Putin’s War Against Ukraine Divides Italy’s Likely Next Ruling Coalition

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 118

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party (Source: The Telegraph)

In the lead-up to snap parliamentary elections planned for September 25, Italy’s likely next ruling coalition is already divided on Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine. Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi is a staunch supporter of the Ukrainian fight against the Russians, and Rome’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union are concerned that a center-right government will soften Italian opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.

The right-wing and national-conservative Brothers of Italy, which is currently in opposition but tops polls for the upcoming elections, has promised to back the Ukrainian side in line with the Draghi administration’s policy.

Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, has the best chance to become the next Italian premier. Her party is often described by adversaries as a crypto-fascist formation with connections to Hungary’s “illiberal” leader, Viktor Orban, and Jarosław Kaczynski, the ultraconservative leader of Poland’s ruling party.

In response, Meloni has reiterated that, in a future center-right government, her party “will be the guarantor, without ambiguity, of the Italian position [in the Western camp] and of the absolute support for the heroic resolve of the Ukrainian people” (Ansa.it, July 29).

Leading members of Meloni’s party pointed out that a Brothers of Italy–led administration would be tougher on Putin’s aggression than Draghi’s cabinet has been (Open.online, July 23; Fanpage.it, July 22). Adolfo Urso revealed that the Italian Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR), which he chairs, had opened an investigation into possible Russian (and Chinese) interference in the upcoming elections (Open.online, July 22).

On May 10, COPASIR had already launched a formal inquiry into whether Russia was conducting an orchestrated operation to taint and manipulate Italian public debate on the Ukraine war (see EDM, May 26).

With her pro-NATO and pro-Western stance, Meloni most likely will not change Italy’s orientation toward the conflict in Ukraine. The fact that she is close to Kaczynski, a Russia hawk, should balance relations with Orban, whom many EU chanceries view as a longtime ally of Putin.

In the European Parliament, the Brothers of Italy is not part of the political group bringing together Europe’s extremist formations—often sympathetic to Russia. Instead, it is affiliated with the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, which has solid links with the ruling coalition led by the European People’s Party.

Despite being part of the Draghi government, the Brothers of Italy’s major allies, the League and Forza Italia, have repeatedly come under attack for their overtures to the Kremlin. In 2018, the Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant League party signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party (see EDM, June 6, 2018). The League’s head, Matteo Salvini, has always been tepid about assisting Kyiv militarily, emphasizing that his party does stand with NATO but also wants to maintain amicable relations with the Kremlin (TASS, May 13).

According to the Italian media, an intelligence report revealed that, in May 2022, an aide to Salvini was in contact with Russian embassy officer Oleg Kostyukov in an attempt to bring down the Draghi government (Open.online, July 29). Salvini dismissed the issue as “nonsense,” while Italian State Undersecretary for Security Franco Gabrielli contended that such information could not be attributed to Rome’s spy agencies (Ansa.it, July 29; Adnkronos, July 28). This has led to the belief among analysts that the “leak” came from foreign intelligence.

Furthermore, the Kremlin is reportedly helping the League’s electoral campaign by pushing thousands of migrants to enter Italian territory from Libya (Open.online, July 29). Russian Wagner group mercenaries (who are also fighting in Ukraine) are allegedly behind the operation. They are stationed in the Cyrenaica region in support of local warlord, Khalifa Haftar. However, Italian Undersecretary for Homeland Security Nicola Molteni, a lawmaker for the League, rejected such a reconstruction of the facts. He said migrants’ arrivals by boat from Cyrenaica were only around 4,000 in the first seven months of 2022, while about 17.500 came from the shores of Tripolitania (Il Tempo, July 29).

Along with Salvini, Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi is also under the spotlight for his cozy relationship with the Kremlin. A news outlet reported that the former Italian premier recently had a phone call with the Russian ambassador to Italy, Sergey Razov. Berlusconi reportedly told his party officials that the Russian envoy had briefed him on Putin’s motivations for the “special military operation” against Ukraine. He was told by the Russian envoy “that the invasion was necessary because there was a risk Ukraine would attack Russia” (Affaritaliani, July 29).

Berlusconi denies having talked to Razov (Ansa.it, July 30). Although, he was quite close to Putin when he was Italy’s prime minister in 2001–2006 and 2008–2011 (TASS, June 23). After he had expressed comments that were perceived as pro-Putin in May 2022, Berlusconi was forced to release a note declaring that he had never justified Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine (Adnkronos, May 17). On the campaign trail, the former Italian premier is now repeating that any future center-right government will be firmly linked to Europe and the West (Ansa.it, July 28).

Currently, polls show the center-right bloc as the likely winner in the upcoming electoral contest. The Italian center-left parties are building their campaign on the message that they must defeat Putin’s and Orban’s friends (center-right coalition). Yet, the Brothers of Italy’s “Euro-Atlantic” posture makes that claim a bit of a stretch. It is highly unlikely that a future center-right government in Italy will give in to Salvini’s request to stop the supply of weapons to Ukraine. At most, he could possibly manage a slight reduction in the frequency of deliveries.

Indeed, almost every new Italian administration tends to align with the United States and NATO. That was even the case with the 2018–2019 coalition government between the League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which winked at Putin occasionally, but the government remained close to the West.

The Five Star Movement, headed by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, is the party that most virulently argues against Italy sending weapons to Ukraine and is considered the main culprit in the sinking of Draghi’s government. However, polls show electoral support for the movement is in free fall and, in all likelihood, it will not play a major role in the newly formed parliament.