The war in Ukraine has caused an unholy convergence of the left and right in Italy. While there is nothing formal so far about this alliance of enemies, it nevertheless threatens to destroy the unity of Nato.
The most high-profile participant is -Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega – the party with the second-highest number of MPs in Italy’s parliament – which is invariably defined as ‘far right’. Salvini, who has been one of Vladimir Putin’s strongest supporters outside Russia, condemned the invasion of Ukraine and has now come out as a pacifist. He opposes Finland and Sweden joining Nato, or sending more arms to Ukraine, on the grounds that both would make peace less likely. Giuseppe Conte, leader of the alt-left Five Star Movement, which has the most MPs, is also on board – as is a chunk of the old left, especially if former communists.
This coalition is hugely popular, not just with Italian extremists, but with Italians in general. Its most ardent supporters, who include most Italian journalists it sometimes seems, demand above all that Joe Biden and Boris Johnson – those warmongering ‘Anglo--Saxons’ – agree that Nato countries should stop sending arms to Ukraine. This would force Volodymyr Zelensky, they insist, to start peace talks with Russia even if it means he loses a large chunk of his country.
Indeed, this was precisely the message Italy’s unelected Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, sensing the power of the sentiment in his country, took to Washington when he met President Biden on 10 May. As a right-wing Italian daily headline put it: ‘Draghi warns Biden: Europe wants peace.’
The Russian media bombardment of Italy has been intense this past month but it would be wrong to blame this for Italy’s left-right anti-war alliance. The talk shows have been full of fanatical Russian journalists spewing out the standard script via Zoom about Nazi Ukraine and Nasty Nato while smirking and rolling their eyes at anyone in the studio who disagrees with them.
Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, even appeared on an Italian TV talk show for his only interview outside Russia. He delivered a 45-minute monologue which came to life briefly when the journalist finally asked him a question: how come Zelensky is a Nazi if he is a Jew? Lavrov retorted that Hitler had Jewish roots and the Jews are the worst anti-Semites of the lot. This was a lie too far even for Putin, who then gave a rare apology to the Israeli government.
Italy’s parliament has unveiled an inquiry into the extent of Russian (and Chinese) disinformation in Italy’s mainstream and social media. This has caused a similar uproar to the one that greeted Biden’s Disinformation Board. In both cases, the aim is to monitor disinformation – it is claimed – but the danger is this will turn into censorship as well.
Obviously the Russians are trying to influence public opinion in Europe and in particular in Italy. It was neutral to start with in both world wars and it was a key ideological battleground in the Cold War, as it had the largest Communist party outside the Soviet bloc, bankrolled by the KGB. Italy wobbled then. It is wobbling again.
But these Russian journalists on Italian TV are in many ways preaching to the converted. Much of what they say is a more extreme version of what many Italians already believe. That does not mean Italians generally refuse to accept the basic truths: that Russian troops have invaded a sovereign state, massacred its civilians and destroyed its cities. But Italians do believe Nato – and thus America and its sidekick Britain – is at least partly to blame for the war. In the weasel words of Pope Francis, the West provoked Russia by ‘barking’ at its door. Never mind that Nato is a defensive, not an offensive, alliance, which former communist countries have been desperate to join because they are terrified of invasion by Russia.
Italian disdain for bully-boy ‘Anglo-Saxon’ behaviour runs deep, even though it was the Anglo-Saxons who liberated them from fascism in 1945. Many Italians believe that America and Britain are hellbent not on defending Ukraine but on using it to defeat Russia and so cause a third world war. Proof of this – according to the prevailing TV talk show view – is the belief that America and Britain have shared intelligence which helped Ukraine kill Russian generals and sink the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, and are thus already at war with Russia. America and Britain have, after all, confirmed that they are providing Ukraine with intelligence.
Italian opinion polls make grim reading for anyone who believes – as do Biden, Johnson and perhaps Zelensky – that the only way to get Putin to the peace table is by force – i.e. more sanctions and more weapons. A majority of Italians (56 per cent) think Biden’s America is taking too much of a bullish and blinkered approach on Ukraine, and that Italy and the EU should develop a separate policy. Only 26 per cent think America is defending democracy and Europe, and that arming Ukraine is the right way to confront Putin. Nearly two-thirds of Italians (62 per cent) think the West must ‘at all costs’ find a way to open peace talks, while only a quarter (26 per cent) think we must first defeat Russia militarily.
Half think sending more arms to Ukraine is wrong – and only a quarter (24 per cent) think it is right. Less than half (44 per cent) think Finland and Sweden should join Nato as soon as possible. While the majority are in favour of sanctions (though not on gas, nearly half of which comes from Russia) only 14 per cent think sanctions are useful.
But Russian journalists are not to blame. The reason why so many Italians think this way is their catastrophic experiment with fascism, which has made them paranoid about war. The Italian media’s default position is instinctive anti-Americanism and hostility to Nato, which, despite Italy being a member, is understood to be run by trigger-happy America and Britain.
On 6 May, Zelensky gave a speech over Zoom to the foreign affairs thinktank Chatham House, in which he revealed his latest preconditions for peace talks. These included the restoration by Russia of Ukraine’s borders to how they were prior to the invasion on 24 February. He did not mention Crimea. The next day, Die Welt published an interview with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg in which he said that Nato has not ‘recognised’ and never will ‘recognise’ Crimea as Russian. This was manna from heaven to the Italian media who translated ‘recognise’ as ‘accept’. Italian journalists claimed that the Nato chief had deliberately slapped down Zelensky’s tentative attempt to get peace talks started to prolong and escalate the war.
It was wall-to-wall headline news in Italy – and nowhere else – for days. How dare the Americans drag Italy and Europe to the edge of the abyss? Even when it was pointed out that Zelensky had simply not mentioned Crimea – because he treats Crimea as an issue to be parked on one side for the moment – it made no difference. Nor did the fact that not even China recognises Crimea as Russian, or that Stoltenberg had spelled out in his interview that it was up to Ukraine and no one else to decide what peace terms it was prepared to accept.
Nonetheless, many of Italy’s TV journalists and their guests are still talking about this fake news as proof of Nato’s desire for war with Russia ‘at all costs’. As one of the most ubiquitous left-wing anti-war pundits put it on a talk show hosted by the ex-communist daughter of Italy’s best known Cold War communist leader, Enrico Berlinguer, Nato is toying with the lives of ‘hundreds of millions of Europeans’. The question western politicians must consider is whether hundreds of millions of Europeans believe that to be true.