Pragmatic Italy, the most exposed to support sanctions against Putin

Only two years ago, Vladimir Putin sent a convoy of Russian army trucks and SUVs to Bergamo with soldiers, medical supplies and doctors at the worst stage of the pandemic. At a time when European states were still wavering, the Russian president won a great propaganda triumph in Italy. The Russian flag was in the foreground.

Today, Italy, led by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, fully embraced the economic sanctions package imposed by the EU on Moscow and the positions supported by its NATO allies. Although he was initially worried about Russia leaving the Swift payment system, he rectified it and ended up supporting it. Rome did not hesitate to close the airspace to Russia or send weapons to Ukrainian government forces, such as anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles, machine guns or ammunition. The Community effort will undoubtedly have wide-ranging implications for all European citizens. But the Italians fear their sacrifice will be even greater.

“If the Russian gas supply is suspended, Italy would have more to lose than the other EU states,” Mario Draghi assumed before Parliament this week. Around 45% of the gas that Italy imports from abroad comes from Russia. The Prime Minister promised measures to diversify energy supplies, acknowledging the mistake of putting all his eggs in one basket. At the moment, they plan to import liquefied natural gas from the United States, to promote renewable energies or even to reactivate coal-fired power stations.

In the midst of the Cold War, Fiat opens a car factory in a Soviet city, renamed Togliatti

But the ties between Italy and Russia go far beyond energy. Italy is a country with a commercial soul. Its international power does not derive from its geopolitical weight or from an imperial past, but from business and culture. Historically, Rome has maintained political and economic pragmatism with Moscow, while trying to curry favor with Western international organizations. In the midst of the Cold War, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was the most important outside the Soviet sphere. “Italy was designed to be a bridge of dialogue between the two worlds. It was objectively the most communist country among the capitalists,” explains international relations professor Igor Pellicciari. Enrico Mattei, president of ENI, sold the oil extraction technology to the USSR. In the 1960s, Fiat opened a car factory in a Soviet town that was eventually renamed Togliatti, its current name (in reference to Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti).

“Italy could play its part in normalizing relations between Russia and the West,” Russian Ambassador to the country Sergei Razov said recently. Some 500 Italian companies do business with Russia. After the fall of the USSR, it became a big market for them, where they produce everything from pasta to tires. Trade between the two countries last year represented more than 21 billion euros.

The latest episode that raised alarm bells in Washington was a meeting of some of Italy’s most powerful businessmen with Putin to discuss market opportunities, despite the fact that executive Draghi tried to dissuade them from participating. . Among them were representatives of Generali, the Unicredit bank or Francesco Starace, of the energy company Enel, controlled by the State. Her brother is the Italian ambassador to Moscow. A week before the invasion, Italian and Russian businessmen were discussing energy investments worth hundreds of millions of euros, Bloomberg reported.

“If the Russian gas supply is cut off, Italy would have more to lose than other countries,” admits Draghi

The Italian rapprochement with Russia has no political colors. “There was a bipartisan consensus that it was safe. The current gas supply contract was signed in 2006 by Romano Prodi’s government,” says Marco Siddi, a researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Relations. Florentine Matteo Renzi, a disgraced former prime minister, joined the board of Russia’s Delimobil, one of the biggest companies in the car-sharing industry, this summer, and resigned from his post after the Russian attack. Tycoon Silvio Berlusconi maintains an uncomfortable silence these days. He has always boasted of a deep friendship with Putin, whom he personally congratulated on the year. Matteo Salvini, who now swings to condemn the invasion, recently declared him to be his model politician.His party, the League, was under investigation for possible Russian funding.Enrico Letta, current secretary of the Democratic Party, was criticized when he was Prime Minister for have ass ist at the opening of the Olympic Games in Sochi and not having followed the example of others like Barack Obama or Angela Merkel.

“We are perfectly aligned with the other EU countries, first of all with France and Germany”, repeats Draghi, who already in his investiture speech promised to rediscover the Italian Atlanticist vocation. The former banker was forced to deny he was pushing for Italy’s luxury sector to be excluded from the sanctions. The Prime Minister is clear: “Italy has no intention of looking away”.

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