Victorious Meloni Faces Early Test of Italy’s Resolve on Russia

ROME — Throughout her time in the opposition to Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s national unity government, Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right leader who is poised to become the next Italian prime minister after a strong showing in Sunday’s elections, railed against everything from vaccine requirements to undemocratic power grabs.

But on the issue of Ukraine, perhaps the most consequential for the government, she unambiguously criticized Russia’s unwarranted aggression, gave full-throated support for Ukraine’s right to defend itself and, in a recent interview, said she would “totally” continue to provide Italian arms to Kyiv.

The same cannot be said for Ms. Meloni’s coalition partners, who have deeply admired Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and have often sounded like his apologists. Just days before the vote, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, once Mr. Putin’s best friend among leaders in Western Europe, claimed “Putin was pushed by the Russian population, by his party and by his ministers to invent this special operation,” and that a flood of arms from the West had thwarted Russian soldiers in their mission to reach “Kyiv within a week, replace Zelensky’s government with decent people and then leave.”

The other coalition partner, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, used to wear T-shirts with Mr. Putin’s face on them and has for years been so fawning toward Russia that he has frequently had to reject accusations that he has taken money from Moscow.

Recently, with Ms. Meloni apparently uncomfortable as she sat beside him, Mr. Salvini doubted the wisdom of sanctions on Russia, which he said hurt Italy more than Mr. Putin’s government.

How Ms. Meloni navigates those tensions in her coalition will now be a key factor in the European Union’s struggle to keep an unbroken front against Russia as the cost of sanctions begins to bite in winter.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, second from right, visited Ukraine in June with leaders from France, Germany and Romania. Under Mr. Draghi, Italy became a key player in Europe’s hard line against Russia.Credit…Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

If she wavers, especially on sanctions, European leaders who have stood up to Mr. Putin all these months fear it could begin a major unraveling of resolve, widening divisions in the European Union and between the United States and Europe.

“We are ready to welcome any political force that can show itself to be more constructive in its relations with Russia,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said after the Italian election results, according to the Russian news service Tass.

But analysts said Russia should not expect a change from Ms. Meloni anytime soon, believing that her position on Ukraine is credible and that the weak showing of her partners in the election will allow her to keep them in their place without blowing up their alliance.

“I put my hand today on fire that she is not going to bend,” said Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. “She’s very gung-ho about Russia.”

Despite a widespread suspicion that political calculation lay behind Ms. Meloni’s pivot during the campaign to less hostile positions on the European Union and away from leaders such as Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and Marine Le Pen in France, analysts judged that on the issue of Ukraine, Ms. Meloni was not likely to budge.

In the past, Ms. Meloni has admired Mr. Putin’s defense of Christian values, which is consistent with her own traditionalist rhetoric. But unlike other hard-right politicians and newbie nationalists, like Mr. Salvini, Ms. Meloni was raised in a post-Fascist universe in Italy where Russia — and especially Communist internationalists — represented an Eastern force that threatened the sanctity and peculiarities of Western European identities.

For Ms. Meloni it was less difficult to step away from the Putin adoration that swept the populist-nationalist right over the last decade. During the campaign, she was happy to point out this difference with her coalition partners, as she was competing with them and it helped differentiate her and reassure the West of her credibility.

Pummeling the competition in Sunday’s election will have made it easier to withstand any attempted pressure from Mr. Salvini or Mr. Berlusconi, who both failed to break into double digits in the polls and were thus left with little leverage.

In any case, Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Salvini had already supported the sanctions as part of Mr. Draghi’s national unity government and didn’t bolt over the issue then. Mr. Salvini, who has sought to distance himself from Mr. Putin, was so hobbled by his disastrous performance in the elections that Rome was rife with speculation that he could be replaced as his party’s leader by a more moderate and less ideological governor from the country’s north, where the League has its electoral base.

Ms. Meloni meeting with her coalition partners, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, in October 2021. The two men admire Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and have often sounded like his apologists.Credit…Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

That is not to say Ms. Meloni faces no pressure at home for a more forgiving stance. Italy, a country with deep and long ties to Russia, has long had reservations about sanctions against Moscow and getting involved in foreign wars. And it is not alone in Europe when it comes to doubts about a continued hard line against Russia, and turning away from its cheap energy, ahead of a cold and economically painful winter.

In Prague this month, a day after the Czech government survived a no-confidence vote over accusations that it had failed to act on soaring energy prices, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to voice outrage on the issue while far-right and fringe groups led many demonstrators in calling for withdrawal from NATO and the European Union. In Sweden, a hard-right party more sympathetic to Mr. Putin was on the winning side in elections this month.

Mr. Orban has created complications for the European Union in its efforts to present a united force against Mr. Putin by demanding, and receiving, carve-outs in exchange for agreeing not to block sanctions against Russia, a measure that required unanimity among member countries. On Monday, Mr. Orban applauded Ms. Meloni’s victory, writing on Facebook: “Bravo Giorgia, A more than deserved victory. Congratulations!”

But analysts did not foresee Italy, under Ms. Meloni, playing the same games Hungary has done with sanctions. In her acceptance speech, she emphasized “responsibility” and experts said she was a savvy politician who clearly understood that Italy’s leaving the fold would break the bloc’s Russia strategy.

As a reminder, though, only days before the vote, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, responded to a question about “figures close to Putin” poised to win elections in Italy by saying, “We’ll see.”

“If things go in a difficult direction — and I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland — we have the tools,” she said.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, used to wear T-shirts with Mr. Putin’s face on them.Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

The tools included the cutting of funds for member states that Brussels considers in violation of the rule of law. Last week, the commission — which is the European Union’s executive arm — proposed to cut €7.5 billion of funds allocated to Hungary.

But Italy is a central pillar not only of the European Union, but of its united front against Russia. Aldo Ferrari, head of the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Program at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan, said Ms. Meloni had made her position “amply clear” throughout the election campaign, and that it was through Ukraine that she “sought legitimacy” among international leaders, especially members of the European Union and NATO.

And as Russia is an ever less attractive ally, its pull on the West diminishes. The decision by countries of the European Union to endure economic pain together made it less likely that Italy, which is so woven into the fabric of the union, would break.

“Our inclusion in the European Union and NATO,” Mr. Ferrari said, overcame the will “of individual politicians and individual countries.”

Under Mr. Draghi, Italy became a key player in Europe’s hard line against Russia, which he has framed as an existential issue that will define the contours and values of the continent for decades to come.

While some liberals had hoped he would rally to their side during the election campaign, or at least nod that he preferred them, Mr. Draghi stayed out of it completely. Analysts say he saw the polls, and the writing on the wall, and decided the most prudent coarse of action for his platform, legacy and, some critics say, future ambitions, was a smooth transition of power to Ms. Meloni.

“I have a good relationship with Draghi,” Ms. Meloni said in an interview earlier this month. She said that more than once, “He could trust in us much more than the parties he had in his majority.”

“Look on Ukraine,” she said. “On Ukraine, we made the foreign policy.”

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.

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