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Italy-Russia Relations

The increasing aggressiveness of Russia seemed to bring back the hands in a new cold war. Proof was the 2015 announcement that the Russian army will add over 40 intercontinental nuclear missiles on the western border and the massive disinformation campaign the Kremlin mounted in Europe, with Italy and its media playing the role of "soft under-belly".

Despite professing repugnance for the Bolshevik regime, by 1923 many countries, including Italy under its Fascist leader Mussolini, contemplated de jure recognition of the Soviet Union to secure favourable trade terms, whereas the British had spent 1923 in counter-productive attempts to shame the Soviet government into better behavior.

A strong domestic Communist Party made sure Italy stayed on the margins during the Cold War, and Christian Democrat governments eagerly pursued business and energy deals with Moscow. Italy supplied half of all the industrial equipment the Soviet Union imported in the 1960s, and Fiat built a massive car manufacturing plant in a town that was renamed Togliatti, after an Italian Communist Party leader.

Center-left and center-right Italian governments have eagerly pursued business and energy deals with Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall, none more so than administrations headed by Berlusconi, who formed a close friendship with Putin. In 2015, Berlusconi also visited Crimea with Putin.

Italy's relationship with Russia is complex, encompassing historical ideological sympathies, geostrategic calculations, commercial pressure, energy dependence, and personal relationships between top leaders. The combination of these factors creates a strong tendency for Italy's foreign policy to be highly receptive to Russian efforts to gain greater political influence in the EU and to support Russia's efforts to dilute American security interests in Europe. In its relationship with Russia, energy is the most important bilateral issue and the quest for stable energy supplies from Russia frequently forces Italy to compromise on security and political issues.

Finmeccanica developed a cooperative relationship with Russian defense industry, signing an agreement in November 1995. The agreement initially focused on helicopters, jet trainers, and avionics, but is planned to be extended to include aircraft manufacture, satellite communications systems, defense industry conversion, radar technologies, and electro-optic sensors. Part of Italys arms export initiatives focus on the training market. For example, in 1999, the Italian and Russian governments signed an agreement for joint development of an advanced trainer aircraft by Aermacchi SpA , the Yakovlev Design Bureau, and Sokol. The aircraft would be sold on the global market. The trainer reportedly can train pilots to fly the Russian Mig-29 and Su-27, the French Mirage-2000, and the US F-15 and F-16 fighters. The new trainer is competing in the short term against a trainer designed by Russias VPK MAPO to supply the Russian Air Force.

The combination of historical ideological sympathy, energy dependence, lack of institutional influence, and a close personal relationship between Berlusconi and Putin served to provide Russia with an apparently trusted ally, overtly willing to work overtime within the EU on Moscow's behalf. Russia could count on Italy to support its efforts to remove irritants in its relations with the West, including:

  • pressure on/within OSCE to overlook Russia's lack of compliance with its legally binding Istanbul commitments on frozen conflicts,
  • weak support or even opposition to NATO efforts to build closer ties to Georgia and Ukraine,
  • weak initial support for international efforts to recognize Kosovo's independence,
  • unhelpful comments on U.S. bilateral Missile Defense plans with Poland and Czech Republic,
  • support for Russian President Medvedev's plans to redefine European security architecture to undermine OSCE and NATO.
  • support for Russian efforts to undermine EU and US energy security initiatives for Europe.

Throughout the Cold War, Italian business interests frequently skirted the line of what was appropriate in their pursuit of the Soviet market. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the explosion of consumer wealth in Russia created massive demand for high-end and luxury Italian exports. From 1998 to 2007 Italian exports to Russia grew by 230 percent, from 2.7 billion Euros to 9.5 Billion. Many of Italy's leading businessmen began to see Russia as a limitless market that could substitute for loss of export revenue from other parts of the world. These businessmen maintain strong ties to the pro-business, free-market-oriented politicians on the right, including the most visible patron of Italy's business elite: PM Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi and his cronies profitted personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia. Valentino Valentini, a member of parliament and somewhat shadowy figure, operated as Berluscon's key man on Russia, albeit with no staff or even a secretary. Valentini, a Russian-speaker who travelled to Russia several times per month, frequently appeared at Berlusconi's side when he met other world leaders. What he did in Moscow during his frequent visits is unclear but he was widely rumored to be looking after Berlusconi's business interests in Russia.

