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Italy’s Protracted Divorce from Russia: A Shift in Domestic Politics?

Published 20 Apr 2022
Jacqueline Michalopoulos

As Putin’s forces further penetrate Ukraine, Italy’s formerly sympathetic foreign policy orientation towards Russia has been brought into sharp relief. Leading Rome’s attempts to divorce from Moscow is Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a technocrat who previously headed the European Central Bank and from the time he assumed power in February 2021 has demonstrated his support for the European Union and for federalism more broadly. He now confronts the challenging task of renouncing the Russian adulation of his predecessors.

Although typically associated with founder of the far-right Forza Italia party and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the pursuit of ‘special’ ties to Moscow was a hallmark of three of the parties that form the present coalition government – the Lega Nord, the Movimento Cinque Stelle, and Forza Italia. However, Foreign minister and Movimento Cinque Stelle member, Luigi Di Maio, have now united with Draghi in his condemnation of Russia’s behaviour. Indeed, virtually all Italian politicians have condemned the war, and unequivocal support for both Italy and the EU’s handling of Russia. From Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right, Eurosceptic Fratelli d’Italia party, to Giuseppe Conte, former prime minister and leader of the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle, such politicians encompass a broad swathe of Italy’s political spectrum. Although laggard in their approaches, even Lega Nord leader, Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia founder, Silvio Berlusconi, have delineated their opposition to the conflict in official statements. This is a profound shift given in 2015, Salvini attended the European Parliament donning a shirt emblazoned with Putin’s image, later posting an image of himself with a caption that read; “I’d swap two Presidents Mattarella for half Putin”.

In rebuking their former ties with Russia, Rome has had to confront the effect of sanctions on the state’s post-pandemic economic recovery. Given previous increases in energy prices have led to negative economic growth, the increased uncertainty around access to Russian gas has compounded Rome’s anxiety. As Arturo Varvelli delineated, Italy will face great difficulty seeking substitutes for Russian gas, as political instability and reduced production in Libya and Algeria has diminished the north African gas supply chain. Notwithstanding these problems, Draghi declared in late 2021 that “it would not be the right moment for Italy or the EU to relinquish access to Russian gas. He now appears to have gone beyond this.

It is evident that the war in Ukraine has profoundly reconfigured Italy’s domestic politics in a manner that goes well beyond the changes to foreign policy implemented upon Draghi’s formation of government in February of 2021.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict now presents a rare opportunity for the European Union to lead a unanimous and coordinated sanction strategy, and for Italy to finally take its place as a prominent geopolitical actor in the region. The stability precipitated by the recent re-election of Sergio Mattarella as Italian president, and the security of the Draghi government, has created the optimal environment for Rome to take action.

Jacqueline Michalopoulos is a third-year student at the University of Sydney, studying a Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Advanced Studies (International Relations, International & Global Studies). She is currently working as a business cadet at Transport for NSW, primarily in the areas of policy, strategy, and governance/compliance. Jacqueline was previously a student policy developer for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s collaborative policy reform project with the University of Sydney. Through her work developing policy reform suggestions to ameliorate relations between minority groups and the judicial system, Jacqueline has consolidated her interests in foreign aid and humanitarian policy.

Jacqueline is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.