for Europe to distance itself from U.S. foreign policy. “Italy and Europe should defend their neutrality in conflicts that don’t concern Europe,” he said in an interview.

‘Putin’s gamble’

As energy prices go up, the view that sanctions against Russia are hurting Europeans more than Mr. Putin is gaining ground among Italy’s small-business owners and workers.

Restaurateur Gualserio Zamperini is thinking of closing his Gran Caffé San Marco in Florence because of energy bills he can’t afford. The café-restaurant has survived two world wars and pandemic lockdowns, he said, but the economic war with Russia is too much. His gas and electricity bills went to 27,000 euros in August from 4,200 euros a year ago. He displays the bills at the restaurant entrance. An accompanying sign translates to “Bills kill.”

Mr. Zamperini blames the U.S., as well as sanctions and the failure of Italy’s politicians. “We did what the United States wanted us to do, and now we find ourselves in this situation,” he said. He plans to boycott Sunday’s election, in protest against all political parties.

The governing establishment in Rome has for decades defined the national interest as sticking close to the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. During that time, however, many people in Italy and Germany grew to see Russia less as a security threat and more as an energy supplier and export market. Until this year, Italy’s nationalist right hailed Mr. Putin as a champion of traditional values.

On both ends of the ideological spectrum, many Italians harbor a desire to be equidistant from Washington and Moscow. A survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations in May found that most Italians blame Russia for the war in Ukraine, but more of them, compared with other major European nations, support a compromise to end the fighting, even if leaves Russia occupying parts of Ukraine it took by force.

“I don’t see why Europe should pay the cost of sanctions made by Americans,” said Lucia Lucchesi, who works at a herbal remedies shop in Rome. She wants Italy to stop sending weapons to Ukraine, and she plans to vote Sunday for one of the left-wing antiestablishment parties.

“Sanctions are pointless. They just help those who supply energy,” said Alessandro Lombardo, who owns a framing shop in a residential neighborhood of Rome. “People are struggling to pay their bills, and they are not coming to my shop to get things framed.”

It is understandable that Italian voters don’t like war or economic crises, said Nathalie Tocci, head of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, a nonpartisan research group. Yet she doubts high energy prices will strip support from Ukraine.

“This is Putin’s gamble, this is what he is banking on,” Ms. Tocci said. “It won’t work.”

Protective cover

Sunday’s expected winner, Ms. Meloni, would be Italy’s first woman leader. She is robustly pro-Ukraine and has sought to broaden the appeal of her far-right group by repositioning it as a mainstream conservative party. That includes support for Mr. Draghi’s stand against Mr. Putin.

The party’s positions—pro-Ukraine, anti-immigration and pragmatic on economics—seem to be working for her. Polls show Ms. Meloni’s party comfortably ahead of her center-right allies, Mr. Salvini and Mr. Berlusconi.

Officials in Mr. Salvini’s party say the League doesn’t want to repeal the sanctions—just give more help to Italians suffering the consequences.

“Italy cannot permit itself to leave the international coalition,” said Giancarlo Giorgetti, the League’s deputy leader. Mr. Giorgetti, Italy’s minister for economic development in the outgoing Draghi government, said the EU needs to take greater steps to calm energy markets and to help households and companies. “Otherwise, public support for sanctions will fall rapidly,” he said.

The manufacturing base in Italy and Germany is at risk, Mr. Giorgetti said, and the EU needs to marshal its financial firepower to cushion economies as it did during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many in Italian business concur. “We are supportive of sanctions,” said Carlo Bonomi, the head of Italian business association Confindustria. “We, as members of the international community, chose to take a position, and it’s right to stick to it.”

He said the EU should cap gas prices, and Italy should do it alone if EU countries can’t agree. “We are very disappointed with the European response,” Mr. Bonomi said. “It seems that the European Union doesn’t have an energy policy. Every member state is going its own way.”

Mr. Draghi has turned up the heat on Mr. Salvini’s opposition to sanctions in recent days.

Italy is “a strong country, a country loyal to the Atlantic alliance, loyal to Europe,” Mr. Draghi said.

“There is the guy who, instead, madly loves the Russians, wants to remove the sanctions, and talks secretly to the Russians every day,” he told reporters. “Most Italians don’t do it, and don’t want to do it.”

Mr. Salvini, in response, said sanctions would stay but questioned whether they were working. He distanced himself from his pro-Putin past. “Everybody’s judgment on Putin has changed before and after the war,” he said.