Italian business leaders met the Russian president this week
In a week in which everyone seems to agree that Russia is poised to invade Ukraine, some of Italy’s largest companies — including Pirelli, Generali and UniCredit — held a video meeting with Putin himself with the aim of “expanding ties” with Russia.
The meeting, held Wednesday, was organised by the Italy-Russia Chamber of Commerce, members of which include Tronchetti Provera, the chief executive of tyre manufacturer Pirelli and Dmitry Konov, head of petrochemicals producer Sibur. According to La Repubblica, the White House openly criticised the meeting, stressing the risk of an imminent “invasion of Europe”, while the Italian government urged the Italian-Russian chamber of commerce to scrap the talk, asking major utility companies, in which the Italian state has a stake, to pull out of the meeting. It went ahead nonetheless.
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Italy’s relationship with Vladimir Putin has long been closer than most of its European neighbours, in no small part due to the Russian president’s old friendship with Silvio Berlusconi. Italy promoted and realised the historical 2002 Rome Summit between George Bush Jr. and a young Putin, which gave birth to the first forum for dialogue between NATO and Russian Federation. During the spring of 2020, a contingent of doctors and specialists from the Russian army came to Italy to help the country face the Covid outbreak in Lombardy — something unthinkable in any other NATO country.
Following the 2014 Crimean invasion, there was a cooling in relations between the two countries and Italy backed EU sanctions against Russia, but this remains a controversial topic in Italian politics. Sanctions and reciprocal sanctions with Russia are estimated to cost the Italian economy around four billion euros a year and they have crippled certain industries. They became a major populist talking point in the 2018 elections, with Matteo Salvini even being pictured wearing Putin’s face in Moscow’s Red Square in protest against the sanctions.
Italy is an export-oriented country, lacking in energy resources, while Russia is among the world’s main energy exporters, but needs to import a wide range of finished goods. Italian products are generally highly appreciated in Russia and the other post-Soviet countries.
During the Conte I government, in which Salvini was deputy prime minister, Italy voted several times to renew the sanctions. Still today the pro-Russian sympathies that still persist in parliament are largely ignored — due to the marginalisation of parliament itself and the Atlanticist stance of the Draghi government.
And so, despite the sanctions, the US military presence in Italy, the Cold War-style atmosphere and the looming threat of war, Italian business leaders are forging their own diplomacy with Russia.