Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who also holds the position of Italy’s minister of the interior, met with his Russian counterpart, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and two members of the Russian Security Council, in July 2018 (Il Foglio, July 18; Corriere della Sera, July 9). In these meetings, the officials discussed strengthening bilateral cooperation on combatting terrorism, cybersecurity, the fight against drug trafficking, and on efforts to deal with the return of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq. Salvini was accompanied to Moscow by Gianluca Savoini, the president of the cultural association Lombardia-Russia. Some observers in Italy criticized his presence, asking why a person with no official governmental role participated in meetings in which sensitive topics were apparently being discussed (Huffington Post—Italian edition, July 17). Over the past two years, Savoini has promoted closer relations between the League and United Russia. He is also one of the key ideologues within Salvini’s party (Il Foglio, November 25, 2017). On its website, Savoini’s association is described as a “non-partisan cultural association” with ideas that match “the vision of the world enunciated by the President of the Russian Federation at the 2013 Valdai meeting, which can be summarized in three words: Identity, Sovereignty, Tradition” (Associazione Lombardia-Russia, February 4, 2014).
European sanctions against Russia represented a crucial topic of discussion between the Italian and Russian authorities. Salvini reiterated his opposition to sanctions, even saying that Italy might use its veto in the future to block their renewal (Ansa, July 16). A few weeks earlier, days before the European summit that extended sanctions for six months, Salvini said that “sanctions against Russia are useless and harmful,” claiming Italy wanted to move “from words to facts, although in Europe we are almost alone on this, against everyone” (La Repubblica, Il Giornale, Jun 25). While Rome theoretically has the option to use its veto power, as sanctions need unanimity to be extended, in more practical terms using the veto would isolate Italy, and the country is not currently strong enough to remain isolated in Europe.
Another essential issue in Italian-Russian relations is the status of Crimea (see EDM, March 16, 2015). In early June, Salvini said that the government was open to discussing every issue on the table, also the Crimea question (TASS, June 8). While speaking recently with The Washington Post, Salvini was asked about the status of Crimea and replied, “[T]here was a referendum, and 90 percent of the people voted for the return of Crimea to the Russian Federation.” He further alleged the revolution in Ukraine was “fake… [and] a pseudo-revolution funded by foreign powers.” Salvini also added, “[T]here are some historically Russian zones with Russian culture and traditions [that] legitimately belong to the Russian Federation” (Formiche.net, July 22; La Stampa, RBC, Gazeta.ru, July 20; The Washington Post, July 19). This interview set off a diplomatic storm. Ukraine summoned the Italian ambassador to Kyiv, Davide La Cecilia, in order to lodge a formal protest (Corriere della Sera, Rai News, July 22, Gazeta.ru, July 20). Ambassador La Cecilia had to reiterate the official Italian position of clear and consistent support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine (UNIAN, July 23).
In the past, the League, and Salvini himself, had been very vocal in supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In 2016, the League-dominated regional councils of Veneto and Lombardia—the two core constituencies of the party’s electoral support—both voted in favor of a resolution calling upon the Italian government to recognize the referendum in Crimea and to work to remove sanctions against Russia (Il Fatto Quotidiano, May 18, 2016; Il Giorno, July 5, 2016). Back in 2015, Salvini also said openly that “the Republic of Crimea has to be recognized, and soon, by international organizations” (ADN Kronos, March 20, 2015).
Salvini’s statements do not imply a structural shift in Italian foreign policy toward Russia: Italy will not recognize the Republic of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation anytime soon, and it is unlikely to use its veto power against the renewal of sanctions. Clearly, the League leader is more sympathetic and vocal than other Italian politicians on Russia. But historically, Italy has always tended to maintain good relations with Russia—independently from the political orientations of their governments. Those generally warm ties always existed within the limits dictated by Italy’s European and Transatlantic commitments, however. As such, this dynamic of “friendship within limits” is not set to change.
That said, Salvini is generally vocal on many issues, not only on Russia, and he is quite effective in using social media. Although his cabinet portfolio is officially limited to heading the Ministry of the Interior, Salvini is indisputably dictating the government’s agenda on many separate issues, including foreign policy (see EDM, July 11, 2018). In this specific case, he wants to be perceived as the closest Italian politician to Vladimir Putin, since the Russian president is popular among many sectors of Italian society. His opposition to sanctions has a clear domestic rationale, as exporters from northern Italy feel penalized by these trade restrictions. In addition, by being rather outspoken on foreign policy issues—although he often adds that he is not the only one taking decisions—Salvini is pursuing a win-win strategy: if the government follows his ideas, he can build on the public perception that he is the real dominus of the government, whereas if the government follows the classic Italian stance, he can assert that he does not want to interfere in the tasks of his colleagues.
Salvini’s support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea must also be seen in the context of the close political ties that the League and the Russian government established over the past few years. However, there appears to be one further motivation. Although Salvini successfully managed to turn the League into a proper, national party, its core constituencies in the north of Italy still nurture ambitions of greater autonomy, if not outright independence. As such, the League remains naturally sympathetic to territories claiming self-determination, independence or greater autonomy. While Rome is unlikely to radically change its actual foreign policy toward Russia, even under a coalition government including the League, Salvini will almost certainly continue to be a significant and vocal supporter of closer bilateral relations with Moscow.