Italy the mediator’s crush on Russia

Both the far-right and far-left have been seduced by Putin in a love match that not even war can uncouple.
putin and Berlusconi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi at the reception in Konstantinovski Palace in St.Petersburg. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo.
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In the complicated uncoupling now taking place between Western powers and Russia, there’s probably no country as entangled as Italy. The country is notoriously reliant on Russian gas, importing 33 billion cubic metres in 2019, representing 47% of its entire gas imports. And gas is particularly precious in Italy as it produces 48% of the country’s electricity.

But the economic links go far beyond the energy sector. Russia is a vital market for Italian exports: last year, Italy exported €7.7 billion worth of goods to Russia, mostly machine parts, foodstuffs, textiles and telecommunications infrastructure. There are 660 Italian companies present in Russia, and Italian banks – especially Intesa Sanpaolo – have been key players in Russia’s privatisations. Italian banks have a $25.3 billion exposure to Russian banks, far more than Germany (c.$8 billion), the UK (c.$3 billion) or the US (c. $14.6 billion).

Because of those overlapping economic interests, it’s no surprise that Italian politicians have frequently been shills for Putin. Silvio Berlusconi mimed shooting a journalist at a press conference when Putin, standing alongside him, was asked a tough question. Berlusconi has been repeatedly fawning in his praise of the Russian leader, calling him ‘profoundly liberal, truly a democrat… I consider him almost a younger brother. He’s undoubtedly the number one amongst world leaders’.

Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader of the Lega party, continued the love-in, and has been photographed wearing a Putin T-shirt in Red Square and inside the European Parliament. On the latter occasion, in November 2015, he announced he would exchange two Sergio Mattarellas (the Italian head of state) for half a Putin. He has said of Russia: ‘I feel at home here, unlike in some European countries.’ Putin, said Salvini, is ‘the best statesman currently on earth’. In 2017, the Lega was formally twinned with Putin’s United Russia and there have been repeated allegations that the party was receiving illicit funding from Russia thanks to discounted oil deals.

The appeal of Putin and Russia for the right and far-right in Italy was obvious. Moscow’s macho opposition to multiculturalism, LGBT rights, Islamic extremism, and to the EU and the US, was seductive to many Italian politicians. They began travelling to the Russian capital to attend conferences on ‘Eurasianism’ (the concept of a new continent centred on Moscow) and forged closer economic and ideological ties through an organisation called Conoscere Eurasia – a sort of ‘friends of Russia’ initiative which has recruited the elite of Italian politics. Extremists have been catered for by fringe conferences: in March 2015, for example, Roberto Fiore, founder of the neo-fascist party, Forza Nuova, attended the International Russian Conservative Forum in St Petersburg.

Various far-right Italian mercenaries are fighting alongside Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Those combatants have made contact with a neo-Nazi organisation called Rusich, inspired by Pan-Slavism and by a longing to recreate a twenty-first century nationalistic version of the USSR. The exchange of personnel goes in both directions: in recent years, various Italo-Russians – including Irina Vikhoreva and Irina Osipova – have stood in local elections in Rome for Forza Nuova and another neo-fascist party, Fratelli D’Italia.

But the other end of the political spectrum has also been wooed. Large swathes of Italy’s traditional hard-left have looked to Russia as an alternative to the perceived imperialism or devouring capitalism of the United States. That’s a legacy of the profound, though troubled, ties between Moscow and the PCI (the Italian Communist Party). Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the PCI for 21 years, lived in the Soviet Union during his exile from fascism and had a city on the river Volga named after him, where Fiat duly built a huge car factory. Many of the individuals who now act as evangelists for closer Italy-Russia ties — such as Antonio Fallico, a long-term Moscow resident and president of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Russian operation — are former communists who still see the country through rouble-tinted glasses.

Russia’s ability to seduce both the Italian far-right and its far-left means that Italian militants fighting in Ukraine are as likely to be anti-fascists as they are fascists. Last month, a 46-year-old Venetian, Edy Ongaro, died fighting alongside Russian troops in Donbass. A former communist and part of a ‘red collective’ before fleeing Italian justice, he thought he was fighting fascism. Ongaro was very much a loner, but his journey from anti-fascist to pro-Putinist has been mirrored by more formal organisations on the left. This week, the president of ANPI, the national association of Italian partisans, was embarrassed when his social media posts from 2014-15 emerged to reveal his conviction that Ukraine was a ‘Nazi-like’ state, responsible for ‘heinous massacres, murders and tortures’ and calling Nato ‘shameful’.

It was among the new-wave populists in the Five Star Movement that Russophilia found its most fertile ground. The movement drew disgruntled voters from both the mainstream parties and from the extremities of the political spectrum. Being counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive in the maverick policies it espoused, the Five Star Movement has been a startling conduit for Russian propaganda. The man who is now the leader of the Five Star Movement party, Giuseppe Conte, has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks for his lackadaisical welcome of the Russian military onto Italian soil when he was prime minister at the height of the Covid crisis in 2020. The ‘From Russia with Love’ medical relief was, many believed, a propaganda coup for Putin, if not an actual intelligence gathering operation. Another Five Star politician, Manlio Di Stefano, is now an under-secretary at the Italian Foreign Office; he has previously called Ukraine a US ‘puppet state’, in cahoots with Monsanto and Nato to prepare an attack on Russia. Vito Petrocelli, a Five Star politician who is chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has been avowedly pro-Russia and recently voted against the bipartisan motion in parliament to send aid to Ukraine. A former far-leftist, he has since been expelled from the party.

None of this is particularly new. For centuries, the two countries have been linked by assiduous cultural exchanges: Italian architects (Antonio Solari, Pietro Francesco, Antonio Rinaldi, Domenico Trezzini, Bartolomeo Rastrelli and Carlo Rossi) were responsible for building most of Moscow’s and St Petersburg’s iconic buildings from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, and Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky were notorious Italophiles. Italy has long been a geopolitical mediator, an interlocutor between East and West, between Israel and Palestine and between NATO and Russia. Mediation is, in some ways, what the country does best. Italy is always the opposite of adversarial, and even an estate agent in the country — as anyone who has bought a house in Italy knows — represents both buyer and seller. At the height of the Cold War, Italy’s ever-centric Christian Democrats were engaging with communist Russia. Giovanni Gronchi was the first head of state to visit Moscow after the Second World War, and the energy giant ENI was the first to sign a contract for the importation of Russian natural gas.

There is also a tendency among the Italian intelligentsia to display erudition by adopting the most convoluted position: on Italian talk shows, in newspaper columns and in political sub-committees, unorthodox positions are often admired for their ingenuity. Defending Russia and Putin has become a parlour game, a way for politicians and professors to air their radical credentials, sinewy realpolitik or pseudo-pacifism. Only now that the game has become deadly are some attempting to back-track on their adulation.

Tobias Jones

Tobias Jones is the author of the prize-winning 'Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football'. His next book is a journey along the length of Italy’s longest river, the Po.

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