In a disastrous press conference in November 2008, Berlusconi described NATO expansion, recognition of Kosovo's independence, and missile defense as "U.S. provocations" of Russia. His overwhelming desire was to remain in Putin's good graces, and he frequently voiced opinions and declarations that had been passed to him directly by Putin.

Until the 2008 parliamentary elections, the Italian Communist party and various leftist splinter groups were a permanent fixture of the Italian political scene. Throughout the Cold War members of the Italian communist movement maintained close ties with the Soviet Union, other communist countries, and many communist revolutionary movements. Unlike many other communist parties around the world, the Italian communist movement remained unapologetic in its continued belief in Marxism-Leninism as a viable economic alternative to capitalism. While many European leftist intellectuals recognize that - aside from an authoritarian approach to governing - Putin's Russia bears little resemblance to Communist ideals, this fact has not deterred Italian communists and other radical left politicians from being openly pro-Russia on the basis of ideological solidarity.

Italy maintains a strategic partnership with Russia founded on interdependence and common interests. Over recent years, bilateral relations have achieved a high level of excellence deserving of privileged relations status, with a calendar of annual political events hosted alternatively in Italy and Russia: the Inter-ministerial Summit; the Civil Societies Dialogue Forum; the Foreign-Defence Ministerial Meeting and the Economic, Industrial and Financial Cooperation Council.

Political encounters between the two countries are frequent. Among the most recent, deserving of mention are the Foreign-Defence Ministerial meeting in Moscow, on which occasion Minister Terzi and Defence Minister Di Paola were received by then-President of the Russian Federation Medvedev; in the same month, President of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Russian Duma Pushkov made a visit to Rome during which he met with Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Dass; on 18 May, in the margins of the G8 meeting at Camp David, Italian Premier Monti met with Russian Premier Medvedev.

Italy is the Russian Federations third largest trade partner (excluding the Netherlands, whose statistical calculations include all goods that transit via the port of Rotterdam), and seventh supplier. Trade exceeded 27 billion euro in 2011 (that figure was approximately 22 in 2010). There are nearly 500 Italian firms operating in Russia, while key export sectors for Italian goods include machinery and mechanical equipment, textiles, leather products and apparel.

With virtually no domestic energy reserves, no domestic nuclear power, and an ambitious parastatal energy company, Italy's key bilateral concern with Russia has become the quest for long-term guarantees of energy supplies. Italy has a very fruitful energy partnership with Moscow in light of an interdependence that produces common interests. The firms ENI, ENEL and Saipem are very active in Russia. Italy purchased approximately 15% of oil and 30% of Italy's gas from Russia. Moscow has traditionally been a highly reliable supplier, to whom Italy turned in the case of difficulties with other suppliers.

Italian leaders on both sides of the aisle seem strangely unconcerned about dependence on Russian energy. They point out that Italy depended on Russian coal during the darkest days of the Cold War with no dire consequence. Italians are also lulled into complacency by the fact that geographic proximity to North African resources means that they are far less dependent on Russia than are the Germans or the former Eastern bloc countries.

As of 2009 ENI's view of the European energy situation was disturbingly similar to that of GAZPROM and the Kremlin, and at times laced with rhetorical flourishes reminiscent of Soviet-era double-speak: according to ENI, the real threat to Western Europe's energy security is not Russia -- it was Ukraine. The real solution to Europe's energy insecurity, according to ENI, lay in more direct pipeline connections to Russian gas fields and a need for pipelines that do not go through Ukraine.

In the industrial and high-tech sectors, firms such as Finmeccanica successfully collaborate with Russian firms: Alenia and Sukhoi collaborated on the production and marketing of the Super Jet 100, and other companies such as Pirelli, Danieli, Gruppo Marcegaglia, Ferrero, Indesit, Cremonini, Coeclerici, Marazzi and Barbaro have made substantial investments in Russia. FIAT consolidated its Russian strategy, renewing a joint venture with Sberbank for the assembly in St. Petersburg of 120,000 Jeeps annually; an agreement was signed for an investment with the local firm ZIL (20% Sberbank); Case-NewHolland-Kamaz launched a joint venture for the assembly of farm machinery, and Iveco/Oboron Service for the future production of the Lynx armored military vehicle. This later contract was cancelled once Putin returned to the Presidency, when the Medvedev administration officials who had be bribed to support the contract left office - sic transit gloria mundi.

