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On September 25, the so-called center-right coalition—made up of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a radical right-wing party from the world of post-fascism that now presents itself as conservative and traditionalist; Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord; and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia—won the Italian elections. There are many open questions regarding this coalition, which will soon come to power. These questions relate not only to the domestic political course it will chart, but also to its view on relations with the European Union and its attitude toward the war in Ukraine.

When it comes to the war in Ukraine, the burning question is: Will the new ruling coalition continue the policies of the previous government, or will it change course? From the beginning of the conflict, Prime Minister Mario Draghi adopted a very clear position: firm condemnation of Russian aggression, absolute support for Ukraine, a request for the rapid integration of Ukraine into the European Union, and sending arms to the Kiyv government. In parallel, Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio, in coordination with the President of Italy’s Council of Ministers, developed a proposal for a peace plan that was unveiled on May 18, but it withered. This approach was far from unanimously supported by Italy’s political parties, even those associated with the government of the former President of the European Central Bank. Clear proof of this came on March 22, when President Zelensky addressed Italian deputies and senators in a video message: nearly 300 of 945 were absent, with no particular reason for this absenteeism expressed.

Italy and Russia maintain strong ties. It is necessary to understand these before analyzing the attitude of Italy’s political parties toward the war in Ukraine and asking what the next government will do.

Italy and Russia Before the War

Italy has long maintained close cultural, political and economic relations with Russia. It suffices to recall that during the Soviet era, the Italian Communist Party (PCI)—the most powerful in Western Europe after 1945—depended on Moscow; despite distancing itself from the USSR during the 1960s and 1970s, it never really broke its “iron ties,” as they were known within the party, to the founding country of modern communism.

Admittedly, the PCI has disappeared since 1991, but fragments of its political culture, including strong pro-Russian sentiment and a hostility in principle to the United States, live on. These feelings are particularly strong in various small parties on the left, as well as the leftist wing of the Democratic Party (PD). Likewise, the leaders of the 5 Star Movement (M5S), Beppe Grillo and Luigi Di Maio, have repeatedly expressed full support for Putin’s Russia. Indeed, Di Maio even condemned the European sanctions imposed on Moscow following the annexation of Crimea.

This should by no means be understood to suggest that the Italian left or M5S have a monopoly on sympathy for Russia. Many right-wing leaders and political parties have proclaimed urbi et orbi their affection and admiration for the current master of the Kremlin. Silvio Berlusconi said he was proud of his great and deep personal friendship with Vladimir Putin, whom he invited to his luxurious villa in Sardinia twice (in 2003 and 2008). Indeed, Il Cavaliere is very sensitive to flattery and the Russian leader is not stingy with his praise. On July 4, 2019, while passing through Rome, he declared Berlusconi to be “a politician of world stature.”

In return, the latter repeatedly praised him: he did not hesitate to declare on September 10, 2010, with his usual emphatic tone and provocativeness, that Putin “was a gift from the Lord.” Three years later, he explained that Putin “is the best politician in the world […], for Russia it’s a great chance to have him as leader”.   In 2014, Berlusconi supported Putin’s action in Crimea. So too did Matteo Salvini, who has likewise frequently sung Putin’s praises. “I would like it (to become) tomorrow morning as President of the Council,” he said on December 3, 2014. On March 11, 2015, he exclaimed before the European Parliament, “I believe that Russia today is certainly much more democratic than the European Union, a fake democracy. I would make a change, and I would take Putin to half of the European countries, which are being badly governed by so-called elected ‘firsts’ who are not elected by anyone, but are in fact remotely controlled by others.” On November 28, 2017, he stated, “I say that Putin is one of the best men in government in the world. I say it because I believe it and not because someone suggests it to me: if we had a Putin in Italy, we would absolutely be better.” These are just a few examples from Salvini’s anthology of such quotes.

Lega Nord has gone even further. On March 6, 2017, the party signed a confidential cooperation agreement with the Putin-linked United Russia party, which later leaked to the media. In October 2018, according to a journalistic investigation published on on July 7th 2019, someone close to Salvini tried to obtain Russian money from Moscow for the Lega.

