Putin serenades Italy Inc. amid Ukraine crisis – POLITICO

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting a video call with Italy’s big business beasts on Wednesday, but strong Russia-Italy ties don’t mean Rome will oppose sanctions on Moscow like it did after the invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Lucrative trade relations between Italy and Russia were a decisive factor in the Ukraine crisis of 2014-2015, when Rome was at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to prevent harsh EU sanctions against Russia. Federica Mogherini acted as Russia’s chief dove both as Italian foreign minister and later as EU foreign policy chief. Diplomats from Poland, Britain, Sweden and the Baltics railed against a “Club Med” of Italian-led southern European countries that opposed a hard line against Putin.

Given this history of Italian opposition to sanctions, it makes sense that Putin sees benefit in spending time with Italy’s leadership amid the most serious military clash in Europe in years, with some 100,000 Russian troops massed. at the Ukrainian border.

The online video call at 11 a.m. will feature 25 leading industry groups, including tire giant Pirelli and energy powerhouse Enel. The event was planned before the escalation in Ukraine, organizers and attendees stressed, but geopolitical tensions and possible economic sanctions against Russia will certainly figure prominently given Italy’s exposure to Russia. .

The difference with 2014 – and the challenge for Putin – is that Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is a different proposition from Matteo Renzi, who led Italy in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Even though Draghi was uncharacteristically outspoken last month in downplaying the risks of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, he still prioritizes the alliance with Washington and Rome’s place in NATO over good relations with the Kremlin.

Putin knows that Italy’s investments in Russia are critical. Pirelli has two factories in Russia, while energy giant Eni has also invested heavily in Russia, maintaining close ties with Russian gas giant Gazprom, which is its partner in the Blue Stream gas pipeline linking Russia to Turkey. The biggest Italian banks, Intesa Sanpaolo and UniCredit, are also very present. A Brussels-based lobbyist notes: “Our companies are very exposed”.

Even since the days of the Cold War, Italy has maintained unusually close ties with Russia. In the 1960s, Fiat produced cars in the Russian town of Togliatti, named after Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti. Eni has also operated there since the 1960s, while a Pirelli factory received the Order of Lenin award from the Soviet Union in the same decade. “Among European countries, Italy is probably the closest to Russia for economic and cultural ties,” noted Aldo Ferrari, Russia specialist at the ISPI think tank and professor at Ca’ Foscari University. of Venice.

Russophilia reached its peak under the leadership of Silvio Berlusconi – a close friend of Putin – and continued more recently with anti-establishment parties: the League and, to a lesser extent, the 5 Star Movement.

Ferrari did not believe it carried the same diplomatic weight in 2022, however.

“The Italian card does not exist [for Putin]”, he said. “Italy is not Germany and it has neither the will nor the power to change the general direction” of Europe’s diplomatic action on Russia .

Ferrari stressed that Draghi’s transatlantic allegiances mattered more than Putin, noting that it was no coincidence that Draghi’s very first speech as prime minister, he insisted that Italy belong to the Atlantic alliance.

Although Draghi called for a policy of engagement with Russia, he gave no signal that he would break the consensus on a coordinated international response against Putin in the event of an invasion of Ukraine. A statement from the Italian government released Monday after a videoconference attended by US President Joe Biden underlined “the serious consequences that a further deterioration of the situation could entail”.

Last year, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio also spoke out in favor of sanctions against Russia following the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The companies involved in the meeting with Putin played down the political dimension of the online chat. “I understand it’s a difficult time, but there’s nothing political about it,” said someone from a company that will attend, noting that “Italy is not the only country to do it”.

Wednesday’s meeting will bring together members of the Italian-Russian Association Chamber of Commerce and members of the Italian-Russian Business Committee, a group chaired by Pirelli CEO Marco Tronchetti Provera.

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