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ROME — When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Italian parliament in March, the number of vacant seats was remarkable. A valued one parliamentarian out of three was not present.
The no-shows were a telltale sign that, even after the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin still has friends in Italy.
Although Italian Russophy is often attributed to the strength of the Communist Party and close ties to Moscow after World War II, populists from all political backgrounds are comfortable with Putin. Indeed, there is a strong bloc of right and left in the parliament in Rome that consistently opposes sending arms to Ukraine and the government’s plans to increase military spending, sparking tensions within of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government coalition.
Bianca Laura Granato, a senator from Alternativa, a party made up of former members of the populist 5Star movement previously known for its anti-vaccine views, called parliament a ‘slavish clique’ for hosting Zelenskyy and insisted in a Telegram channel that the 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 attending Zelenskyy’s speech would have been “disrespectful” to residents of Donbass, the region in eastern Ukraine where Putin-backed rebels have seized tracts of land in 2014.
While the leaders of the main political parties have all condemned the invasion, grassroots support for Ukraine is more uneven, particularly among the populist 5-Star Movement and the far-right League, both of which have roots pro-Russian.
These members of what has been dubbed the “Russian partyhave variously invoked pacifism to avoid supporting Ukraine with weapons, blamed NATO expansion for the invasion and claimed that it is the Russians in the separatist regions who are suffering.
Nicola Fratoianni, leader of the far-left Sinistra Italiana who condemned the invasion but voted against sending arms to Ukraine and against increasing defense spending, said: “We see NATO … in an unfavorable way. It was created in a different historical time when the world was divided. That world no longer exists, so maybe we need to rethink.
Politicians are not the only ones defending Russia. Among ordinary Italians, around 12% think the Russian invasion is justified, according to a survey for SWG, that figure rising to 36% among right-wing voters.
Since the invasion, Italian current affairs television shows have had many guests who blame the invasion on the West.
Iryna Matviyishyn, a Ukrainian journalist and disinformation researcher, was shocked to have to refute claims aired on an Italian show about Nazis in Ukraine. “The far right has only 2% support in Ukraine, much less than in Italy.” Italian media are “intoxicated” by Russian propaganda, she said. “They try to create a balance of opinions, but it’s not balanced. This is… a distorted and separated Russian reality.
Alessandro Orsini, a university professor and security expert, divided Italy when his contract was canceled after he said on state television that the West should ensure Putin wins the war to avoid the risk of an atomic bomb.
Ivan Scalfarotto, deputy interior minister and MP from the centrist Italia Viva party, criticized giving equal weight to propaganda views. “Everyone has the right to express their point of view, but I would not speak to the Ku Klux Klan.”
“If someone underestimates war, that’s not good. If someone denies reality, they are spreading misinformation.
Culture and communists
The friendship between Russia and Italy has deep roots, based on centuries of cultural, political and economic exchanges. Writers such as Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky lived in Italy while the Italians designed the palaces of Saint Petersburg.
In the 20th century, the powerful Italian Communist Party, the most powerful in Western Europe, established strong ties with the USSR and promoted Russian studies in university departments, even in small Italian towns, fostering a new generation of Russophiles . Many on the left, including elements of the 5 Star Movement, unions and former supporters, take a pro-Russian stance in criticizing perceived US and NATO interference in the world. An Italian Communist was killed last week in Ukraine fighting with pro-Russian forces.
There are also strong economic ties dating back to the days of the USSR, including business giants such as energy giant ENI and automaker Fiat, which built the largest Soviet car factory in the city of Togliatti, named after Italian Communist Party leader (and Soviet citizen) Palmiro Togliatti. Russia remains an important export market for Italy, especially for machinery and luxury goods.
Russian tourism has also become important. In Tuscany, the region once nicknamed “Chiantishire” due to the predominance of the British, is now often nicknamed “Ruscany”. The enduring economic ties 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 at the other end of the political spectrum, Russia has forged close ties with Italian right-wing parties. In the 2000s, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Putin struck up a personal friendship, based on economic interests, Berlusconi even oddly naming a bed in his house after Putin. Berlusconi orchestrated the signing of a NATO-Russia cooperation treaty 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, said: “Italy is quite weak, without geopolitical ambition, so we have always tried to be a bridge to the cultural level to facilitate good relations.”
As far-right eurosceptics gained ground in Italy, some showed admiration for Putin’s decisive and authoritarian style of government. They see him as a model for their opposition to migration, a support for Christian values and an ally to undermine the EU.
The League has become Putin’s closest party. Their regional government in Veneto Crimea after annexation in 2014, and its leader Matteo Salvini slavishly professed their admiration for Putin. The League signed a collaboration agreement with Putin’s United Russia in 2017. Those ties became embarrassing in 2019 when League members were accused of seeking illegal party funding from Russia, although Salvini claimed that he “never received a single ruble.”
Salvini’s decision to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with Putin’s face and the ‘Army of Russia’ logo in Red Square in 2014 came back to bite him last month when a Polish mayor used the incident to castigate him during a visit to the Ukrainian border. .
Changing of the guard
While Italy has in the past been seen as the EU’s weakest link (even after the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Italy played a key role in opposing tougher EU sanctions). EU versus Russia), the tone of the Draghi administration marked a marked change.
In his first speech to parliament, he strongly reaffirmed his support for NATO and after the invasion of Ukraine in February, Draghi was quick to align himself with NATO and EU sanctions. EU, and Italy did not hesitate to send arms to Ukraine. Italy seized the assets of the oligarchs and Draghi urged other EU countries to do the same quickly. Draghi was among the most supportive of Ukraine’s bid for EU membership.
This executive is one of the most pro-US and pro-NATO of all time in Italy, Ferrari said. “It was only with Draghi that Italy took such a clear pro-NATO position. It was a surprise for Russia. He added: “You can see that Draghi was trained as an economist in the USA”
As a sign of these NATO priorities, Italy deployed the aircraft carrier Cavour with its American and French counterparts to make a joint show of force in the Mediterranean after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But while the executive is staunchly pro-NATO, the challenge will be to keep the ruling coalition parties on track, if war and inflation continue to impact economic recovery. Energy prices remain high as parties shift into election mode.
Last week, the 5-Star Movement resisted plans to increase defense spending from 1.4% to 2% of gross domestic product in line with NATO commitments, forcing a meeting between Draghi and the chief of the 5 stars Giuseppe Conte, who, courting the distant left-wing elements of his party, demanded a slower increase, reaching 2% by 2030 or beyond, rather than the government’s plans for 2028.
While Draghi said he was happy with the end result, the row shows the nature of the challenges still posed by the so-called Italian Russian Party.