Addressing the Italian parliament, Italy’s new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his government, recently formed by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant League party, was in favor of an opening toward Russia (Ansa, June 5). Moscow voiced satisfaction with Conte’s words (Ansa, June 5). In their “government contract,” which sets the boundaries of their cooperation, the Five Star Movement and the League reaffirm Italy’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with the United States as a “privileged ally”; but at the same time, they emphasize Russia must be viewed as a “significant” economic and trading partner, not a military threat. As a result, the two ruling parties say they will work to lift economic and financial sanctions the European Union imposed on Russia in response to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, and following armed intervention in the Ukrainian Donbas (M5s.international, May 18).
The League (formerly known as the Northern League) is particularly hostile to the sanctions regime. Matteo Salvini, the party’s leader and new interior minister, claims Russian countermeasures are damaging his country’s industries (Formiche, May 17; La Stampa, April 2). Italian exports to Russia declined between 2014 and 2016 (Eurostat, May 18), and sanctions certainly had a negative impact on mutual trade. However, it is just as certain that the fall in Italy’s sales to Russia during that period coincided with the shrinking of the Russian economy, driven in large part by low oil and natural gas prices.
Now that the Russian economy has slightly improved, thanks to the recovery in energy prices, Italy’s exports to Russia have increased. A similar trend can be observed in Russia’s trade with China. Beijing did not pass any sanctions against Russia in the past few years. Nonetheless, Chinese exports to this country decreased to $34.7 billion in 2015, from $49.6 billion in 2013, according to the World Bank. They started recovering in 2016 ($37.3 billion), eventually reaching $42.9 billion in 2017 (China Daily, January 15).
Last year, the League signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin (AGI, December 14, 2017). Salvini has repeatedly spoken positively of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as well as its military campaign in Syria (Rainews, April 12, 2018; Adnkronos, March 20, 2015). Some Italian media outlets have speculated the League is financed by Moscow, like certain other far-right forces in Europe. Salvini has always denied it, and there is no evidence at the moment that his party is on the Kremlin’s payroll. What is known is that the League has connections with a number of opaque associations promoting Russia’s political and commercial agenda in Italy (L'Espresso, February 15, 2018).
Five Star’s positions are more nuanced when it comes to Russia. Reportedly, party leaders had previously met Russian political figures linked to Putin (Il Giornale, November 9, 2017). Moreover, Five Star’s current leadership is ambiguous on Crimea’s status, while its founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, supported the referendum on the peninsula’s separation from Ukraine, despite it being illegal according to international law (Il Messaggero, March 21, 2014). In a diplomatic balancing act, Luigi Di Maio, the party’s political chief and new trade and labor minister, has tried to build up stronger relations with the United States over the past year (AGI, November 14, 2017).
All that said, the new Italian government’s stance toward Russia is not so different from that of its predecessor. With few exceptions, all political forces in Italy oppose sanctions, including the progressive Democratic Party (DP), which headed a ruling coalition until this spring. Unlike the Five Star Movement and the League, however, the DP has always maintained that easing or removing trade restrictions on Russia must be tied to the latter’s respect of the Minsk ceasefire agreements, the diplomatic framework for fostering an end to the Ukraine conflict (see EDM April 18, 2016).
According to Five Star and the League, Russia does not constitute a threat and remains a potential partner for NATO and the EU. In their government contract, the two parties say Italy’s foreign policy focus should be on the Mediterranean area and the fight against illegal immigration and terrorist organizations. In this context, Russia is not seen as a geopolitical rival, but as a stabilizing force that contributes to eliminating the root causes of human trafficking and Islamist terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether this geopolitical vision will translate into concrete actions—such as reducing Italy’s participation in NATO deterrence operations in Central-Eastern Europe or drawing down its involvement in US-led military missions in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
In their political contract, the League and the Five Star Movement do not address the problem of the EU’s gas procurement. This is an important omission given Italy’s important stake in energy negotiations between the European bloc and Russia—Moscow is the EU’s largest supplier of natural gas. For instance, the two governing parties have no clear position regarding the doubling of Nord Stream, a conduit that pipes Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea.
The League does look favorably on the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), the westernmost section of the Southern Gas Corridor, which will bring Azerbaijani gas to Italy via Georgia, Turkey, Greece and Albania and should help southeastern Europe reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas (Il Foglio, May 16, 2018). But the Five Star Movement wants to block the TAP project because of environmental concerns (see EDM, October 19, 2016). More generally, the two ruling partners have said nothing about Italy’s potential role as an energy hub in the Mediterranean region, a cornerstone of the previous government’s energy policy (see EDM, April 10, 2018).
Putin is likely in a wait-and-see mode regarding Italy’s new government. The two ruling parties disagree on many issues, and their political alliance could be short-lived. After all, electoral slogans are one thing, while governing is another (Valdaiclub.com, May 6). Meanwhile, according to the EU Lisbon Treaty, a sanctions regime against a third country can be modified or eliminated only by a qualified majority of member countries (Lisbon-treaty.org, retrieved on June 6). Salvini, who appears to be the true leader of the new government in Rome, said he will ally with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—who is sympathetic to the Kremlin—to change Brussels’ policy (TGCOM 24, June 4). But he will still need the backing of 14 other member states to remove Europe’s penalties against Moscow (IlSole24Ore, May 17)—wishful thinking given the current distribution of forces within the EU.