Russian Troika Harnessed in Italian Trappings

Italy is a land of paradoxes, where politicians frequently make contradictory statements in a single speech, and invite 1980s pop stars, whose fame had long faded away, to perform at their meetings. Yet, these artists are still popular in Russia, a nation that lives in the past.

Another odd Italian phenomenon: there are pro-Russian MPs within a pro-Ukrainian coalition, an oxymoron situation that reflects Italy’s unique political landscape.

Even after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of the war in the Donbas, Italy has maintained close ties with Russia and its president. This is particularly evident among Italy’s right-wing parties, which employ pro-Russian sentiments as a means of safeguarding national sovereignty against the European Union. By siding with Putin, they are claiming to be the defenders of a sovereign national policy, standing against Brussels and the European bureaucracy. This logic, however, is riddled with contradictions.

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Italian politicians often say that Italy is historically pro-Russian, but not anti-Ukrainian. They express a fascination with Russian culture and traditions and view Russia as a European country. The far-right politicians and Italian political observers argue that this admiration hardly influences politics. Still, such “rhetoric” is influential indeed and inevitably leads to disastrous outcomes.

Italy is striving to be friends with everyone. Being pro-Russian doesn’t necessarily mean to be anti-Ukrainian or anti-Georgian. It’s challenging to even comment on this cognitive dissonance stuck in the heads of many Italian politicians and voters.

Don’t let this seemingly naive argument fool you. Italy has clearly taken a strong pro-Putin line during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It is also worth mentioning the controversial litigation over Vitaliy Markiv, a senior sergeant in the Ukrainian National Guard, who bravely defended his country. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison for alleged involvement in the killing of an Italian journalist, and then acquitted of all charges.

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In February 2015, the Italian government initiated legislative changes to strengthen counter-terrorism measures. Penalties for involvement in extremist and terrorist activities were increased, making participation in hostilities on the side of terrorists a criminal offense punishable by six years in prison. Despite these measures, the number of Italian citizens fighting for the so-called “LNR & DNR” terrorists did not decrease. Their motivation is a mix of ideological, political, and financial reasons. The list of Italians who fought for Russian interests in the separatist regions and continue to fight in the open war against Ukraine is extensive, numbering in hundreds.

The pro-Russian influence in Italy extends beyond mercenaries. The Kremlin has long funded Italian propagandists to promote pro-Russian narratives. Dozens of so-called journalists, including Busca Nicola from La Stampa, have reported on events in the temporarily occupied regions of Ukraine, often presenting a distorted version of reality. Such media support, generously funded by the Kremlin, involves backing of separatists ‘officials’, and even illegal military units.

Italian politicians have met with separatist leaders, often accompanied by glamorous photoshoots. These are not just minor local officials but prominent figures such as Gualtiero Mazzi, vice president of the Province of Verona, and Palmarino Zoccatelli, president of the “Committee of Independent Veneto.” These engagements strengthen the separatist entities and legitimize their international standing.

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Since 2016, the Coordination Centre for Anti-Fascist Ukraine has been operating in the occupied Donetsk region, led by Italian citizen Clara Statello. Corrupted Italian writers and filmmakers have also been involved, producing pro-Russian propaganda. In 2014-2015, Sofia Bacchini and Gianpietro Sinnometto created an openly anti-Ukrainian book and a documentary. Sara Reginella made a documentary, “Start Up a War: The Psychology of a Conflict”. To justify its actions, the Kremlin used similar tactics in Georgia.

Furthermore, Italian trade union leaders have met with ‚officials’ from unrecognized “LNR.” Pierpaolo Leonardi, head of the Central Association of Trade Unions of Italy, visited occupied Luhansk in 2016 and participated in events legitimizing the separatists. Maurizio Marrone, a member of the Piedmont Regional Council, visited the occupied territories and expressed an intention to set up a representative office for the “LNR” in Piedmont. Similarly, Stefano Valdegamberi from the “League of the North” and Senator Paola de Pin visited Crimea and participated in the Yalta Economic Forum, thus reinforcing Moscow’s propaganda.

Italian musicians and conductors did not stand aside either, performing at the opening of the concert season of the Philharmonic in occupied Luhansk. Businessmen from Lombardy and Veneto, regions where the “League of the North” is particularly influential, have also helped separatists efforts to gain legitimacy. The “League of the North” initiated a resolution recognizing Crimea’s self-determination and advocating for lifting sanctions on Russia. This resolution authorized the Lombardy Council to encourage the Italian government to resume dialogue with Russia.

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Consider the following forgotten fact as the restoration of the dialogue — at the end of March 2020 fourteen ‘Ilyushin Il-76’ aircraft of the Russian Space Forces landed at the Italian Pratica di Mare airbase near Rome. The caravan reportedly delivered special equipment to combat the coronavirus, although many infected Russian servicemen were actually carriers of the virus. The main goal was not the aid, but simply PR. The Italian media swiftly reported that “only Russia volunteered to help the brotherly European nation”, while “Western countries have turned their backs on Italy.”

Besides taking part in political events in the temporarily occupied regions of Ukraine, Italian citizens have also participated in various cultural events, acting as contest judges, and honoured guests. These initiatives, including circus and dance festivals, have greatly helped legitimize the separatists.

In Italy, “Friends of Putin” are represented by three parties: “League” (Lega), “Forward Italy” (Forza Italia) and “Five Star Movement” (Movimento 5 Stelle). The influence of these parties, along with the extensive network of pro-Russian entities, confirms a significant presence of Russian interests in Italian politics.

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