On July 21, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government collapsed. Three former allies in his technocratic coalition pulled out and are now gearing up for snap elections scheduled for Sep. 25.
Draghi was arguably Ukraine’s staunchest supporter within the European Union (EU). He convinced many of his colleagues to withhold their reservations regarding Ukraine’s EU candidacy. He insisted that Italy must help arm Ukraine so it can defend itself, despite a vocal “pacifist” contingent among Italy’s political and media elites, who have been calling on Europe and the U.S. to pressure Ukraine into territorial concessions to stop the war.
What concerns many who support Ukraine is the clear pro-Russian stance of the coalition members who pulled out of Draghi’s government.
The long hand of Moscow
Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi has long vaunted his special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It took until a month after the invasion for him to even express “disappointment” with his friend.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the center-right anti-immigrant Lega party has repeatedly sung the praises of Moscow’s strongman and was often chided as Putin’s most devoted fanboy. Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, he posed for a notorious photo in front of the Kremlin with a Putin T-shirt and another that said “No Sanctions.” Then, when posing with the same Putin T-shirt in Strasbourg he derided the EU’s “Euro-cretins, who must be stupid for playing at war with Russia.”
Giuseppe Conte, former Italian prime minister and current president of the Five Star Movement opened the first fissures in Draghi’s government by insisting that Italy should not send arms to Ukraine. In May he said, “as for sending weapons, our position is that we’ve given enough already.”
So, when three Putin-friendly coalition members pulled out simultaneously, suspicions arose about the long hand of Moscow in Italian politics.
Carlo Calenda, secretary of the centrist pro-EU Action Party and former minister of economic development, said it quite clearly as soon as the government fell: “Today the forces that have sustained Putin’s rationale in parliament and outside of parliament have caused the government to fall.” Though he referred to them as charlatan scoundrels, he stopped short of any direct accusation of Russian interference.
Foreign Minister and ex-Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio also alluded to a possible conspiracy. “It is no coincidence that the government was brought down by political forces that wink at Vladimir Putin,” he said on the same day.
Hope for Giorgia Meloni?
In order to gauge how Italy will adjust its relationship to Ukraine, one needs to watch Giorgia Meloni. She is the leader of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a far-right anti-immigrant party with roots in Italy’s various post-war neo-fascist iterations. Unlike her analogue in France, Marine Le Pen – who has flirted with and accepted financing from Russia – Meloni has positioned herself as a staunch Atlanticist.
Within days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, she declared the attack to be unacceptable. “It’s time to choose which side we’re on. The West and the international community must be united in putting in place every useful measure in support of Kyiv and respect for international law.”
Throughout the war, despite being the only major party that didn’t join the Draghi coalition, Meloni’s party has always supported arms to Ukraine – which is more than can be said for coalition members like the Lega and the Five Star Movement.
Going into the elections, Meloni’s firebrand charisma has put her in pole position to become the leader of a rightist coalition comprised of her party, Forza Italia and Lega. This coalition will very likely have a majority.
As soon as Draghi’s government fell, she reiterated her support for Kyiv to state broadcaster RAI news. “We have always defended and supported the Ukrainian cause, not just because we believe in the cause, but also because Italy cannot risk being the weak link in the Western alliance,” she said. “The West needs to know they can count on us. I would not tolerate any ambiguity on this point.”
Her declarations seem to bode well for Ukrainians. However, Italy’s political scene, with its ever-shifting alliances, is fraught with the potential for reversals.
Italians are worried about the economic pains a winter without Russian gas will cause. Meloni’s coalition partners can be expected to push for some kind of deal with Putin that would keep the gas flowing.
Moreover, Meloni’s support for Ukraine is determined as much by her desire to be in lockstep with the rest of Europe as by her ethical convictions. One could easily imagine the offer of the prime minister post in exchange for giving Putin a pass, especially since many of her grassroots supporters are unabashedly pro-Putin.
Indeed, Ukraine’s best hope would be to see the leftist Democratic Party win. Unfortunately, after their rather disastrous liaison with the Five Star Movement in 2019, it would be practically impossible for the two former allies to cobble together a coalition.
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