Gone are the times when the Italian Communist Party preserved its political and strategic autonomy when competing in domestic politics, but always supported the Soviet Union in international politics. Firmly in the Western camp, all Italian governments were happy enough to be members of the two most important organizations: NATO and the European Union. Traditionally, however, no Italian government and no Italian minister of Foreign Affairs played an especially active role. Membership in any international organization means, for most Italians, to be part of that organization, not necessarily to constantly take part in any of the activities of those organizations. Loyalty was the name of the game played by the Italians, not voice, that is, advocacy and/or dissent. Without questioning any choice, all subsequent (and there were many) Italian governments accepted and shared the decisions made within those two organizations.
More autonomy appeared only when dealing with oil producing countries of the Middle-East. As to Russia, Italy has quickly accepted the fact that it is not a democracy and that it is going to be ruled in an authoritarian manner by Vladimir Putin for some time to come. In this case, realism is the name of the game. But there is more to it. Poor in terms of energy sources, Italy significantly relies on gas produced and exported by Russia and it has been unable to reduce its dependence on this source of energy. While, of course, Italy understands that the conflict going in the Ukraine cannot be easily solved, if forced to choose, it will side with those Ukrainians who stress their national independence and want to keep Russia away from their domestic politics. Nevertheless, one thing are popular sympathies, a different thing is to formulate a specific policy. Fortunately for the Italian government this task may be left to NATO and the European Union. Italy may have not shared the idea of enlarging NATO to the East thus challenging the geo-political security of Russia, but its opposition was neither loud nor unremitting. A slightly different story may be told with reference to European sanctions against Russia.
Generally speaking, Italian governments have never considered sanctions as an instrument capable of producing major changes in the politics of the “sanctioned” country. Sanctions may become and be inevitable, but their rate of success is highly debatable, in any case, substantially limited. In the case of sanctions against Russia, there is no doubt that among the member-States of the European Union, Italy was (and remains) the country that has more to lose. It is not just a matter of gas, though very important. It is a matter of trade of many goods, often high quality and highly priced goods and materials that, for a country whose economy is largely export-oriented, significantly contribute to the Gross National Product. This may explain why, though never renouncing her role to express the official politics of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has always tried to formulate a less rigid position vis-à-vis Russia. Still, it would be wrong to believe that Italy is soft on Russia and condones the behavior of its autocrat Vladimir Putin. However, Putin is aware that Italy needs to have thriving commercial relations with Russia. He also knows that there are supporters of Russia in Italy. For a long time he has had a more than amicable personal (but political as well) relationship with Silvio Berlusconi when he was the Italian Prime Minister (2001-2006; 2006-2011).
Recently, out of his newly acquired “sovereignist” perspective and of his adamant opposition to the European Union, the leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini has expressed appreciation for many a Russian activities. Though largely deprived of domestic political power, Berlusconi wants to be and remains Russia’s and, above all, Putin’s best friend in Italy. However, the Russian leader is shrewd enough to know that he cannot just play the “Berlusconi card” in order to put pressure on Italian politicians and governmental office holders. Some propaganda helps, but what counts more for the Italians is trade. It is the possibility to maintain and to enlarge all economic relations with the Russian government and its industrial and financial operators. Once stressed this point, one should by no means come to the unwarranted conclusion that Italy is a sort of soft belly in Southern European countries, available to any kind of Russian penetration, even less so to military penetration. No Italian government will ever renounce or even reduce its role and participation in the two pillars of Italian military security and economic prosperity: NATO and the European Union.
JULY 18, 2017 THE CIPHER BRIEF