In the banking sector, Unicredit Banca is ranked 8th in Russia in terms of assets, and is the top foreign bank there. Banca Intesa is among the top institutes for credit to small and midsized enterprises in Russia. Other Italian banks such as Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Banca Popolare Italiana and Unione Bancaria Italiana also maintain branch offices in Russia. Assicurazioni Generali holds stock in Russias second largest bank, VTB, and in the Russian firm Ingostrakh.

In 2014, relations between Russia and the European Union, including Italy, deteriorated amid the crisis in Ukraine. Brussels, Washington and their allies have introduced several rounds of anti-Russia sanctions over Crimea's secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia, accusing Moscow of meddling in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In May 2016, the council of the Italian Veneto region voted in support of a resolution that urges the national government to condemn the European Unions Crimea policy and work toward lifting the sanctions against Russia. Another Italian regional council of Liguria set a final date for a vote on a similar resolution for 29 June 2016.

The Upper House of the Italian Parliament adopted a resolution 27 June 2016 opposing the automatic renewal of anti-Russian sanctions. The text of the resolution, proposed by the opposition Northern League, was approved by a majority vote. The resolution lists a set of recommendations to the Italian government on key issues that will be raised at the EU summit on June 28-29. Among other things it commits the government to argue that the sanctions against Russia will not be renewed automatically, according to the Italian Senate session records. The Northern League was not the only party in the Senate to propose a resolution on lifting anti-Russian sanctions. Earlier Monday, the Senate discussed and rejected two similar resolutions proposed by the 5-Star Movement (M5S) and Forza Italia, also major opposition parties.

Italian MP from the oppositional Movement of Five Stars (M5S) and a member of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee Manlio Di Stefano said 30 June 2016 that Italy can't lose such an important partner as Russia. Stefano called for the withdrawal of anti-Russian sanctions and advocated cooperation with Russia in various economic sectors. "We support the withdrawal of sanctions, but Renzi sold himself to Brussels and the United States and extended them, despite his statements made during SPIEF-2016," the politician said. As result of the sanctions, the Italian economy has to bear serious losses, Renzi stated. "We can't afford to even think about giving up relations with the Russian economy because of political whims, the economy that is historically linked to ours," the politician stated.

On 21 November 2016 Leader of Italy's Lega Nord party Matteo Salvini slammed the EU for the introduction of anti-Russian sanctions and called for their withdrawal. Salvini said that Italy had lost over six billion euro as result of the sanctions policy. "It is obvious that it was suicide for Europe, and especially for Italy, to impose these sanctions. For our part, at the level of regions and municipalities, we have prepared documents that would help overcome or remove sanctions," the politician stressed. Salvini also criticized NATO's policy toward Russia and stated that Italy "shouldn't be a pawn of the alliance." According to the politician, NATO should be involved in the protection of the Mediterranean borders and the fight against Daesh, instead of deploying its troops at the border with Russia. "One thing is to be a part of the alliance as equals, but quite another is to be slaves, pawns of the alliance, which, by the way, doesn't make any sense and needs reforms," the politician stated.

By March 2015 the Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni also believes that the EU was too much fixated on the Ukrainian crisis and ignores other equally important, problems at hand. Italy had been hard hit by the ban on food and other imports introduced by Russia in response to similar sanctions earlier slapped on it by the EU. Therefore, Paolo Gentiloni advised Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to restore partnership relations with Moscow.

Later, as the Italian Prime Minister, in January 2017 Paolo Gentiloni expressed his desire to mend relations with Moscow, and told his end-of-year press conference that Rome intends to use its G7 presidency this year to "improve various aspects of relations with Russia." Sapelli said "With this in mind, I think that at the (G7) summit in Taormina in May, as noted recently by Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, Italy will offer Russia a return to the G8, because otherwise it does not make sense to talk about peace and stability in the world. That is impossible without Russia, and the mistake of Obama and EU leaders was to give too much weight to the claims Eastern European countries such as Poland have made about Russia. They themselves haven't mastered their new role in the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union".

