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Italy and Russia: A love affair that hasn’t quite ended

Italy and Russia: A love affair that hasn’t quite ended

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ROME — When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Italian parliament in March, the number of empty seats was conspicuous. An estimated one in three parliamentarians didn’t attend. 

The no-shows were a tell-tale sign that, even after the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin still has friends in Italy. 

Although Italian Russophilia is often attributed to the strength of the Communist party and close ties to Moscow after World War II, populists across the political spectrum are cozy with Putin. Indeed, there’s a solid bloc of rightists and leftists in the parliament in Rome that consistently pushes back against sending arms to Ukraine and against government plans to increase military spending, triggering tensions in Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s governing coalition. 

Bianca Laura Granato, a senator from Alternativa, a party made up of former members of the populist 5Star Movement, previously known for her anti-vaccine views, labelled parliament “a servile clique” for hosting Zelenskyy and insisted in a Telegram channel that parliament should also hear from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who “is waging an important battle not only for Russia but for all of us against the globalist agenda.”

Vito Comencini, a lawmaker from the far-right League, said that to attend Zelenskyy’s speech would have been “disrespectful” to the people of Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region where Putin-backed rebels seized swaths of land in 2014.

While the leaders of the main political parties have all condemned the invasion, support for Ukraine among the rank and file is patchier, especially among the populist 5Star Movement and the far-right League, which both have pro-Russian strains. 

These members of what has been dubbed Italy’s “Russian party” have variously invoked pacifism to avoid supporting Ukraine with weapons, blamed NATO expansion for the invasion, and claimed that it is Russians in separatist regions who are suffering.  

Nicola Fratoianni, leader of the far-left Sinistra Italiana which condemned the invasion but voted against sending arms to Ukraine and against increasing defense spending, said: “We view NATO … unfavorably. It was created in a different historical time when the world was divided. That world doesn’t exist anymore, so perhaps we need to rethink.” 

Politicians aren’t the only ones defending Russia. Of ordinary Italians, around 12 percent think the Russian invasion is justified, according to a poll for SWG, with the figure rising to 36 percent among right-wing voters. 

Since the invasion, Italian current affairs TV shows have hosted numerous guests who shift the blame for the invasion onto the West. 

Iryna Matviyishyn, a Ukranian journalist and disinformation researcher, was shocked to have to refute claims aired on an Italian panel show about Nazis in Ukraine. “The far-right has only 2 percent of support in Ukraine, much less than in Italy.” Italian media are “intoxicated” by Russian propaganda, she said. “They are trying to create a balance of opinions, but it is not balanced. It is … a distorted, separate Russian reality.” 

Alessandro Orsini, a university professor and security expert, divided Italy when his contract was cancelled after he said on state TV that the West should make sure that Putin wins the war to avoid the risk of an atomic bomb. 

Ivan Scalfarotto, deputy minister for the interior and an MP for the centrist Italia Viva party, criticized giving equal weight to views that amount to propaganda. “Everyone has the right to express their view but I wouldn’t talk to the Ku Klux Klan.”

“If someone undervalues the war, that is not right. If someone denies reality they are spreading disinformation.”

Culture and communists

The friendship between Russia and Italy has deep roots, based on centuries of cultural, political and economic exchange. Writers such as Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky lived in Italy while Italians designed the palaces of St Petersburg.

In the 20th century, the powerful Italian communist party, the strongest in Western Europe, forged robust links with the USSR, and promoted Russian studies in university departments even in small Italian cities, fostering a new generation of Russophiles. Many on the left, including elements of the 5Star Movement, trade unions and former partisans, take a pro-Russia position in criticizing perceived U.S. and NATO meddling around the globe. An Italian communist was killed last week in Ukraine fighting with pro-Russian forces. 

There are also strong economic ties going back to the time of the USSR, including business giants such as the energy major ENI and car maker Fiat, which built the Soviets’ biggest car factory in the city of Tolyatti, named after Italian communist party leader (and Soviet citizen) Palmiro Togliatti. Russia remains an important export market for Italy, particularly for machinery and luxury goods.

Russian tourism has also become significant. In Tuscany, the region once nicknamed “Chiantishire” because of the prevalence of Britons, is now often dubbed “Ruscany.” The enduring economic links were demonstrated days before the invasion when an online meeting between Putin and Italian business leaders went ahead despite protests from the government in Rome. 

Since the end of the Cold War, and on the other end of the political spectrum, Russia has forged close ties with Italy’s right-wing parties. In the 2000s, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Putin struck up a personal friendship, based on economic interests, with Berlusconi even bizarrely naming a bed in his house after Putin. Berlusconi orchestrated the signing of a NATO-Russia treaty of cooperation in Rome in 2002, intended to reset post-USSR relations. 

At the time, Russia was not seen as the enemy of the West, and Italy’s positioning reflected its nuanced long-term foreign policy strategy.  As Aldo Ferrari, head of the Russia program at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) in Milan put it: “Italy is quite weak, with no geopolitical ambitions, so we have always tried to be a bridge at a cultural level to facilitate good relations.” 

As far-right Euroskeptics gained support in Italy, some paraded their admiration for Putin’s decisive and authoritarian style of governing. They see in him a model for their opposition to migration, support of Christian values, and an ally in undermining the EU. 

The League has become the party closest to Putin. Their regional government in Veneto Crimea after annexation in 2014, and its leader Matteo Salvini has slavishly professed admiration for Putin. The League signed an agreement of collaboration with Putin’s United Russia in 2017. These ties became embarrassing in 2019 when members of the League were accused of seeking illegal party funding from Russia, although Salvini claimed he “never received a single ruble.”  

Salvini’s decision to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with Putin’s face and the logo “Army of Russia” in the Red Square in 2014 came back to bite him last month when a Polish mayor used the incident to lambast him on a visit to the Ukrainian border.

Changing of the guard

While Italy has been seen in the past as the weak link in the EU (even after the Crimea invasion in 2014, Italy played a key role in opposing tougher EU sanctions against Russia) the Draghi administration’s tone has signaled a marked shift.

In his maiden speech to parliament, he strongly reaffirmed support for NATO and after the invasion of Ukraine in February, Draghi was quick to align himself with NATO and EU sanctions, and Italy did not hesitate to send arms to Ukraine. Italy has seized oligarchs’ assets and Draghi has urged other EU countries to move similarly quickly. Draghi has been among the most supportive of Ukraine’s bid to join the EU.

This executive is one of the most pro-U.S., pro-NATO ever in Italy, said Ferrari. “Only with Draghi, has Italy adopted such a clear pro-NATO position. It was a surprise to Russia.” He added: “You can see that Draghi trained as an economist in the U.S.”

In a sign of those NATO priorities, Italy deployed the aircraft carrier Cavour join with U.S. and French counterparts to make a joint show of strength in the Mediterranean after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But while the executive is resolutely pro-NATO, the challenge will be to keep the governing coalition parties in line, if the war and inflation continue to impact the economic recovery. Energy prices remain high as the parties move into election mode. 

Last week, there was resistance from the 5Star Movement to plans to hike defense spending from 1.4 percent to 2 percent of gross domestic product in line with NATO commitments, forcing a meeting between Draghi and leader of the 5Stars Giuseppe Conte, who, courting the far left elements in his party, demanded a slower increase, reaching 2 percent by 2030 or beyond, rather than the government plans for 2028. 

While Draghi expressed satisfaction with the end result, the wrangle shows the nature of the challenges still posed by Italy’s so-called Russian party.

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