Brothers of Italy has also expressed its consonance with the head of the Kremlin and with Russia, but in a slightly more restrained way, even if Giorgia Meloni was, on March 18, 2018, the first in Italy to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his re-election as head of the Russian Federation, adding that “the will of the people […] is unequivocal.”

The excellent relationship that Forza Italia and the Lega enjoy with Russia is due to several factors. First is the economic interests of the peninsula, a massive importer of Russian oil. Many voters in the north of the country, where companies have strong ties to Russia, have material reasons for wanting their country to maintain good relations with Russia, which is precisely what Forza Italia and the Lega promote.

For his part, Silvio Berlusconi thought he could mediate between Moscow, the European Union, and even NATO. Moreover, Forza Italia and the Lega, and to an even greater extent their leaders, display elective affinities with the master of the Kremlin. They see in Putin the leader—powerful, authoritarian, virile, provocative, able to decide and to act quickly—whom they aspire to be in their own country. The Lega, even more than Berlusconi’s party, appreciates Russia’s Christian values, its anti-Islamism, and its nationalism, which echo what the Lega defends in Italy. Finally, Salvini shares with Vladimir Putin his criticism of the European Union and NATO; for him, Russia represents a potential ally in the event that he comes to power.

War, Political Parties, and Public Opinion

All the pro-Russian Italian parties and officials were taken aback by the February 24 attack. Brothers of Italy immediately and unequivocally condemned it, supporting the Ukrainian government as well as sending arms to Kyiv and professing the party’s loyalty to the Atlantic Alliance. Silvio Berlusconi, after a moment of hesitation, declared himself, on April 9, “deeply disappointed and saddened by the behavior” of his dear friend Vladimir Putin and backed the sanctions. Matteo Salvini criticized the Russian invasion but expressed disapproval of the sanctions against Moscow. He sought to erase any memory of his many previous remarks favorable to Putin, which he had never before hesitated to make (indeed, Salvini had even worn a T-shirt featuring Putin). M5S likewise condemned the invasion but, unlike Salvini, approved the Italian decision to support the sanctions taken against the invader.

The question of whether Italy should send arms to Ukraine—underpinned by Article 11 of the Constitution, which proclaims that Italy “rejects war as an instrument of aggression against the freedom of other people and as means for the settlement of international disputes” divided the parties. Besides Brothers of Italy, Enrico Letta, the leader of the PD, firmly supported Mario Draghi’s decision, while trying to calm down the far-left wing of his party, which opposed it and demonstrated in the streets—alongside trade unionists and members of various associations—to the cry of “Neither Putin nor NATO.”

The Lega and M5S also oppose the delivery of weapons. The former does so in the name of the interests of business leaders in the north of the country, who work extensively in and with Russia, as well as those of the more popular categories who risk paying the consequences of the sanctions taken against Moscow. The latter does so in the name of peace, as the pacifist tradition of both the Communist and Catholic matrix remains extremely pregnant. As for Silvio Berlusconi, he made contradictory statements on the topic last May. At first, he opposed the delivery of arms, which, according to him, would make Italy a “co-belligerent” country as he said on May 20th; then, in the face of the flood of criticism that this statement aroused—including from of his relatives—he backtracked.

However, his party and the Lega contributed to the fall of Mario Draghi’s government in August. This could only be cause for rejoicing on the part of the Kremlin, as evidenced by the public statements of their leaders. There has also arisen a suspicion of Russian interference in the government crisis, especially since it has been revealed that leaders of the Lega, including Matteo Salvini, have been received at the highest levels of the Russian embassy since the start of the conflict. Moreover, a few days before the President of the Council was forced to resign, a senior embassy official questioned Salvini’s international relations adviser on the attitude the Lega could and should adopt toward the Italian government.

Last but not least, Russia visibly interfered in the election campaign. On August 17, Dimitri Medvedev, Vice-President of the Russian Security Council and former President of Russia, in a clear allusion to the election of September 25, called on European citizens to punish their governments on the occasion of the elections and exerted direct pressure on them by writing that “winter in the company of Russia is much warmer and more comfortable than in splendid isolation with the gas heater off and no electricity.”

