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21/08/2022 | New paper sheds light on Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

Joseph Fitsanakis

A NEW PAPER, PUBLISHED by the United Kingdom’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defence and Security Studies, sheds light the complex relationship between Italy and the West’s two principal adversaries, Russia and China.

 

Italy is a major global economic power. It is a prominent member of the Group of Seven (G7), which collectively account for more than 50 percent of global net wealth. It is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).

Despite —or perhaps because of— its central place in the Western alliance, Italy has long been a leading advocate for cooperation and dialogue between the West and Russia. In 2019, it became the first G7 member and the first major European Union power to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with China on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, the Italian private sector has been far more hesitant than those of other Western countries to abandon Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, with only a single Italian company having completely exited the Russian market since February of this year.

According to two Italian researchers, RUSI Senior Associate Fellow Raffaello Pantucci, and Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Italy’s cooperative attitude toward China and Russia has led some to accuse Rome of being a “Trojan horse in Europe”. But in their research paper published by RUSI earlier this week, Pantucci and Ambrosetti argue that the reality is far more complex, especially in the case of Italian-Russian relations. They point out that Italy has, in fact, been a leading voice in favor of the imposition of harsh sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Currently the Italian state is actively seeking to disengage its energy-import sector from Russia.

Strategy of Engagement

The research paper, entitled “Russian and Chinese Influence in Italy”, argues that Italy’s tendency to “hedge between its close transatlantic ties and its longstanding connections with Moscow and Beijing” is not new. In fact it reflects a longstanding Italian strategy, which tends to remain relatively constant and “does not change according to the political color of the government in charge” in Rome. As a result, Italy’s relations with Russia and China “show a roughly consistent pattern” in the post-Cold War era, as Rome is largely oriented “toward engagement” with both Moscow and Beijing.

This long-term strategy tends to endure despite periodic crises in bilateral relations. That was the case recently, when Rome accused Chinese banks of laundering money using their branches in Italy, or when an Italian Navy captain was convicted of selling classified documents to Russia. In such cases, diplomats are expelled in a tit-for-tat manner, but bilateral relations are not affected. This can be seen in the case of Libya, in which Italy has an enduring interest due to its geographic proximity and prior colonial involvement. Moscow’s diplomacy in Libya has been supported by Italy, and is viewed by the latter as “if not a model, at least a point of reference”.

The Economics of Engagement

Crucially, Italy’s close relations with Russia and —especially— China are strongly supported and sustained by Italy’s “powerful northern business elite”, Pantucci and Ambrosetti point out. For instance, Italian business lobbies, such as Confindustria, the Italian–Russian Chamber of Commerce, or the Lombardy–Russia Association, are highly influential in promoting Italy’s pro-engagement strategy with Moscow.

Will this longstanding strategy survive the global financial crisis and the war in Ukraine? The authors suggest it probably will, though a number of factors in the equation tend to introduce an element uncertainty. Among them is the instability of Italy’s coalition governments, which are finding it increasingly difficult to last for longer than few months at a time. This is, of course, a chronic feature of Italian politics. But the current landscape also brings with it the rise of far-right and extreme-populist political groupings, which tend to be authoritarian in outlook and at times look favorably to Russia and China. How this will play out in the coming months and years is difficult to predict, the authors conclude.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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