Italy takes a risk by joining sanctions against Russia over Ukraine

ROCCA DI MEZZO, Italy — As Italian skiers brushed snow off their boots and warmed up in the lobby of his lodge in the Apennines, the hotel owner worried about the impact of European sanctions against Russia on his already astronomical heating bills.

“There will be major downsides for Italy,” owner Roberto Minafra said as his guests checked the latest Ukraine news on their phones. But faced with an existential threat from President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Minafra decided that Italy, which receives more than 40% of its natural gas from Russia, must act with Europe. The economic hit was worth the sacrifice.

“Putin must be isolated,” he said. “We have no alternative.”

After initial mistrust about the boomerang effect sanctions would have on energy imports, luxury goods companies and the banking sector in Italy, the country with some of the closest ties to Russia in Europe has intensified with its Western allies the adoption of strong sanctions to weaken Mr. Putin, even at a potentially disproportionate cost for the Italians.

Once seen by Russia – and nervous NATO allies – as the potential soft underbelly for Mr. Putin to break the European liberal consensus and strengthen his regional influence, Italy has armored itself in the unity of the bloc and accepted the risk that the Kremlin could cut off much of Italy’s fuel in retaliation.

“In the event of an interruption of the gas supply to Russia, Italy has more to lose than other European countries which depend on different sources”, declared Mario Draghi, the Italian Prime Minister, but also a figure figurehead of the European Union, in the Italian Parliament. Tuesday. “This does not detract from our determination to support the sanctions that we deem justified and necessary.”

In his speech, Mr Draghi presented a vision of Europe, calling the Russian invasion a “decisive turning point in European history” which shattered the “illusion” of permanent peace through economic integration and politics, and which posed a “new reality,” reminiscent of the Nazi annexation of Austria or the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He said it necessitated hitherto unthinkable choices to protect against an attack on Western values ​​and “the international order we have built together”.

“Italy has no intention of looking the other way,” he said, adding that Italy and Europe had “adopted an increasingly harsh and punitive response towards Moscow.”

He also said that Italy had “answered the call” of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for weapons, military equipment and vehicles, because when a democracy under attack asks for help, “it is not possible to respond only with encouragement”.

He said the crisis would speed up the European Union’s integration process – on immigration policy as it welcomed Ukrainian refugees, but also on investments towards “a common defence” to protect order international created after the Second World War.

For much of the post-war period, Italy maintained a close connection with Russia. In the decades following the fall of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, the Italian Communist Party was the largest outside the Soviet bloc. Italian automaker Fiat built the largest automobile factory in the Soviet Union in a town named after Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, and also invested to help the Soviets modernize their automobile industry and infrastructure.

This strong bond with the Soviets spooked the West and prompted the United States, which helped fund Italy’s rehabilitation through the Marshall Plan, and the Vatican to back the Christian Democrats who ruled Italy. for nearly half a century. But during the Cold War, the Soviets arguably wielded more sway over Italy’s cultural intelligentsia, leaving the country divided.

Italy has become a political and ideological frontier in the heart of Western Europe. The country’s leaders – those on the left and on the right – maintained a strong alliance with the United States but also moved closer to the Soviets, and later the Russians, for their energy supplies. With the rise of the oligarchs, Russia became a market for Italian agriculture, banking and luxury goods.

But the collapse of communism and the rise of Mr Putin as a strongman have shifted Russia’s base of support in Italy to the right. Mr Putin developed a close relationship with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who shared his garish tastes. Rising Italian populists have seen Mr Putin as a role model for their opposition to migration and the decay of traditional values.

As these Eurosceptic forces grew and America’s commitment to NATO eroded under President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Putin, ever eager to destabilize Europe’s western front, sought to strengthen further the political, cultural and economic ties of Russia in Italy. His government welcomed sympathetic politicians to Moscow, supported cultural associations throughout Italy, and courted foreign investment by talking about Russia’s potential as an export market.

As war approached, Mr Putin personally put his soft power to the test, spending hours in video calls with Italian business leaders, including the chairman of the Russian unit of the banking group Intesa Sanpaolo, who “categorically” ruled out an attack. by Russia.

But the transactional era of extreme Italian flexibility between Russia and the West appears to be fading with Mr Draghi who, since taking office in 2021, has strengthened Italy’s ties with the European Union.

Politicians who courted Russia’s favor and attended Russia Day celebrations in Rome at the newly barbed wire-protected residence of the Russian Ambassador today found themselves in trouble. easy.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League party, who once signed a pact with Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, and who had a penchant for shirts with Mr. Putin’s face on them, tried to condemn violence without condemning Mr. Putin outright and expressed concern about sanctions cutting off gas supplies.

“Sanctions should hit those who started and are carrying out the war,” he told Italian television on Sunday, including politicians and billionaires. “Not the poor in Russia and even in Italy.”

But Mr Draghi has shown little interest in giving Russia a break since the war began. A former president of the European Central Bank, he said he had personally proposed that Europe take further action against Russian oligarchs whose assets exceed 10 million euros ($11 million), intensifying pressure on the Russian Central Bank and asking the Bank for International Settlements, headquartered in Switzerland, to join the sanctions.

He also blamed former Italian leaders for relying so heavily on Russia. “The events of these days show the recklessness of not having more diversified our energy sources and suppliers over the past decades,” he said last week.

On Tuesday, he said the country had enough oil and natural gas to ease shortages in the final days of winter, but would restart plans to diversify, developing renewable energy and new gas supplies. , “because we cannot be so dependent on the decisions of one country.

The country’s Five Star Movement, which established itself as an anti-establishment force that often echoed Russian talking points and intersected with Russian propaganda websites, fought against alternative energy sources.

One of the party MPs sadly suggested Ukrainians were cannibals, based on a photo that turned out to be from a horror movie. But perhaps its most prominent Russophile was Manlio Di Stefano, the party’s foreign policy point man.

In 2015, Mr Di Stefano said that the United States, NATO and agricultural giant Monsanto had conspired to stoke the conflict in Ukraine in order to transform it”in a NATO base to launch the final attack on Russia», but also to sell Genetically modified food. In 2016, he called Ukraine a US “puppet state” and attended a convention of Mr Putin’s United Russia party.

He echoed Kremlin talking points to Sputnik, which has often promoted his party’s attacks on establishment rivals and is now banned in Europe, and urged Italy to ‘block sanctions on Russia “in part to help Italian businesses that are suffering.

Today, as Italy’s undersecretary for foreign affairs, he has become a supporter of sanctions and a critic of Mr. Putin and Russia.

“I am also for further sanctions should war operations continue, including banning Russian oil imports into the EU,” Di Stefano wrote in an email on Tuesday. “My position has not changed.

On Tuesday, Draghi urged the country not to question the past and use the new momentum to push Europe further.

“The struggle that we support today,” said Mr. Draghi, “the sacrifices that we endure tomorrow, are in the defense of our principles and our future.”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Siena.