Of all the polls that have been published on the war in Ukraine, the most instructive and comprehensive is undoubtedly the one carried out last July by the Aspen Italy Institute and the Political and Social Analysis Laboratory of the University of Siena. Seventy-seven percent of Italians say they are in favor of welcoming Ukrainian refugees; 71% approve of the sanctions against Russia; 65% point to Russia as responsible for the war (even if 39% believe that the expansion of NATO is at its origin); 67% agree with blocking the import of Russian gas and oil, even if this has a negative impact on energy prices and employment; and 63% want Ukraine to be integrated into the European Union. Perhaps the presence and integration of the largest Ukrainian community in Europe— nearly 236,000 people before the start of the war—partly explains this clear empathy for Ukraine. Nevertheless, only 45% approve of their government sending arms to Ukraine, which attests to the impact of the positions of the 5 Star Movement, the Lega, Sinistra italiana (a left-wing party), statements by a number of personalities and intellectuals on both the left and on the right, and also the weight of the pacifist culture.

What Will Happen with the Right in Power?

One of the first points in the program of the new rightist coalition is to provide “support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion” and “support for any diplomatic initiative with a view to resolving the conflict.” The formula synthesizes the compromise between Brothers of Italy’s intransigence—reiterated several times by Giorgia Meloni—on the point that Italy must side with the Ukrainian people, on the one hand, and the quest for a truce or peace, on which the Lega and Forza Italia have insisted, on the other hand.

This did not prevent Matteo Salvini from continuing to condemn the sanctions, which, according to him, penalize Italians. As for Silvio Berlusconi, during a television program three days before the vote, he made one of his customary ambiguous declarations, which unleashed controversy because it seemed to exculpate the master of the Kremlin and legitimize his action. Indeed, he explained that Putin “was pushed by his population, his party and his ministers to invent this special operation in Ukraine as it was defined” and that his initial objective was to enter Kyiv “in a week and replace Zelensky’s government with a government of good people.”

The differences are therefore deep, and it will be up to the government that will be formed to decide. In this regard, tensions will continue to arise between the Lega and Forza Italia, which are inclined to seek an end to the conflict and which may be subject to pressure from Moscow, on the one hand, and Brothers of Italy, which is in complete agreement with the strategy of the Atlantic Alliance, on the other hand. However, Georgia Meloni finds herself in a stronger position. Her party won nearly 26% of the vote, compared to the Lega’s 8.7% and Forza Italia’s 8.1%; she therefore finds herself in a dominant situation. Furthermore, Sergio Mattarella, the deeply pro-European President of the Republic, will also have a role to play—especially since article 92 of the Constitution allows him to influence the appointment of ministers. Historically, he has watched very closely over the assignment of posts considered to be decisive: the ministers of the economy and finance, the interior, foreign affairs, and European affairs.

This future government is already under pressure. Indeed, following the elections, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared, “Moscow is ready to welcome any political force ready to demonstrate a constructive attitude towards Russia,” a message intended for the Lega and Forza Italia, among others. For his part, President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a message on social media that read “Congratulations to Giorgia Meloni and her party for the victory in the elections,” notably addressing only her and not the coalition of which she is a member. He added, “We appreciate Italy’s constant support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. We are counting on a deep collaboration with the new Italian government.” Georgia Meloni replied immediately, “You can count on our loyal support for the cause of the freedom of the Ukrainian people,” a statement that attests to the fact that her determination is unchanged.

It remains to be seen how public opinion will evolve with a rise in Russian interference via social networks and as Italian influencers won over to the cause of Vladimir Putin intervene. As we have seen, if Italy expresses deep support for Ukraine, it nevertheless remains reluctant to send arms to the Ukrainian army. But how will it react if the social climate deteriorates under pressure from inflation, and in particular the rise in energy prices, which are already particularly high for businesses and families due to Italy’s energy dependence? What will the government’s attitude be next fall or winter if its popularity is affected and declines? These are questions facing all European countries, but they seem particularly acute in Italy.

Photo: “Прем’єр-міністр України Володимир Гройсман зустрівся з Міністром закордонних справ Італії Анджеліно Альфано,” by licensed under CC BY 4.0.