• Perri Grace

Fratelli di Russa: Italy's Russia Problem

From propaganda to politics, is Putin the real winner of Italy’s political chaos? The Red Line’s Perri Grace takes us through the looming Italian snap-election.


Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been able to lead Italy’s Kremlin strategy since taking office last year. However, despite being an integral member of the EU, Italy has become a gateway for Russian propaganda to seep into Europe. With Italian politics once again in turmoil and a looming snap-election in September, there is a high probability that Russia could be the real winner.

The Turkish drilling vessel Kanuni at Haydarpasa Port in Istanbul. Credit: Chris McGrath
The flags of Russia, Italy, and the EU fly during a Italy-Russia Summit in 2013. Credit: Palazzo Chigi

In late July, Draghi resigned as Prime Minister after coalition members withdrew their support. Italy’s far-right aligned political parties, which have been historically sympathetic to Russia, are predicted to have strong support at the polls. In the backdrop of an European energy crisis, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine on the periphery, Italy is now left with a caretaker government and a looming election that could favour right-aligned parties and Russia.


Moscow’s Men

Leader of right-wing populist party Lega, Matteo Salvini, has urged the country not to send weapons to aid Ukraine. The former Interior Minister has been photographed twice proudly wearing a Putin t-shirt, including once in European Parliament where he asserted Putin was more democratic than the EU. Salvini and Lega, who were one of the essential components of the previous “national unity” government, have sounded the alarm on immigration, making it a crucial part of their campaign.


"In the backdrop of an European energy crisis, the ongoing COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine on the periphery, Italy is now left with a caretaker government and a looming election that could favour right-aligned parties and Russia."

Lega, who’s popularity dropped after joining Draghi’s government, continues to hold a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia. Amidst broad condemnation of Russian military aggression, Salvini has only spoken Putin’s name on rare occasion, insisting that he wants a diplomatic end to the war.


Although the foundations beneath Draghi were already shaky, documents published by La Stampa citing intelligence reports assert Salvini’s aide was asked to withdraw support by Putin’s emissary, a narrative Salvini rejects. Salvini’s campaigning has shown early aims at reinforcing his northern stronghold, a manufacturing heavy area that has been hit by sanctions on Russian business.

Documents published by La Stampa citing intelligence reports assert Salvini’s aide was asked to withdraw support by Putin’s emissary, a narrative Salvini rejects

Lega and other right-aligned parties, including Giorgia Meloni’s Eurosceptic and far-right Fratelli d’Italia, are looking to secure voters for the September election. Meloni stands to become Prime Minister of a new coalition government and is currently leading the polls, but as opponents continue to voice valid concerns over links between these parties and Russia, it remains hard to determine the potential impact to Meloni’s electoral chances.


Both centre-right parties 5 Stelle (FSM) and Forza Italia have also established relations with Russia. WIth a general anti-establishment ethos, they share several positions and stances in common with the Kremlin. FSM’s historic relations with Russia are well documented. However, it would appear they are more flexible in their relationships, prioritising fundraising and votes over ideology and firm alignment to one direction or ideology.


The Media Monopoly

Former Italian Prime Minister and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi once had a chummy relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The once-close friend and admirer took two months to publicly denounce Putin’s war in Ukraine. Whether a publicity stunt to satisfy Europe, his stance remains unclear after the billionaire suggested (and later backtracked) sentiments that Ukraine should be open to Russian demands.

Berlusconi remains an influential figure and a media mogul, owning much of the country’s media companies and exposing a sympathy towards Moscow. Berlusconi continues to lead centre-right Forza Italy and reportedly met with the Russian ambassador on the day he withdrew his support for Draghi. Berlusconi denies the meeting.


Airtime for the Kremlin

What every “intent to influence” campaign needs to succeed - airtime - Italy gives generously. It is not just Berlusconi-owned channels; open doors from state-owned television channels have benefitted pro-Russian figures. Talk shows are popular across the country and, despite an EU ban on Sputnik and RT, Russian propaganda figures still receive invitations from Italian broadcasters.


Brussels has requested Italian media not to give airtime or importance to Russian propaganda after Rete 4, a Berlusconi channel, hosted Foreign Minister Lavrov’s first western appearance since the war, where he accused Zelenskyy of being a Nazi. The same channel subsequently invited Italian-speaking Alexander Dugin for a prime-time appearance.


Sociologist and once LUISS University in Rome, Professor Alessandro Orsini, appeared on Italian state-owned television station RAI3, where he stated people in Mariupol had written letters telling Italians to stop sending weapons to defend the Ukrainian military as well as calls for the west to allow Putin to win. RAI 1, Rete 4 and La7 also shared images and commentary surrounding US bio-laboratory disinformation. Following some backlash, La 7 was the only network to issue a correction.

"Talk shows are popular across the country and, despite an EU ban on Sputnik and RT, Russian propaganda figures still receive invitations from Italian broadcasters."

Whether these appearances did influence Italians is hard to calculate. However, there has been an appreciable growth in the numbers of Italians moving towards the messaging platform Telegram. Since the war in Ukraine began Sputnik Italia’s audience has increased along with several significant Telegram newsgroups have also grown significantly, with some individuals turning to the messaging service for information.



Wagner’s Immigration influence

As politicians continue their political trail, reports of Wagner mercenary involvement in destabilising Italy with a migrant influx have begun circulating.


For years, immigration has been a contentious political topic across Europe, but in particularly divisive in Italy. An uptick in migrants has been traced to departures from the Wagner-controlled Libyan port city of Tobruk. The political turbulence immigration sparks can influence Italian public opinion and assist the right-wing alliance, especially Salvini.


The Kremlin weaponising migrants in a bid to interfere in European politics is a tactic they utilised on multiple occasions. Weakening cohesion across the EU and sowing discontent is a ploy straight out of Putin’s playbook. A Russian-tolerant Italy would undoubtedly cause a stir in Brussels. The extent to which the country will sway is unknown, but if Italy is to shift towards being in camp with Hungary and Serbia, it will prompt concerns for Germany and France and divide European leaders.


With September 25 creeping up, Putin’s eyes will be on southern Europe.

 

Written by Perri Grace.

Edited by Wade McCagh.