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Will a New Italian Government Go Soft on Russia?

Mario Draghi was seen as responsible for keeping Italy on board with the EU’s Ukraine policy. Is that about to change?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Italian politicians Silvio Berlusconi, Giorgia Meloni, and Matteo Salvini
Italian politicians Silvio Berlusconi, Giorgia Meloni, and Matteo Salvini
(From left) Italian politicians Silvio Berlusconi, Giorgia Meloni, and Matteo Salvini at a joint rally against the government in Rome on Oct. 19, 2019, Tiziana FABI/AFP

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at what a new Italian government would mean for Europe’s Ukraine policy, a breakthrough for Ukraine’s grain, and Sri Lanka’s new prime minister.

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Italy’s New Guard

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at what a new Italian government would mean for Europe’s Ukraine policy, a breakthrough for Ukraine’s grain, and Sri Lanka’s new prime minister.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Italy’s New Guard

The fall of Mario Draghi has thrown Italian politics into turmoil once again. The Italian prime minister’s resignation comes as the European Union as a whole is attempting to keep its united front on Ukraine from fraying.

“The Russians are right now celebrating having made another Western government fall,” Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told Politico last week. “Now I doubt we can send arms [to Ukraine]. It is one of the many serious problems.”

Polls indicate that snap elections in the fall will favor a far-right government, a political bloc that has traditionally been more sympathetic toward Russia across Europe.

That warmer attitude toward Russia is already present among Italians. Among Europeans, when it comes to Ukraine, Italians are the least likely to blame Russia for the war, and in a June poll about half of respondents opposed sending defensive weapons to Ukraine.

Italy’s business community is also seen as supportive of Russia. Senior business leaders met with Russian President Vladimir Putin as recently as Jan. 26, just weeks before Russia launched its invasion.

So is Italy about to play spoiler? Based on the rhetoric of those who might replace Draghi, that seems unlikely. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, which currently leads in polls, has gone out of her way to distance herself from Putin and has described the invasion as an “unacceptable large-scale act of war by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine.”

Meloni’s approach is in line with Pew polling that shows that, despite Italy’s historical ties with Russia, few trust the man in the Kremlin. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, just 11 percent of Italians surveyed said they trusted Putin to do the right thing in world affairs.

Although Meloni’s party is widely described as far-right, in part due to its ties to Italy’s neofascist movement, she rejects the label. Like her counterpart in France, National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, Meloni has been trying to project a more palatable image to the voting public.

“I don’t see what elements may support the definition of Brothers of Italy as a far-right party,” Meloni told Foreign Policy last year, “we are a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party … which is the family of the European and Western conservatives, joined by more than 40 parties in several countries, spanning from the Likud in Israel to the Tories in the U.K. and the GOP in the U.S.”

By toeing the mainstream line on Putin, Meloni stands apart from Matteo Salvini’s League party, which has struggled to make inroads beyond its right-wing base. And although the League currently trails Brothers of Italy by 8 percentage points in polls, the two would likely enter government as coalition partners, along with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Dario Cristiani, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said that although Salvini and Meloni represent different stances on Russia, the League’s internal factions hold enough Euro-Atlanticist supporters to keep Italy on a similar path to the one it’s on now. “My personal view is that there will not be any loud change or something extremely visible,” Cristiani said.

Still, as the Sept. 25 election approaches, Cristiani said the public’s view on the war will likely trump any ideological considerations: “It might be easier for the war fatigue in public opinion to have a role in shaping the choices of the next government. So it might not be, ‘we will leave the trans-Atlantic consensus,’ but it might be, ‘less weapons to Ukraine from 2023 onwards.’”


What We’re Following Today

Ukraine’s grain breakthrough. A deal to allow Ukraine to resume exporting grain through the Black Sea is expected to be signed today in Istanbul following United Nations-brokered talks between Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkish officials. Under the terms of the deal, Ukraine will escort ships through mined waters to reach its ports, while Russia has agreed not to target vessels involved in grain shipment. As a confidence measure, Turkish officials have agreed to inspect the ships to allay any smuggling concerns.

Sri Lanka’s new government. Newly named Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe is expected to appoint Dinesh Gunawardena, a former foreign and education minister, as prime minister as the country continues its political shake-up following the downfall of the Rajapaksa dynasty after weeks of public protests.

It’s not yet clear whether Gunawardena’s appointment will represent enough of a change to assuage protesters, as he is seen as an ally of the Rajapaksas. For his part, Wickremesinghe appears to be pursuing a zero-tolerance approach after he sent in hundreds of security forces to dismantle a protest camp set up near the presidential palace in the early hours of Friday morning.


Keep an Eye On

Lavrov in Africa. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov begins a five-day Africa tour, with stops in Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo. His travel comes as Russia’s arms sales to the region have begun to falter, as FP’s Jack Detsch reports.

Brazil’s presidential race. On Thursday, Brazil’s Workers’ Party officially nominated former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as its candidate in the Oct. 2 presidential election. Even though he leads incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro by a healthy margin in polls, Lula has chosen former São Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, a centrist, as his running mate to widen his appeal outside his left-wing base.

Colombia’s drug war. Six of Colombia’s top criminal gangs have proposed a cease-fire to the incoming government of President-elect Gustavo Petro, who said he would begin peace talks with the groups once in office as part of his rethinking of the country’s war on drugs.

“We cannot be indifferent to the clamor of Colombian society and the thinking of its democratically elected president, in order to achieve the desired peace with social justice, among other things,” the six groups, including the Clan del Golfo, the Caparros, and the Rastrojo, said in a statement.


Odds and Ends

A brewery and pub in Germany is offering beer in exchange for cooking oil, as the country faces a shortage of sunflower and rapeseed oil due to the war in Ukraine and Russia sanctions. The Giesinger Brewery in Munich is offering a liter (around 34 ounces) of beer for a liter of oil, and it has so far received 400 liters of oil as part of the deal. “The whole thing came up because we simply ran out of oil in the kitchen and that’s why we have to be inventive,” the pub manager, Erik Hoffmann, told Reuters TV. “Getting oil is very difficult … if you need 30 liters a week and only get 15 instead, at some point you won’t be able to fry a schnitzel any longer.”

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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