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With Draghi Gone, Putin May Make Moves on Italy

An uninvited guest from the cold north has turned up amid the heat of Italian politics. So, what to do with Vladimir Putin?

It is no secret that ties between Italy and Russia have been a little too friendly in the recent past, confusing allies and hurting Rome’s credibility. For example, there’s Matteo Salvini of the League, who once showed up in Red Square dressed in a white t-shirt with Putin’s face on it. He has a history of downplaying the Kremlin’s hostilities and openly flirting with Russian nationalist parties.

There is also an entire catalogue of photographs of Putin and Silvio Berlusconi — the former Italian premier and founder of Forza Italia — dressed in linen shirts, all hugs and smiles, enjoying lunch together over the years, be it on the Italian coast or the Black Sea. The amici have exchanged compliments for decades and even shared a view of the world that put Italy at odds with the rest of the G7 countries.

The Italian political class has a bizarre fascination with Russia. But, no matter who leads the next Italian government, this is not the time to undo Mario Draghi’s hawkish turn on Russia.

To be fair, Berlusconi isn’t as happy with Putin these days. He’s told his supporters he was saddened by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That is also likely to be due to Draghi who, during his time as premier, silenced any ambiguity left over from previous governments.

He shifted Italy away from Russia-friendly statements to become one of the most outspoken critics of Putin in the European Council. He played a key role in designing sanctions targeting the Russian Central Bank and advocated for Ukraine’s candidate status to the European Union. His new approach was epitomized by his trip — alongside President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany — to Kyiv to reaffirm their joint support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is an image that will go down in Italian history.

Some in Italy argue that Draghi’s stance accelerated his fall from grace because it heightened tensions within his coalition. But Draghi has been unrepentant about changing course on Russia, reiterating it was the right and honorable thing to do. His successor should stay the course. 

If polls are correct, the next government might well be a right-wing coalition led by Brothers of Italy alongside the League and Forza Italia. That’s a combination toxic enough on the foreign policy front to raise eyebrows in Washington and Brussels. Berlusconi and Salvini will play central roles in such a government.

Giorgia Meloni, the head of Brothers of Italy, is untested on the international stage and lacks experience outside of Italy. Nonetheless, Meloni is trying to soften her image to broaden her appeal at home and look less radical abroad. In one of her first interviews since the Sept. 25 elections were called, Meloni told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that her policy would not change from that of Draghi: maintaining sanctions on Russia and advocating for more weapons to Ukraine so it can fight back. She also reiterated Italy’s atlantismo, a term used in the country to define having strong ties with the US and NATO.

On the surface, Meloni is playing the moderate card. The question is whether she means business or these are just tactics to market herself and paint Brothers of Italy in a more palatable light. That’s easier said than done. A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations portrayed her voters as more skeptical about the war in Ukraine than her statements would suggest: More than half of her voters are against sending weapons to Ukraine and more than 30% of her supporters blame the West and Ukraine for the war. So, given her split base, it’s not for sure that Meloni will continue the path laid out by Draghi. And doing so may only get harder as the economic impact of sanctions gets tougher to manage without resolute leadership. Hers is already questionable. 

Still, Italy’s voice matters. It is a founding member of the EU, a member of the G7 and one of the original founders of NATO. While the theatrics often distract from the country’s international relevance, Rome is still a power player in European circles. Italy’s resolve will be key to setting new sanctions and rolling out the existing ones for longer in Brussels, where each package must be approved unanimously.

With Draghi out of office, Putin will no doubt test the resolve of his successor, perhaps hoping old friendships may lead to softer sanctions and pressure on Ukraine to accept a dictated peace. Italy cannot fall into the trap; it must not become Russia’s gateway into Europe. If that happened, the damage to the bloc — which is facing its most serious geopolitical test to date — would be enormous. 

That should be clear to whoever leads Italy next. Keeping the determination and focus Draghi instilled on foreign policy is the first step to establish trust among its European allies. All roads lead to Rome, but when it comes to Russia, there can be no path for reconciliation as long as Putin wages war. 

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Populist Experiment in Italy Has Failed: Maria Tadeo

• Can Draghi Emerge From the Political Rubble?: Rachel Sanderson

• ECB’s Crisis Plan Fails to Convince Bond Traders: Marcus Ashworth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Maria Tadeo is the European correspondent for Bloomberg Television based in Brussels where she covers European politics, economics and NATO.

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