While there are Moscow backers across Europe and even in the U.S., they mostly remain on the margins. In Italy, however, support for the Kremlin runs surprisingly wide, and deep.
It was a special edition of Non è l'Arena, an Italian talk show, with host and journalist Massimo Giletti broadcasting from a balcony overlooking Moscow’s Red Square.
Three months into the war, a special edition from Russia could have been a bold move to look at the crippled state of the Russian economy, or the plight of internal dissidents.
But for this June 5 prime time program, Giletti instead reserved the stage for Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and pro-Kremlin TV host Vladimir Solovyov.
Zakharova had the chance to repeat the Kremlin's line on the war, accusing Italian journalists of not reporting on what she called “a war against its own people” by the Ukrainian regime in Donbas over the past eight years.
When Giletti asked about possible negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow, Zakharova told him he was thinking like a child — and he was left virtually speechless.
Antics and high stakes
Another guest, Alessandro Sallusti, the director of center-right newspaper Libero, told Giletti he was leaving the show after “witnessing total servility to the worst kind of propaganda.”
He added on the way out: “You should have the courage to say to your hosts that the palace behind you is a palace full of shit.” Giletti later fell ill and continued the show sitting inside, away from the Red Square backdrop.
You may dismiss the political theatrics and shouting matches as the typical stuff of an Italian talk show, yet the subject matter was the high stakes question of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and the role of Italy and Europe in standing up to Putin.
La7, the private TV channel on which the show was broadcast, has been dubbed “LaZ” (the Z) on social networks for its pro-Russian broadcasts, in reference to the letter which has become a symbol of support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.
And it is not just La7.
Lavrov’s Hitler comments
It was in an interview on a privately-owned TV channel founded by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” — a remark for which Putin later apologizes to Israel.
Last month, an Italian parliamentary committee began an investigation into the spread of disinformation in connection to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Anti-Western sentiment runs deep.
The Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (Copasir) said it was looking into “foreign interference and disinformation activity” following the frequent appearance of Russian guests on the country's news programs and suspicions they could be on the Kremlin’s payroll.
Italy’s political talk shows are high on drama and low on fact-checking or challenging guests’ outlandish claims — a tradition initiated by Berlusconi’s private TV channels in the 1990s that has become widespread.
But the anti-Western sentiment is something else, and runs deeper. Unlike other countries in Western Europe, such as Germany and France, where pro-Russia positions are present but marginalized, in Italy it has spread into academia, media and think tanks.
According to research by Massimiliano di Pasquale and Luigi Sergio Germani, Italy’s pro-Russian stance has a long tradition that goes back to the period after World War II.
Italy had the largest Communist Party in the West and saw in Russia an antidote to U.S. influence, with many businesses invested in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Those historical ties evolved, yet somehow grew closer with Berlusconi developing a personal relationship with Vladimir Putin some 20 years ago — they stayed in each other’s holiday homes and had their picture taken wearing giant fur hats. More recently was the turn of far-right Matteo Salvini, former Interior Minister, who sported Putin T-shirts and backed his anti-Western stance.
Berlusconi and Putin in Sardinia in 2003
Pro-Kremlin think tanks
But that is only the more visible face of Kremlin support.
Di Pasquale and Germani show how deeply pro-Russian stances have influenced a part of Italy’s intellectuals, using geopolitical magazine Limes as an example. Lucio Caracciolo, founder and editor of the magazine, leads a strategic studies course at Rome’s prestigious private LUISS university, which has a longstanding partnership with Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), one of Russia’s soft power agencies.
Italy is more vulnerable than most other Western countries to shutdowns of Russian gas imports.
Just a look at Limes shows how clear the pro-Russian stance is. In its June 2022 edition, the magazine published a map in which Ukraine is dubbed “aspiring anti-Russian vanguard” and a “new Iron Curtain” delimitates Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea.
Then, of course, there’s pure economics. Italy is more vulnerable than most other Western countries to shutdowns of Russian gas imports. In fact, even as the EU was trying to negotiate energy sanctions against Moscow, Italy was quick in accepting to pay Russia in rubles and ultimately tripled its imports of Russian oil.
Whatever the cause of this widespread pro-Russian sentiment, it seems to be paying off. Over 30% of the country blames the war on NATO, according to a YouGov poll — a public opinion on the situation closer to the stance of Viktor Orban’s Hungary than any other Western European country.
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