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Putin fiddles and Rome turns

The Kremlin has been meddling in Italian politics and will be pleased with what it sees

Image: The New European

In Italy, as across Europe, Russia’s role in domestic political affairs has come under increased scrutiny. From almost the first days of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s billionaires have found their properties and yachts subject to raids and confiscation, while the oligarchs themselves have been shunned by the European elites whose society they once courted. 

However, following the dramatic fall of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition ahead of fresh elections this month, many Italians are only now coming to terms with how far Russia’s influence has reached into their politics. 

Italy has been a comfortable bolt hole for Russia’s oligarchs. Its secluded mountains and broad, sandy beaches have been the exclusive playgrounds of Russia’s monied class. Umbria is full of exclusive retreats owned not only by Russia’s millionaires and media owners, but also by its former KGB officers, who have hosted the occasional British prime minister. The island of Sardinia is a favourite spot, but it has recently become less welcoming. Buildings belonging to the man alleged to be Russia’s richest, Alexey Mordashov, were seized by the authorities during the early weeks of the invasion of Ukraine. 

Italy was always fertile ground for Russians. Historically, Italy was home to the largest communist party in the west. During the cold war, Italian businesses made no secret of seeking investment from the Soviet Union. More recently, Italy’s populist 5 Star Movement, (M5S) positioned itself as a conduit between Europe and a Kremlin accused of carrying out an illegal invasion in Crimea and of conducting assassinations within Europe’s borders. Only one month before the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin spent two hours addressing senior Italian industrialists at an online meeting. 

All that ended with Putin’s unprovoked attack upon Ukraine. Italy – and Mario Draghi in particular – was at the forefront of those calling for Russia to face a reckoning for its actions. Calling upon his background as President of the European Central Bank, Draghi was to prove instrumental in helping design a Europe-wide range of sanctions, targeting Russia’s banking network and broader financial systems. Within just weeks of the invasion, Draghi had overseen the seizure of £126m of Russian properties, yachts and vehicles from within Italy. In addition, Draghi was one of the first European leaders to meet President Zelensky in Kyiv, and an early supporter of Ukraine’s application to join the European Union. 

Having looked unbeatable just twelve months ago, Draghi’s governing coalition collapsed in July. This has raised questions about the Kremlin’s role in the downfall of one of its principal European opponents. Enrico Letta of the centre-left Democratic Party has alleged that Russian disinformation helped to push Draghi from office, while Mara Carfagna, a prominent face within Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza party has quit over the group’s complicity with Russia. 

Whatever the Kremlin’s role, domestic politics played a significant part in the collapse of Draghi’s government. At the time of his resignation, Italy’s ruling coalition was already crumbling in the face of soaring inflation, energy costs and other contentious economic policies. In the weeks before his fall, questions had been mounting over his coalition’s future and, in July, they were answered when the hard right League, the populist Five Star Movement, (M5S) and conservative forces allied to former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party walked away from Draghi. They did this despite his role in steering the country through the coronavirus pandemic and stabilising Italy’s volatile economy. 

Even if the Kremlin played no direct role in Draghi’s fall, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Italy has been a significant target for Russia’s hybrid warfare and disinformation efforts.

On July 28, the Italian daily La Stampa published leaked intelligence documents claiming that Oleg Kostyukov, a Russian diplomat in Rome, had asked in May if the League party’s minister was inclined to resign from the Draghi government. Suggestions that Russia was behind the government’s eventual collapse have been rubbished by figures as far ranging as the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov and the League’s leader Matteo Salvini. Nevertheless, that the intelligence exists and that the collapse served Russia’s geopolitical ends are both unarguable. 

Jacopo Iacobini, the journalist who wrote La Stampa‘s front page story, feels the leaks provided ample evidence of intent. “It’s no longer an opinion that Russia interfered,” he said. “It’s a fact.” Iacobino readily accepts that the collapse of Draghi’s coalition had many causes and that the internal politics of the three rightwing groups played a part. However, the leaked intelligence also implicates the Kremlin. 

