Is Italy NATO and the EU’s weakest link?

Many in Italy celebrated the arrival of 9 military planes from Russia on Sunday. Russia agreed to deliver aid in the form of much needed medical equipment, masks and doctors to the country most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

For many experts, however, in government quarters as well as in editorial rooms, Russia’s gesture was a reason to worry, not something to praise. Putin’s opening towards Italy, that happened after a direct phone call with the Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte, was called an opportunistic move and a diplomatic “offensive”.

Putin was instead trying to exploit the suffering of a European country in his tireless effort to weaken Western institutions, the allegation went. “Italy is a weak link for any geopolitical rivals seeking to undermine EU unity”, wrote Bloomberg. “Many of its voters blame the euro for decades of economic malaise and are inclined to back populist and euroskeptic parties.”

In recent years, in particular after the failed coup in 2016, Turkey had been seen as the most fragile point in the Transatlantic edifice and it was argued Turkey was the object of Moscow efforts to undermine NATO’s unity.

When Russia sent to Turkey S-400 anti-aircraft missiles last summer, in defiance of Washington’s admonitions, the US threatened Turkey with sanctions. Russia and Turkey’s divergent objectives in the Syrian war, however, made the two countries unlikely allies.

Moscow, it is claimed, has embarked in a prolonged campaign to court officials in Rome. For this reason, allegedly, Italian politicians are meant to be among the most prominent advocates for a rapprochment between Russia and the West.

For several reasons, the scenario of a rapprochment, however, would be seen as a bad outcome: some simply believe Russia is on principle never to be trusted, some are less ideologically driven but still consider Russia the perennial villain in the world of geopolitics while others have an interest in prolonging and exacerbating the disagreements with Russia.

When the then widely considered to be an unlikely presidential candidate Donald Trump repeatedly stated that he preferred good relationships with Russia over a potential conflict, he was attacked as Putin’s buddy, although the two had never met. Seeking to find a way to exist with Russia is not regarded as a desirable objective for many members of the Western elite that still see the world as unipolar.

In this context, Russia’s aid to Italy, even in the face of restrictions imposed by EU countries on the export of medical supplies, could not possibly have been interpreted as a gesture of humanity and kindness. “This is all about perception,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs, an Italian think tank that enlists the European Commission, the European External Action Service, the European Defence Agency, NATO and OSCE as its partners.

Last year Russia was linked to the League, Italy’s right wing and most popular party, which is strongly anti-EU. A scoop published by BuzzFeed alleged that Russia had offered the party to obtain funds illegally, however an investigation by Italian authorities into the matter is still undergoing.

Yet, despite of all rumours about Russia’s corruption, interference and malign influence, its effects on Italy’s politics and the hearts and minds of Italians appear to be very limited. Italy is one of the founding members of NATO and is still firmly part of it.

Italy’s Atlanticist course has never been questioned, nor by Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, ousted from the government last year, nor by past figures such a Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated Italian politics for over a decade and was seen by some as a friend of Putin.

Nor are Italians likely to be more pro-Russian and less pro-West than other Europeans. Yes, they welcomed Russia’s help in a moment of prostration. But most of them continue to see Russia as a vast and inhospitable land, populated by rather uncouth people. The idea of Italy’s being seduced by Russia’s temptations hence appears to be rather far-fetched. But unlike what many think, Italians are not just stupid people. If the EU and the West wanted to be loved by Italy’s again, they should try showing a less austere side – blaming Russia for all the ills won’t help.

Stefano Di Lorenzo

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