Italy-Russia: Keeping the Line

There has always been a positive line between Italy and Russia, which became dangerously thinner in recent years. The current Italian government seemingly decided to strengthen ties with Russia. Through this prism we should consider the recent visit of the president of the Italian Prime-Minister Paolo Gentiloni in Sochi on May 17, following President Sergio Mattarella's visit to Moscow (10-13 April), as well as visits to Russia of the Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano  (March 27), and Interior Minister Marco Minniti (April 4).

A series of bilateral meetings at the highest level in two months confirm Rome's willingness to strengthen its traditional role as a link between Moscow and the EU and, more generally, between Moscow and the main western countries. Italy keeps the G7 presidency and the time is right to get out from the theoretical idea of a "privileged relationship" with Russia to the factual one. Italy is faced with activism by other countries, from Germany to the United States (numbers speak: in the last months of 2016, American exports to Russia increased by almost 44%).

There are many Italian reasons for speeding up relations with Moscow, but two reasons stand out on all the other: European sanctions against Russia have been costly to Italian companies, with export losses at least 10 billion euros by the end of 2016. And the Russian shore is indispensable for Italy in managing international issues, beginning from the Libyan crisis.

So Paolo Gentiloni wanted to meet President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the G7 Summit in Taormina, which Italy would gladly host in the G8 version, with Russia returning to the club of the great allies. However, this is "not realistic" in the current economic situation, as Gentiloni warned (very pragmatic prime minister, par excellence) early this year, that an invitation to President Putin to come to Sicily on May 25-26 would trigger a pandemonium in Big Seven Club.

As the 'second best', the Italian presidency in the G7 meant to announce in Taormina the imminent restoration of the G8 format, but it is very difficult to predict that this is possible. In any case, Italian diplomacy continues to study ways to launch a message, building a bridge toward Russia at the G7 Summit: the international events allow this.

Meanwhile, during the Gentiloni’s visit the energy-focused agreements were signed, such as the extension of strategic partnership between Rosneft and ENI. But it is mainly about purpose and promise, rather than concrete plans. If it is true, as President Vladimir Putin pointed out, the trade exchange with Italy has finally returned to rise (+ 30.7% in the first two months of 2017 over the same period of 2016), the trade relations between Moscow and Rome has ample room for improvement. But the import-export volumes remain modest (in the last three years they have fallen from $ 54 billion to $ 20 billion) and more positive dynamics between Russia and Germany and even between Russia and the US must alarm the Italian government.

Relations with Russia for years paid the price of the European sanction policy that Italy is accepting with increased malevolence, but it continues to respect it in the name of the unity of the EU's intentions. Here is a tooth and nail defense policy of the eastern European countries which, with the Ukrainian crisis, were able to strengthen the eastward shift in the center of gravity of the European foreign policy. This is a penalizing move for Italy, which has the natural center of its national interests in the Mediterranean, starting from Libya.

And for Rome today just the Libyan crisis is more than ever crucial to deal with Russia in the name of a national reconciliation in the North African country that sees the Tripoli authorities - recognized by the UN - for a compromise political solution with Tobruk . For Italy, the stakes are enormous, beginning with the problem of migrant constant flows from the coasts of Libya.

But this can happen with a real agreement between the government of Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj and General Khalid Belqasim Haftar, supported by Russia. In short, the road to the pacification in Libya also goes through Moscow. And with his visit to Sochi, the "pragmatic" Gentiloni has taken public notice of it, in front of the entire international community.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.