Italy’s far-right leader Giorgia Meloni winning this year’s general election raised concerns in some Western nations about a potential undermining of NATO unity behind Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushing into its first winter, some voices recently suggested that Meloni and her coalition partners might weaken Italy’s support for Ukraine.
Yet, Italy’s first female prime minister is maintaining her predecessor’s staunchly pro-Ukrainian stance. Meloni has made it clear that her leadership will be “no gift” to the Kremlin. With war fatigue growing among the Italian populace, however, public pressure may come down on Meloni to compromise her rigid position in favor of arming Ukraine. This may be especially true if Italy’s economic conditions worsen in the weeks and months ahead.
Meloni has emphasized her support for a strong trans-Atlantic alliance. Yet, Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini of Lega are in her coalition, which has raised questions about where Italy’s new government will stand in relation to the conflict in Ukraine. Berlusconi served as Italy’s prime minister at different points between 1994 and 2011 and Rome established a “special relationship” with Moscow under his leadership. Since Feb. 24, the former prime minister has blamed Ukraine for the war and recently was recorded saying that he had “reconnected with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin – a little, a lot” and exchanged vodka and wine bottles with him.
Salvini was Italy’s minister of the interior from 2018 to 2019 and now he is the minister of infrastructure. He is one of Putin’s fanboys who opposed EU sanctions on Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and has shown admiration for the Russian leader on many occasions. Lega’s regional government in Veneto recognized Russia’s sovereign claims to Crimea as legitimate despite international law saying otherwise. A leaked recording in 2019 exposed one of Salvini’s aides speaking to Moscow about a secretive oil deal that would pump money into Lega, leading to investigations. Salvini denies receiving this Russian money.
Meloni has made it clear that her government will stand by Ukraine and continue Italy’s policies of arming Kyiv until the Russian occupation ends. “Italy will never be the weak link of the West with us in government,” she said last month. Meloni even threatened to abandon plans for forming a coalition government unless Berlusconi shifts his stance on Putin and the conflict in Ukraine.
Experts believe that Meloni’s main coalition partners will align their positions on the Ukraine war with her own. “Whatever his private views (on Russia and Ukraine), however, Berlusconi will likely toe the line publicly,” said John Feffer, the director of foreign policy in focus, in an interview with Daily Sabah. “Power is more important to him than friendship with Putin.”
Aldo Ferrari, a professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and the director of the Research Program for Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia of the Milano-based Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told Daily Sabah that Rome-Moscow relations “will not change significantly” with Meloni at the helm. He pointed to Berlusconi and Salvini’s shift toward pro-Ukraine positions notwithstanding their previously strong ties with Putin’s government. According to Ferrari, they will adopt stances more aligned with the United States and other NATO members for two main reasons.
The first is “Meloni’s hegemonic role in the governing coalition.” The second stems from the fact that “Italy is not in a position to resist pressure from the United States and NATO in support of Ukraine ... because it does not have the political and economic clout to do so, despite the fact that such a position greatly damages its economy,” as Ferrari put it.
Indeed, the United States and European Union pressure on Italy’s leadership has done much to keep Rome aligned with the West in support of Kyiv. Meloni will probably keep Rome united with Washington, London and other Western capitals against the Russian invasion, occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territory, at least for the foreseeable future.
“It's highly unlikely that Meloni will take an (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor) Orban-like position on Russia and Ukraine,” added Feffer. “She doesn't have the kind of overwhelming political power at home that Orban has. Italian governments are fragile things, and she cannot risk angering Brussels in particular. Also, given the direction of public opinion among right-wing voters against Putin, it doesn't make any electoral sense for her to change her tune on Ukraine.”
At the end of the day, the EU’s COVID-19 stimulus funds have done much to keep the Italian economy afloat and Rome needs this financial support from Brussels. Meloni can’t push any agenda that involves serious consideration of exiting the EU or ditching the euro mindful of Rome’s quest to receive more funding from Brussels.
Meloni's refusal to break from the West when it comes to standing against Moscow is demonstrative of how Putin’s government ceases to enjoy the standing with right-wingers in European countries that it did only a year ago. “The invasion of Ukraine has effectively destroyed Putin's effort to head up a far-right Eurasian axis,” Feffer told Daily Sabah.
Whereas prior to Feb. 24 Putin could take for granted high levels of support from Berlusconi and Salvini’s parties, that no longer remains the case. The same is true regarding Putin’s links to far-right elements in Austria, France and Germany. “The invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally altered far-right politics in Europe. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for Putin to rebuild his ties with his former friends. A future Russian illiberal hardliner perhaps can rebuild that alliance, but probably not Putin,” pointed out Feffer.
Yet, even if Putin’s ties with right-wing parties in Italy and other Western European countries have significantly eroded since Feb. 24, Italians are divided regarding the ongoing war in Ukraine. The government’s policies are not supported by all segments of society. Looking ahead, the debate surrounding Rome’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Ukraine is set to remain extremely sensitive.
According to a poll conducted shortly before Italy’s last election, 57% of the public opposes sending NATO troops to Ukraine and 48% is against bolstering military support to Kyiv. Another study found that 52% of Italy’s population favors a peace deal to end the war, which would entail permitting Russia to remain in control of some Ukrainian territory. Additionally, only 39% of the Italian public sees Moscow as the main obstacle to resolving the conflict while 35% hold Ukraine responsible for this war.
Certain social and cultural actors, including trade unions and student groups, oppose Italy’s continued support for Zelenskyy’s government. Earlier this month, tens of thousands joined a march in Rome calling on the Italian government to halt weapons transfers to Ukraine.
Furthermore, Italy’s media landscape is filled with pro-Russia propagandists who see NATO as bearing full responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine. On the extreme edges of Italy’s right and left there are anti-NATO and pro-Moscow narratives that contribute to public discourse.
Rome’s orientation toward the conflict in Ukraine could change, however, given Italy’s challenges stemming from high inflation and the cessation of Russian energy supplies. A worsening economic situation in Italy could open the door to more voices in the country calling for a resumption of collaborative ties with Moscow and an end to Rome arming Ukraine.
How that type of pressure on Meloni would play out, and how her governing coalition would navigate its own divisions while also being pragmatic about managing Italy’s relationships with its close Western allies is all difficult to predict. Yet, for now, officials in the U.S. and other NATO members, which seek to maintain the West’s relative unity against Putin, can likely rest assured that the new leadership in Rome is not on the immediate verge of shifting toward Italy’s foreign policy in a Moscow-friendly direction as some analysts had worried about earlier this year.