Between competition and cooperation. Rereading the relations between Italy and Russia

Though downgraded in the international hierarchy of power and prestige after the Cold War, Moscow has continued to wield significant influence on the stability of the status quo through its persistent military (especially nuclear) capabilities, geopolitical clout, and natural resources. The analysis by Gabriele Natalia, Sapienza University of Rome and and by Mara Morini, University of Genoa

According to a widespread narrative between Rome and Moscow there is a sort of “privileged relationship”. This representation is not only contradicted by the strong Atlanticist spirit that has always animated Italy and by the support it has provided to the Ukrainian government after February 24, but it can easily be falsified through a more accurate study of the relations between the two countries.

As suggested by historiography, it is true that Rome has not infrequently maintained good offices with Moscow, which have also produced forms of cooperation on the diplomatic, economic and cultural levels. It should be remembered, however, that among the permanent interests of Italian foreign policy there are some that are incompatible with those of Russia, such as the absence of a hegemonic power in the Black Sea, the presence of as small a number as possible of great powers in the Mediterranean Sea and the expansion of Italian influence in the Balkans. Aware of the contradictory elements that weighed on the relationship with Russia, in 1881 the ambassador Constantine Nigra wrote to the foreign minister Pasquale Stanislaus Mancini that the two countries could not do “neither too well nor too badly”.

The international order that arose after the end of the Cold War was characterized by a dominance both in terms of hard power and soft power – probably never known before – of the United States. Though downgraded in the international hierarchy of power and prestige, however, Moscow has continued to wield significant influence on the stability of the status quo due to its persistent military (especially nuclear) capabilities, its geopolitical clout and the natural resources it possesses.

Only if considered within this perimeter does Italy’s profuse commitment to the reintegration of post-communist Russia into the “liberal” order make sense. Among the most significant moments of this path we should mention the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation (1994), the commitment of Berlusconi for the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council (2002) and that of Romano Prodi for the design of a gas pipeline – the South Stream – which was supposed to connect Italy and Russia (2006).

Just around the turn of the 1910s, however, American hegemony became less stable. The main indicators of the change in interaction that has taken place between the main players in the international system include the military quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crisis of 2007-2009, the democratic retreat on a global scale recorded since 2005 and the revisionist posture publicly assumed by the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.

As the surrounding political-strategic context changed, Italian-Russian relations also experienced a new change, in this case of a competitive nature. Since 2014, the Italian government has always confirmed its adherence to the sanctions against the illegal annexation of Crimea, to which Moscow has responded with counter-sanctions and the – not accidental – suspension of the South Stream project (2014). The Kremlin also supported the general’s forces in Libya Khalifa Haftar against the legitimate government of Tripoli supported by Rome, which in the meantime has deployed 140 soldiers in Latvia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (2016).

The divergence of political and economic interests between Rome and Moscow experienced a crescendo in the following years. Think of the strategy of diversification of energy supplies that ENI has opted for, which has led to the great discoveries of deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Balkans, where Russia historically seeks to project its influence, Italy has been one of the major sponsors of the intensification of cooperation between the European Union, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. At the same time, he supported the entry into NATO of Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020), arousing the ire of the Kremlin which denounced these policies by resorting to the rhetoric of encirclement.

In the frantic months of the pandemic, at least two events have exposed the competitive twist taking place between Rome and Moscow. The first was the case of the “solidarity” mission From Russia with Love, during which a military contingent led by the Russian general Sergey Kikot he crossed the Italian peninsula from Rome to Bergamo to then work in the health facilities of the Lombard city.

It is plausible to believe that the mission fell within those forms of public diplomacy aimed at recreating a positive image of Russia abroad. But it cannot be excluded that the Kremlin had also given a mandate to its men to obtain first-hand health information on the virus as well as on the Italian population in what may have been a real data mining operation.

A year later, an Italian Navy officer was arrested on suspicion of providing secret NATO documents to a Russian diplomat. Moreover, this would not be an isolated case. The accusations of espionage have also been leveled by the Italian judiciary against the Russian tycoon Aleksandr Koschunov against GE Aviation, a French officer stationed at the NATO Command in Naples and Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera in the context of the “most sensational Russian intelligence operation” in our country.

Also following these events, the Draghi government, in coordination with the French and German governments, expelled thirty Russian diplomats because they were “persons non grata […] for reasons related to our national security, in the context of the current crisis situation resulting from the unjustified aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation”. The decision led to a harsh reaction from the Russian ambassador Sergei Razovwho expressed himself in very aggressive terms, arguing that “the state of bilateral relations is in sharp decline and does not depend on us”.

Subsequently, substantial suspicions arose about the threats posed by Russia to Italian security in cyberspace, which materialized in the form of hacking against public bodies and companies. Among these, the attack against Italy and other European countries that took place on the very day of the start of the special military operation in Ukraine was particularly significant. Since then, several institutional sites, the site of the Italian State Police, of ACI and of medium-small companies in the energy supply chain have been attacked by the pro-Russian criminal collective KillNet.

Italy’s support for the Ukrainian government after the Russian aggression, the commitment to contain Moscow within NATO and the adoption of sanctions in agreement with the European allies represent only the latest steps in the competitive escalation between Rome and Moscow, which has reached its climax with the inclusion of Italy in a list of “hostile countries” drawn up by the Kremlin. These events, unlike those that preceded them, had such an impact as to suddenly reveal the fragility of that assumption, widespread both in public opinion and in political science literature, on the existence between Italy and Russia of a “privileged relationship”.

The state of Italian-Russian relations, in fact, seems to suffer from the influence of the changes taking place in the international system in terms of the distribution of power and prestige as well as the resulting relations between its major players. In moments of stability in the international order, relations between Rome and Moscow end up taking on tendencies – as much as possible in an anarchist environment – ​​cooperative. When this condition fails, on the contrary, their relationships tend to crack. Faced with this situation, a medium power like Italy ends up closing ranks with its “major” ally for reasons of. And if the latter is on the opposite side of Russia – as happened in the last century – also Italian-Russian relations end up registering a competitive twist.

* This article is a product of the project “Russia in the post-bipolar context (Ruspol). Relations with Europe between competition and cooperation”, developed by Cemas Sapienza University of Rome in collaboration with, Unitelma Sapienza and Dispi University of Genoa with the support of the Ministry’s Analysis, Programming, Statistics and Historical Documentation Unit of foreign affairs and international cooperation. The opinions contained in the project are the expression of the authors and do not necessarily represent Maeci’s positions

Between competition and cooperation. Rereading the relations between Italy and Russia –