Luigi Di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, celebrates with supporters in his home town of Pomigliano on March 6 after Italy’s general elections.  (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)
The Washington Post
March 23, 2018
 Italy’s Parliament convened Friday for the first time since anti-establishment forces shattered the old-line political system, and it remains unclear who will lead the country. But one victor is certain: the Kremlin.The populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League — the two parties most likely to bring together a ruling coalition — have called for a swift end to European sanctions against Russia. Both want to reorient the NATO defense alliance away from its increasingly robust stance in Eastern Europe, where it has stationed troops and tanks to defend against a possible conflict with the Kremlin. And both say Russia is a valuable partner in the global fight against terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.

The result all but guarantees that European Union leaders will be unable to find the unanimity that would be needed for a substantial response to the attempted poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, for which British authorities blame Russia. And it could exacerbate divisions within NATO about how robustly to respond to Russia, whose 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula triggered Cold War-era tensions.

“The economic sanctions against Russia are madness, directed against a neighboring and friendly market,” League leader Matteo Salvini said this week at a rally in the northeastern Italian city of Udine, where strong trade ties to Russia have been affected by the economic measures. “I want to work for peace, not for war. I do not want to assemble little tanks like the game of Risk.”

Italy has long been known as one of the most pro-Russian nations in Europe. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has celebrated birthdays with President Vladimir Putin. (The most recent birthday gift from Berlusconi was a duvet with an image of the two men smiling at each other.) So even if more mainstream candidates had won, a hard-line anti-Russia stance was never a likely outcome.

League party leader Matteo Salvini at a Rome news conference March 14.  (Giuseppe Lami/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

One European ambassador in Rome, asked ahead of the election whether Russia was mounting an influence campaign as it is alleged to have done in the United States and elsewhere, smiled ruefully and said there was no need to do anything, because Italy was already on Russia’s side. The country’s sympathies for Moscow stem in part from strong business ties, in part from history: For decades, Italy’s Communist Party was the strongest in Western Europe.

But the outcome of the election is still an unusually good result for the Kremlin. Previous Italian leaders have valued their relationship with Brussels and Washington more than their ties to Moscow. Salvini and Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio may not, analysts say.

“It’s ideological. It’s a fundamental belief that Russia was mistreated after the Cold War,” said Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Italian International Affairs Institute. “They believe that if the United States gets a sphere of influence, why shouldn’t Russia?”

Neither the Five Star Movement nor the League hid its sympathies toward Moscow during the campaign, even as voters focused more on domestic issues such as migration and an overall frustration with what they saw as a corrupt and out-of-touch political establishment.

Although the parties’ reasons for boosting Russia are somewhat different, they converge on many policies. Officials from both parties have boasted of travels to Russia to meet key power players. Both say NATO has overreached.

The League admires Putin’s promotion of traditional family values and measures against equality for gays and lesbians. The Five Star Movement is skeptical of NATO in the way some left-leaning politicians long have been, seeing it as an instrument for exercising U.S. power in engagements in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Manlio Di Stefano, Five Star’s 36-year-old point person on foreign affairs, said in an interview before the vote that prohibitions on doing business with Russia following the country’s military intervention in Ukraine had damaged Italian companies to the tune of $8.6 billion and had not been effective in changing Russian behavior.

Italy’s election saw support for anti-establishment parties, led by the Five Star Movement, but none of the three main factions will be able to govern alone. 

He said the sanctions should be eliminated in favor of unspecified “diplomatic or political” levers to try to influence Moscow.

Di Stefano, whose career was in computer engineering before he detoured into politics, said he had visited Russia at the invitation of Putin’s United Russia party and had delivered a speech to members. “I told them: ‘We are not pro-Russian, and we are not pro-U.S. We are pro-Italian,’ ” he said.

Neutrality between East and West would be a striking departure for Italy, which was a founding member of NATO. Di Stefano said the party wants to remain in the alliance.

But Five Star leaders have been sharply critical of NATO in a way that sometimes echoes Russian talking points.

Alessandro Di Battista, the 39-year-old who has been suggested as a potential foreign minister in a Five Star-led government, said ahead of the election that the alliance had strayed from its original mission by going to war in Afghanistan and by provoking Moscow in Eastern Europe.

“NATO was born with a noble mission — mutual defense among member states,” Di Battista said. “But NATO has acquired a much more offensive role. We are not fine with that.”

He described Five Star as “an extremely pacifist political force” and said he saw opportunity for cooperation between Russia and the West in areas such as counterterrorism.

He said Europe and the United States had overreacted to Russian interference in Ukraine and needed to examine their role in destabilizing the country.

“When there are conflicts,” he said, “I believe no one is innocent.”

League leaders also say they want to team with Russia to take on the problems of the world. Their party was one of the first in Europe to recognize the annexation of Crimea. At least one party member was an electoral observer during Crimea’s contested referendum on joining with Russia, a vote that Europe and the United States condemned as illegitimate.

“Europe should accept that — like it or not — Russia is its natural partner,” Lorenzo Fontana, a top League official, said in an interview. “If there are problems, they must be addressed, but we need to be careful about the consequences.”

The League’s foreign policy strategist, Giancarlo Giorgetti, said Europe should call off the sanctions, because they are not working.

“Historically, Russia has had a privileged relationship with Italy, even during the height of the Cold War,” he said at a conference ahead of the election.

“I don’t understand those who stubbornly carry on with sanctions. Do they really suppose that Putin will actually pull back from Crimea because of sanctions?” he said. “Are we kidding ourselves or what?”

Still, some analysts say that given the likely weakness of any new Italian leader, he or she is unlikely to be willing to spend significant political capital on behalf of Putin. Renewing the sanctions requires unanimity every time, giving great power to individual countries but also putting pressure on them to keep in line. Whoever becomes prime minister will need to deliver on a domestic agenda that will be reliant on European goodwill for flexibility on spending rules and other measures.

Italy’s new government “will have to pick its battles,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO and the director of the Brussels office of Project Associates, a consulting firm.

Still, he said, “whatever government we have is likely to be more pro-Russian than any we’ve had in a very long time.”

Griff Witte and Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.