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Another Italian coalition government is on the edge of collapse, and this time the ramifications beyond Italy’s borders extend to its government’s current firm support of Ukraine in defending against Russia’s military assault. Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a political independent, is considering whether to proceed with the resignation he offered to President Sergio Mattarella last week, after the populist Five Star Movement political party boycotted a Senate vote on an economic package and withdrew from the coalition. Draghi’s government has acted as a sort of Euro-Atlanticist buffer to Italian public opinion, which largely supports Russia. He has kept Italy — the European Union’s third-biggest economy and boasting the bloc’s largest standing military — firmly in sync with U.S. and EU support of Ukraine, including with military aid, sanctions against Russia, and support for Ukraine’s EU membership bid.
Draghi, who has been prime minister since January 2021, announced on the evening of July 14 that he would submit his resignation to Mattarella, after the Five Star Movement, until recently the largest party in the coalition, refused to support a package of measures aimed at easing the impact of high inflation and other economic problems. The government easily won the vote of confidence by 172 to 39, but the Five Star Movement nevertheless decided to exit the coalition. In announcing his resignation, Draghi said, “The national unity majority that supported this government since its creation no longer exists.”
But Mattarella rejected Draghi’s resignation and said the prime minister should address Parliament on July 20 to determine whether he can muster the numerical support to continue with his “unity government,” even without the Five Star Movement. Draghi is a political independent, a former head of the European Central Bank, and generally supportive of EU institutions and the Transatlantic partnership, and he stands as a centrist moderating figure who has managed to take a technocratic approach, trying to stave off both left- and right-wing populism. The populist Five Star Movement historically tends toward Euro-skepticism and a foreign policy approach critical of the United States and NATO and fascinated with Russia, China, Venezuela etc. It is now the second-largest member of the coalition after Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio left the party, creating his own political movement (Insieme per il future – Together for the Future). Draghi’s supporters have come out in force in recent days, gathering signatures on a petition for him to stay from hundreds of mayors of cities and towns and garnering support from union and industry leaders alike.
Russian leaders clearly are watching the political crisis with interest. As Draghi announced his resignation, a number of Russian officials commented through their social media channels, illustrating how much Russia feels it needs to destabilize transatlantic unity. That unified and consistent response had contributed to undermining Russia’s plans for what it thought would be a quick and relatively painless (for itself) “special military operation.” Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented, “This is an internal affair within Italy,” but then added “but since the Italian Foreign Minister has allowed himself to mention Russia in the context of the government crisis, I reply that I wish the Italian people a government focused on solving the problems created by his predecessors and not to serving the interests of the Americans.”
Moscow `Toasting’ Over Italy’s Crisis
Zakharova was referring to Di Maio’s comment that “Moscow was toasting because of Italy’s crisis.” It was not the first time the Russian Foreign Ministry had openly targeted Di Maio. At the beginning of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, in response to Di Maio’s remarks that Italy would not participate in any bilateral meeting with Russia without a de-escalation, the Russian ministry said, “Western partners must learn to use diplomacy in a professional way,” and that “diplomacy was invented to resolve conflict situations and relieve tensions, and not for empty trips around countries and tasting exotic dishes at receptions.”
Former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who has vociferously supported President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and now serves as No. 2 on the powerful Security Council, also weighed in on the Italian crisis. On his Telegram channel, Medvedev published an image with photos of outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Draghi with a third frame containing only a question mark, a clear allusion to who might be next out of office among Europe’s biggest Ukraine backers. A few weeks ago, when Draghi joined French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in visiting Kyiv, Medvedev insulted the trio, calling them “eaters of frogs, sausages, and pasta.”
Medvedev’s post is clearly part of an attempt to sell the idea that European leaders are now paying the price of their opposition to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. However, in the U.K., it is unlikely that a new prime minister would be in any way sympathetic to Russia and its colonial ambitions in Ukraine, and thus not likely to shift the course of staunch British support for the Ukrainians.
The situation in Italy is different. The governmental crisis has domestic roots and reflects in part the Five Star Movement’s desperation to differentiate itself from the government to win back some of the votes it has lost over the past four years. It also shows the lack of political experience, capacity, and skill of its current leader, the academic-turned-politician Conte.
The Prospect of Snap Elections
The crisis can benefit Russia mainly if Draghi cannot muster support to maintain his government and Italy goes to snap elections, likely to be conducted this autumn. In addition to Draghi, the current government is centered around a number of personalities who also are historically Atlanticist — including Cabinet ministers such as Lorenzo Guerini (Defense), Giancarlo Giorgetti (Economic Development) – or who have become Atlanticist more recently, such as Di Maio. Yet the government also contains political leaders who have never hidden their pro-Russian stances. In addition to Conte, they include the historical heavyweights of the center-right coalition, now part of the government, such as the leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, and four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Should Italy conduct early elections (it currently is due for elections next year), the center-right coalition likely would win and adopt a more friendly approach towards Russia. Moreover, in the event of an electoral campaign in which the outcomes of the Russian war in Ukraine shape public perceptions and inform the agenda, Russia will have plenty of opportunities to interfere. It could, for instance, launch coordinated campaigns on social media to amplify its message, or exploit politicians aiming to strengthen their electoral appeal among the large portions of the Italian public opinion who oppose Italian support for Ukraine.
Given Italy’s historical diplomatic record and the persistent clichés of Rome always being ready to shift sides and never finishing a war in the same alliance, Italian politicians should consider how this reputation undermines Rome’s diplomatic status, particularly as the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine is not just another local conflict. Rather, it is the Russian attempt to question the very features of the European security architecture based on NATO and the European Communities (later European Union). Although it was on the losing side in World War II, Italy was a founding member of both of those institutions and greatly benefited from them — Italy could focus primarily on rebuilding its economy without spending too much on defense thanks to the NATO umbrella, and European integration benefitted Italian industry significantly, helping it become the second-largest manufacturing economy on the continent.
So, just as the current crisis is a golden opportunity for Moscow to achieve a significant political goal — undermining Italy’s pro-Ukraine and Atlanticist stance with minimal effort — Italian party leaders risk accelerating that trend with their own whims and political desperation.