“At the end of May, no one was talking about the fall of the Draghi cabinet, by July, everyone was,” Iacobini, who wrote the book, Oligarchs: How Putin’s Friends are Buying Italy said. This suggests not just Russia’s interference in Italy’s domestic politics, but the willingness of the Italian media to nudge popular opinion in a direction that suited the Kremlin. In May, an Italian parliamentary committee began an investigation into some of the content featured on Italy’s private television networks, including one owned by Sivio Berlusconi. 

All three leaders of the parties that withdrew from Draghi’s government have since condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That much is on the record. Also on the record is the fact that all three have longstanding links with Russia and with Vladimir Putin specifically. 

Berlusconi’s warm relations with Putin are well documented. Over the years, the 85-year-old Italian has proven himself an ardent admirer of the Russian leader, being photographed with him on holiday and at summits. Elsewhere, the League leader, Matteo Salvini has openly praised Putin, once going so far as to wear a tee shirt emblazoned with the Russian leader’s portrait. MS5 leader and former prime minister Giusseppe Conte also has form here, using his time in power to act as a kind of Putin Whisperer, positioning Italy as a bridge between Russia and an increasingly hostile Europe. 

Salvini, Berlusconi and Conte are not unique in both denouncing the Kremlin while enjoying close links to senior Russians. However, foreign policy debates during the Italian election campaign have at times subtly mirrored the Kremlin’s view. “Salvini is now talking of a peace plan for Ukraine, never mentioning Russia’s war crimes,” Iocobini continued, “They’re pushing this idea that sending more weapons to Ukraine only prolongs the war. Elsewhere, they say that the sanctions are only hurting Italy, not Russia.”

Peter Stano, is a foreign affairs spokesman at The European External Action Service, (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic arm. He told me, in emailed comments, that: “In general the disinformation coming from or being related to the Kremlin tries to confuse people with a number of often contradictory claims, conspiracy theories or false, misleading reporting”. He added that, “It also tries to undermine public’s trust in the domestic authorities, in specific (mostly democratic) political parties, they spread narratives that go against the mainstream policies, against the legitimate authorities of the country and against the democratic consensus.”

While the EEAS takes no specific action within member states, it relies upon open source data to identify and debunk conspiracy theories that are amplified or originating by foreign actors. That disinformation will usually be aimed at democratic models, presenting Russia’s authoritarian alternative as a better proposition for its citizens and one that promotes what it regards as traditional values. 

“This is spread via so-called alternative media, on social networks or through so-called analysts, who appear on talk shows or in the media as experts on something. More and more it is also done via Twitter accounts of the Russian Embassies abroad,” Stano wrote. The Polish government has already criticised the number of Russian talking heads on Italian television, taking exception to interviews with both the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, an interview that was broadcast from Red Square. 

Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali saw Russia’s involvement in Italy’s politics as part of the Kremlin’s wider campaign. “This isn’t just about Ukraine,” she said, “Russia is active across Europe. 

In Tocci’s view, Russia has no need to create parties of its own, or push Kremlin aligned bogeymen to the fore. Instead, it promotes populist voices that rail against the establishment. “By picking up on existing campaigns, such as those promoting Brexit, or Catalan independence, or any challenge to increased European integration and amplifying them, it increases division. It doesn’t even need to be a nationalist movement. A populist movement will do just as well, though they’re often the same thing. Really, they’re looking for anything that calls the status quo into doubt,” Tocci said. Russian infiltration of European politics goes beyond just Italy. It thrives in capitals across the continent, from Berlin to 10 Downing Street, where the British prime minister has still to answer questions over his dealings with former KGB officer, Alexander Lebedev. However, in Italy, that infiltration could prove decisive. With the right wing coalition of Salvini’s League, Berlusconi’s Forza and the “post fascist” Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni, looking set to score an outright majority in the coming elections, the sound of celebrations in Rome may echo as far as the gilded walls of the Kremlin in Moscow.

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