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West hits Russia on multiple fronts, but questions over gas reliance remain

“We have given Ukraine 1 billion euros," a top E.U. official said. "But 1 billion euros is what we pay Putin every day for the energy he provides us."

After what many consider a sluggish start, the West is now hitting Russia in a multipronged assault: NATO members are meeting in Europe on Wednesday to discuss more sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and kicking Russia out of a United Nations body.

The push comes after the discovery of atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha apparently committed by withdrawing Russian troops — something President Joe Biden and other world leaders have labeled a war crime.

Despite this full-court press by the West, the real test will be whether Europe can wean itself off Russian gas. The European Union’s foreign policy chief revealed Wednesday that the bloc had paid 35 billion euros (around $38 billion) for Russian energy since the invasion began — compared with 1 billion euros in aid for Ukraine — indirectly financing the Kremlin’s war machine.

“It’s been a belated effort; countries were far too weak as Putin was ratcheting up his war,” said Scott Lucas, a professor at England’s University of Birmingham who specializes in foreign affairs. “But now they’ve got it together, they are adding political and economic pressure to add to Russia’s military defeat.”

Serhii Lahovskyi hugs Ludmyla Verginska as they mourn their common friend, who according to residents was killed by Russian Soldiers, in Bucha
Ludmyla Verginska, 51, and Serhii Lahovskyi, 26, pictured Tuesday, are among those whose friend was killed by Russian forces in Bucha.Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A flurry of meetings in Brussels on Wednesday involve NATO, the Group of Seven leading industrial nations and the European Union. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is among those who have flown to the Belgian capital to consider a raft of measures currently on the table.

Allies are proposing a fifth round of sanctions, including a ban on all Russian coal — the first time Europe has targeted the Russian energy on which it so greatly depends.

The U.S. is sending Ukraine another $100 million for more Javelin antitank missiles. And it is also pushing for Russia to be expelled from the U.N. Human Rights Council — a symbolic but unprecedented move that would require a two-thirds majority among its 193 members.

All of this adds to the hundreds of sanctions already levied against Russian banks, companies and oligarchs. European nations have also in recent weeks expelled dozens of Russian diplomats.

"The sanctions and the combined efforts of private citizens, we've never seen anything at this scale before," said Karin von Hippel, director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank. "I do think it's incredibly impressive."

Increasingly isolated, Russia has resorted to more extreme and far-fetched denials of the reality on the ground in Ukraine, adding to weeks of disinformation pumped out by its state-run media.

Its ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, claimed Tuesday that “not a single local person” suffered violence while Russia controlled Bucha, calling it “a crude forgery” staged by Ukraine. There is no evidence for this, and NBC News journalists are among those to witness the aftermath of these atrocities first-hand.

Von Hippel said that although Russia remains defiant, its battered economy and bubbling domestic dissent shows that it is feeling the squeeze from united Western pressure.

"I don't think Putin cares about diplomatic expulsions and other things that are happening, but once ordinary Russians start to hurt even more, he will worry about that spilling out into the streets and he can only control that for so long," she said.

"The real existential question is what Putin does now that he has crossed the line and we can no longer accept him into the family of nations," she added. "He may feel he has no way out and do something even crazier."

Image: NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels
Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes at Egmont Palace, in Brussels, on Wednesday. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

Despite this praise for the West, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy, like many of his countrymen, wants more support. He urged the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to kick Russia out or simply dissolve itself — which is unlikely to happen.

“Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee? It’s not there,” he said. “Where is the peace?”

And as unprecedented as the sanctions, boycotts and expulsions have been, the focus is now on Europe's reliance on Russian gas.

“We have given Ukraine 1 billion euros,” Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, told European lawmakers Wednesday. “It might seem a lot, but 1 billion euros is what we pay Putin every day for the energy he provides us.” He added that "since the beginning of the war, we have given him 35 billion euros."

Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy, has for years ignored warnings from Washington not to become too dependent on Moscow's energy, only suspending the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as Putin's tanks were about to roll into Ukraine.

But there are noises from Berlin and Europe as a whole that this may be changing.

The atrocities in Bucha prompted German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to tell local TV this weekend that Europe needs to discuss banning these energy imports.

And Charles Michel, president of the European Council, tweeted Wednesday that "oil, and even gas" would have to be put on the sanctions table "sooner or later."