By marach 2018, the prospects of euro-skeptic populist parties that have strong ideological ties with the Kremlin forming Italys next government or dominating a broader governing arrangement prompted alarm in the Washington and Brussels. An immediate consequence of either the right-wing Lega or anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) entering a coalition government could be the curtailment of a lot of intelligence we currently share, say U.S. officials.

There would a sharp downgrading of what we give the Italians, although this wouldnt affect our exchanges when it comes to jihadists or terrorist threats, a U.S. counterintelligence official told VOA 06 March 2018 on condition of anonymity. U.S. security agencies are already starting to assess what intelligence could be supplied, given the higher risks of leaks to Moscow, says the official. Security risks would increase obviously, he added. Whos appointed to head Italys foreign and security ministries as well as security agencies could define the tightness of any restrictions, he said.

Roberto Jonghi Lavarini of Fratelli dItalia (Brothers of Italy), a far-right sister party of the Lega, which is part of the right-wing coalition that includes Berlusconis own Forza Italia, told Russias Sputnik TV his party is already angling to secure either the interior or defense minister positions in addition to several deputy ministerial posts in any right-wing coalition government that is formed. -He said such a government would work on lifting the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after the Kremlin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and pursue a privileged dialogue with Moscow." His party would push, he said, for a revision of all international treaties, including those governing Italy's membership of the eurozone and NATO, in favor of a strategic tie-up with Russia.

M5S and Lega oppose Western sanctions, saying the sanctions have harmed Italy as much as Russia. In 2016, several Lega-controlled regions in Italys north adopted resolutions calling on the government in Rome to approve Moscows annexation of Crimea and recognize the peninsula as part of Russia.

Like other Kremlin-leaning anti-establishment and far-right parties in Europe, Fratelli dItalia, M5S and Lega have been courted assiduously by Moscow as have other European populists sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin that are eager to embrace Russia as a counterweight to the European Union. The Lega has a cooperation agreement with Russias ruling party, United Russia.

M5S members have praised Moscow's military intervention in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and railed against NATO, blaming it for fomenting Ukraines Maidan protests that ousted Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovych. M5S has also called for lifting EU sanctions on Russia. Italy is the second biggest exporter to Russia in the EU and has seen its exports fall by nearly half.

Matteo Salvinis call to put an end to sanctions and establish ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin created a stir across the Atlantic when the New York Times reacted with the headline Italy has dumped America. For Russia. Despite difficulties arising from forming a new government with the populist Five Star Movement, the center-right coalition is hoping to elect Salvini as their prime minister and establish better relations with the Kremlin.

Italy and over a dozen other European countries joined in a massive expulsion of Russian diplomats. However, the decision to kick out two Russian diplomats has resulted in a split between the caretaker government and the center-right bloc set to take power. The politician hoping to be Italys next prime minister blasted the decision to expel Russian diplomats from the country. A fellow coalition member criticized the outgoing government for serving the will of foreign states. Matteo Salvini, a long-time ally of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and one of the winners of Italys March 4 election, claimed the expulsion of Russian diplomats will only aggravate problems. Salvini rejected the idea of imposing new sanctions on Russian citizens in an appeal to have dialogue.

Nobody really anticipated that the League and the 5-Star Movement, bitter rivals during the election campaign, might suddenly come together in a coalition with a relatively stable parliamentary majority. The League had concluded an agreement with the party of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both populist coalition parties would campaign in Brussels for a lifting of the EU sanctions against Russia imposed in response to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and Russia's activities in eastern Ukraine.

In response to NATOs warning that Rome better leave sanctions on Russia as they are, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said 06 June 2018 the new government will not take orders from others and will keep moving closer to Russia. Di Maio, who is the new Minister of Economic Development and joint Deputy PM - a post shared with Matteo Salvini - in the countrys new Euroskeptic government, said on Thursday that his administration will not be spineless and yielding to the will of other states and had no intention to conduct the yes sir diplomacy.

We will be open to have dialogue with Russia, the way it has always been, Di Maio said during a visit to Italys largest defense and aerospace company, Leonardo, in his hometown near Naples. The Deputy PM highlighted that Italy has historically been the NATO member to promote talks with Moscow. Besides NATO, billionaire George Soros also voiced his disapproval of Romes pro-Russian ambitions, hinting that Salvini, the leader of the second coalition party the League, may be receiving money from Russia.




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