Italy has experienced its own “Russiagate”: this summer, news emerged that individuals associated with Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini allegedly tried to obtain financial support from Russia for his League party (Corriere.it, July 26). Links between the Italian nationalist formation and the Kremlin are well known and documented. Indeed, the League has a cooperation agreement with United Russia, the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Il Foglio, July 5). Salvini, who has never hidden his admiration for the Russian president, has often been accused of being the Kremlin’s “fifth column” in the European Union and therefore a threat to both European unity and trans-Atlantic solidarity. That said, recent moves by the right-wing Italian kingmaker, including his June trip to Washington, where he met with Vice President Michael Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, suggest he has not actually thrown his full weight behind Putin (Ansa, June 17).
The website BuzzFeed recently published an audio recording of secret discussions between a close associate of Salvini’s and three Russian businessmen purportedly linked to the Kremlin, held at a hotel in Moscow in October of last year. Gianluca Savoini, the president of the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, as well as two other Italian nationals are heard negotiating the terms of a transaction to covertly fund the League’s European Parliament election campaign in May 2019. The Italian weekly L’Espresso had already reported on the existence of this meeting in recent months. Salvini and the Kremlin denied any involvement, but the Italian judiciary is investigating Savoini’s relations with the Russians (Corriere.it, July 17; TASS, July 12). Italian prosecutors pointed out that the inquiry was complex and could take years. In the meantime, the issue has embarrassed Salvini and is straining already tense relations between his political faction and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement—the League’s partner in the country’s coalition government. Indeed, yesterday (August 8), Salvini publicly called for early elections and asserted that, “there is no longer a governing majority” (Interia, August 8).
The EU is actively monitoring Russia’s connections with various European nationalist-populist parties such as Salvini’s League, the German Alternative for Germany, France’s Rassemblement National and Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (Huffington Post–Italia, July 19). Many suspect that these political forces are financed by the Kremlin to cause mischief in the EU (La Repubblica, June 13). The recently elected president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, announced in mid-July that he would propose a commission of inquiry into foreign (that is, Russian) interference in the bloc’s internal affairs (Rai News, July 21).
Putin wants the EU to scrap the economic and financial sanctions it imposed on Russia in response to the latter’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Moscow’s armed invasion of Donbas in 2014 (TASS, May 26). He also aims to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe as the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stands in the way of Moscow’s muscle-flexing in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
Salvini continues to repeat that Russian counter-sanctions, passed in response to the West’s trade penalties, are damaging the Italian economy (Askanews, April 26). Yet, despite his vocal opposition to European sanctions, he has so far not delivered on his promise to eliminate or ease them. The EU member states prolonged the restrictions against Russia for another six months by a unanimous decision on June 27 (European Council Press, June 27). During his US trip (see above), Salvini again said sanctions against Russia should be lifted; but conspicuously he then added that Moscow must do its part to dispel the West’s fears about its actions in Ukraine (Agenzia Nova, June 17).
Salvini understands that Italy may face US retaliation in the form of secondary restrictions should he move forward with reversing the EU’s sanctions regime. Most importantly, the Italian right-wing leader is keen to secure US investment in his country’s infrastructure modernization, even as he has expressed concern about the growing participation of state-owned Chinese companies in many transport projects in Italy (Euronews Italia, Ansa, June 18; State.gov, June 17).
Additionally, there are conflicting interests between Italy and Russia on energy procurement. Salvini appears aligned with the US against Russia’s Nord Stream Two, the pipeline project designed to double the preexisting natural gas conduit that runs under the Baltic Sea and links Russian territory with Germany. The US government is concerned about Europe’s excessive dependence on Russian gas, but the Italian political-economic establishment is actually more interested in turning the Southern European country into an energy hub to the detriment of Germany (Ilsole24ore.com, March 24). The completion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the possible development of the EastMed gas conduit are in line with this purpose.
TAP is the final (westernmost) segment of the EU-sponsored Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), a planned system of pipelines to transport natural gas from the Azerbaijani Shah Deniz gas field to Italy, through Georgia, Turkey, Greece and Albania. It is expected to pump 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Azerbaijani gas to Europe by 2020, with the aim of doubling supplies in the future. EastMed, which is still on paper, should initially carry 10 bcm of gas per year from offshore reserves in Israel and Cyprus to Greece and onwards to southern Italy. The US reportedly called on Salvini to speed up the construction of TAP as an alternative to Nord Stream Two (Business Insider Italia, June 21). Against this backdrop, Russia’s decision to expand Gazprom’s TurkStream gas pipeline under the Black Sea toward Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, rather than toward Greece and Italy through the SGC or the IGI Poseidon gas conduit, may be viewed as retaliation against Italy’s present energy policy (TASS, July 26).
The reality is that the League cannot help the Kremlin subdue the EU and, by extension, weaken NATO. During his visit to Italy on July 3, Putin said he was not surprised by Italy’s repeated support for the EU’s punitive measures against Russia (Ansa, July 4). He knows his “friends” in the European bloc are politically isolated and incapable of changing the Brussels’s orientation toward Moscow. The European far right performed well in the European Parliament vote in May, but it continues to be a minority in the EU legislative assembly, still dominated by political forces wary of Putin’s intentions.