Russian journalists, pundits and government officials who support the Kremlin’s aggressive war against Ukraine are regular guests on Italy’s political talk shows. To justify their presence, Italian television hosts usually say they want to give people a different point of view on the conflict (Secolo d’Italia, May 26). But the country’s intelligence agencies and the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR) think otherwise. They suspect the on-air participation of Russian public figures is directly linked to Moscow’s campaign of disinformation to influence public opinion abroad (Open, May 13). In this respect, the Russian guests on Italian TV are a “soft” alternative to the traditional job of spies and intelligence agents.
On May 10, COPASIR launched a formal investigation into whether Russia was conducting an orchestrated operation to taint and manipulate Italian public debate on the war (Open, May 10). To date, evidence supporting accusations of collusion between Italian media personalities and the Russian government has been largely nonexistent. Some observers contend that Italian TV hosts simply invite Russian guests onto their shows to create scandal in a bid to increase audience ratings (Politico.eu, May 20).
That said, the Italian media mostly opposes calls to ban Russian propagandists from the airwaves. Prominent Italian journalists and columnists say pro-Russian voices should instead be challenged during public debates (La7, April 26). They also underline that the Kremlin’s propaganda in Italy often backfires, as happened with the interview of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on a TV channel owned by the family of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Indeed Lavrov’s claim that Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood” just like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with deep public condemnation in Italy (Il Foglio, May 2).
Frequent Russian guests on Italian talk shows are Nadana Fridrikhson, a journalist of TV Zvezda, which is controlled by the Russian Ministry of Defense, Petr Fedorov of RTR TV, and Julia Vitazyeva of NewsFront (Il Giornale, May 17; Il Riformista, April 29; Il Tempo, April 1). Vladimir Soloviev, a sanctioned TV host seen as particularly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, also made a controversial TV appearance (Mediaset, April 14). Also familiar to Italian TV viewers is Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. However, the most scrutinized is philosopher Alexander Dugin, sometimes considered Putin’s ideologue. He speaks Italian fluently and is a cultural lodestar for Italy’s far-right parties and groups.
According to independent investigative TV program Report, aired on a public TV channel, Dugin stands behind a “sophisticated mechanism of soft power” that Russia used to lay the ground for the attack on Ukraine. From 2018 on, Dugin would have been part of a $256 million program sponsored by the Kremlin to court right-wing formations as well as political and academic personalities in many European countries to “generate pro-Russian sentiment, undermine Europe’s founding values from within and counter the unipolar power of the United States” (Rai, May 16).
The European Union said the presence of Russian propagandists on Italian TV might break the bloc’s internal rules (EurActiv, May 3). It is worth noting that the European institutions have already banned Russian state-owned media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, and it has become rare for Russian personalities to make TV appearances in EU member countries other than Italy.
Until the outbreak of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war, some EU countries were wary of Italy’s close ties with Russia, particularly those in the oil and natural gas sector (Rai, March 8). Yet since then, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has convincingly sided with Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States in condemning Putin’s war of choice.
During a recent visit to New York, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio rolled out a four-point plan to try to end the conflict in Ukraine (Ansa, May 20). It envisages the creation of an international group formed by the United Nations, the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that should “facilitate” localized truces and humanitarian corridors so as to arrive at a ceasefire and a peace agreement. The other pillars of the Italian proposal are 1) Ukraine’s neutrality but accession to the EU, 2) a solution to the territorial dispute in Crimea and the Donbas region, and 3) a multilateral agreement on European security.
The Italian plan is likely a non-starter, however. Russia said it had never received the proposal, and it does not seem interested in diplomatic solutions at the moment (TASS, May 26; Agi, May 25). For its part, Kyiv has warned that any arrangement that does not provide for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity would not be viable (Open, May 25). Moreover, the Italian effort has received tepid support in the EU as well as the US. Taking into account the military situation on the ground, with the Russian troops making marginal but steady advances, even Di Maio had to admit that peace negotiations were still off the table.
The Italian government’s diplomatic move must be seen through the lens of national politics. Polls find that a majority of Italians condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but at the same time, large portions of the population are against arming the Ukrainians (Ipsos, May 12). Many Italian citizens do not perceive Russia’s violations of international law as a real threat to their lives, and they fear the Ukraine conflict could trigger a world war. This, coupled with a strong pacifist tradition and Vatican influence (for example, the Holy See opposes any increase in arms spending), has fueled anti-NATO sentiments in some Italian quarters.
Italy will hold general elections next year. Two parties within the government of national unity led by Draghi want to capture the votes of electors who do not care whether Kharkiv, the Donbas basin, the Crimea peninsula or Kherson are part of Ukraine or Russia. Former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who is now the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, argues against Italy sending “offensive” weapons to Ukraine and calls on the Draghi cabinet to focus on diplomacy (Rai, April 26). Matteo Salvini, the head of the Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant League party, is also lukewarm about assisting Ukraine militarily (Il Fatto Quotidiano, May 23; TASS, May 13). This should not surprise anyone: in 2018, the League signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party, and Conte’s coalition (League–Five Star Movement) government, while reaffirming Italy’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance, concurrently pointed out that Russia must be seen as a “significant” economic and trading partner, not a military threat (see EDM, June 6, 2018). Rome’s commitment to containing Russian aggression could soon again be put to the test.