Revulsion over war in Ukraine ends Rome’s old friendship with Moscow

A year after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi traveled to the peninsula to visit Vladimir Putin. The two drank a 240-year-old bottle of wine from a Crimean winery prized by kyiv as a Ukrainian national asset. Back home, Berlusconi endorsed annexation, criticized EU sanctions against Moscow and praised the Russian president’s leadership.

Although Berlusconi was out of power by then, the trip reflected Italy’s political and business elite’s close ties to Russia – and Rome’s traditional sympathy for Moscow in its strained relations with the EU.

But Italy has not shown such concern for the Kremlin since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Under Mario Draghi, the prime minister, Rome has taken a hard line against Russia, while Italian businesses remain silent on punitive sanctions against Moscow.

Analysts say Italy’s tough new approach – driven by invasion and public horror at the brutality of Russian forces – marks one of the biggest foreign policy shifts in Europe in years, alongside the recent overhaul of Germany’s defense strategy.

Rome had Western Europe’s warmest and oldest ties to Russia and has been accused in the past by European diplomats of preventing tougher EU responses to Moscow’s aggression.

Now, under Draghi – a former president of the European Central Bank who described Russia’s invasion as an attack on the post-World War II multilateral order – he has turned on his old friend.

“That softness towards Russia that made Italy eccentric, or disconnected from the European mainstream, is gone,” said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO. “There is a profound adjustment in the way Italian foreign policy looks at Russia today. Draghi deserves credit for achieving it, but it will outlast him.

In December, Italy’s prime minister downplayed the risks of an invasion of Ukraine, stressed the importance of dialogue with Putin and warned that sanctions would hit Italy harder than other members of the EU, given its dependence on Russia for 40% of its gas imports.

But since Feb. 24, Draghi has described the invasion as a deep attack on European security, hailed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s courage and resilience, and helped craft tough sanctions on Russia’s central bank that froze a much of Moscow’s $643 billion in foreign currency assets.

Italian authorities have seized superyachts and seaside villas worth over a billion euros from Russian oligarchs – a shock to those who expected their ties to influential Italians to protect them of state action.

The Scheherazade, believed to belong to a Russian oligarch, moored in a Tuscan port. Italian authorities have seized yachts and villas worth over a billion euros from wealthy Russians © Federico Scoppa/AFP/Getty Images

Draghi – who has expressed revulsion at the violence inflicted on ordinary Ukrainians – also warned Italians to be prepared for sacrifices, saying in April: “Do we want peace or do you want the air conditioning on?” Rome has pledged not to oppose a Russian energy embargo if the rest of the EU agrees, and Draghi recently told an Italian newspaper that he now agrees with those who call talking to Putin “useless and a waste of time”.

Italian TV talk shows still give plenty of airtime to Moscow sympathizers – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even made a live appearance Sunday night on the country’s biggest private broadcaster, owned by Berlusconi. But a recent survey by the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan found that nearly 61% of Italians blamed Putin for the war, while 17% blamed NATO and 17% were unsure.

Even Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Populist League and a longtime admirer of Putin, distanced himself from the Russian leader and laid flowers outside the Ukrainian embassy in Rome as a sign of concern.

Italian business leaders – who met Putin via video link to discuss strengthening ties even as Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border a month before the invasion – have been silent on EU sanctions against Moscow, a stark contrast to their complaints about sanctions in 2014. Italian companies are seeking to scale back their Russian operations.

“Something irreversible has happened,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs.

Italy’s ties to Russia date back to the Cold War, when Italian companies, led by state-controlled energy company ENI and automaker Fiat, moved into the Soviet Union. Home to the largest communist party in Western Europe, Italy saw itself as a bridge between Moscow and the rest of the West.

Relations deepened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, as more Italian companies, including leading banks, entered the market, the Russian appetite for Italian luxury goods were skyrocketing and new Russian entrepreneurs were investing in Italian assets. As prime minister, Berlusconi has championed a NATO-Russia Council to reduce friction with Moscow over the Western alliance’s expansion into former Soviet bloc countries.

More recently, Moscow has forged ties with Italy’s two largest populist parties, the Salvini League and the Five Star Movement.

But strained relations arose even before the invasion, Tocci said. Moscow’s perceived involvement in Italy’s domestic politics sparked irritation, while the security establishment was unhappy with Russia’s ambitions in Libya, the former Italian colony where Rome’s strategic concerns include the energy and immigration.

Analysts warn that Italy’s resolve against Russia could erode once Draghi’s term ends, especially if ordinary Italians pay a heavy price in the conflict and the cost of living emerges as a major domestic political issue in the 2023 elections.

“It will become a question of the impact of the sanctions on the Italian economy,” said Giovanna De Maio, visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. “If the war continues, it will be difficult for whoever is in power to keep a very strict line.”

But most analysts believe the invasion has irreversibly damaged Italian business confidence in Russia, which will trigger a sharp decline in trade relations and weaken the former pro-Russian constituency.

“As soon as the war stops, the escalation of sanctions will stop, but the trend of reducing dependence on Russia will not change,” Stefanini said. “Big companies like Eni accept reality. There may or may not be a gas embargo, but if you look at the winter of 2024 or 2025, gas and electricity will not come from Russia.

Comments are closed.