May 8, 2024

Forecasting the Evolution of Italy’s Foreign Policy Towards Ukraine

ZUMA Press/Scanpix
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome on 3 May 2024.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome on 3 May 2024.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Italian government led by former PM Mario Draghi has emerged as one of Kyiv’s main supporters. After the 2022 general election, Giorgia Meloni became the Prime Minister of Italy, and a new coalition of Fratelli d’Italia, Lega, and Forza Italia took office. This political shift raised concerns in western countries over Italy’s future commitment to Euro-Atlanticist values in international fora.

Nevertheless, from the outset of her tenure, Meloni emphasised Europeanism and Atlanticism as fundamental pillars of the Italian government, [1] while also underlining the need for supporting Ukraine financially, politically, and militarily. [2] [3]

An Evolution of Positions

Before 2022, certain parties within the current Italian Council of Ministers refrained from criticising — or even maintained direct political ties with — the Kremlin. In 2021, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) adopted a pacifist stance amid escalating hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. [4] Seven years earlier, in 2014, Meloni had vehemently opposed sanctions against Moscow while disapproving of the idea of Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO. [5] However, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Meloni’s stance has undergone a significant shift. She expressed staunch support for Kyiv, including military aid, and encouraged the imposition of sanctions against Russia, as well as the reduction of Italy’s energy dependence on Moscow. [6]

In 2017, Lega (League) signed a political agreement with Putin’s party Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia), in which the two agreed to exchange information and promote cooperation in economic and trade matters. [7] However, in April 2024, Lega’s Secretary Matteo Salvini finally affirmed that the accord “is no longer valid following the [Russian] invasion of Ukraine.” [8] In October 2022, former Secretary of Forza Italia (Forward Italy) Silvio Berlusconi revealed at a private meeting that he had “re-established relations” with Vladimir Putin and claimed that the Russian Federation was forced to invade Ukraine due to the latter’s responsibility. [9] Despite this controversial event, Forward Italy has never disowned its pro-EU and pro-NATO beliefs. [10]

Italian Foreign Policy Vis-À-Vis Ukraine

Regardless of the pre-2022 landscape, each political party within the current Italian government has reaffirmed its pro-European and Atlanticist inclinations, along with steadfast support for Ukraine. Indeed, Italy has played a pivotal role in providing diplomatic, economic, and defensive assistance to Kyiv. It has delivered eight aid packages [11] and, in February 2024, ratified a security cooperation agreement with President Zelenskyy. [12] Five key elements of Italy’s foreign policy toward Ukraine under Meloni’s leadership can be identified as follows:

  1. Endorsement of sanctions against Russia, [13] along with advocating for its isolation from the global community of states. [14]
  2. Support of Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, in Article 13 of the Italian-Ukrainian security cooperation agreement, it becomes apparent that Rome’s backing of the Ukrainian integration process in the EU is more pronounced than its support for accession to the Alliance. [15]
  3. Active contribution to the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. [16]
  4. Emphasis on the concept of just peace. For Meloni, a possible diplomatic negotiation for peace between Kyiv and Moscow cannot be achieved unless Russia ceases hostilities and withdraws troops from illegally occupied territories. [17] In the absence of this, “the best possible precondition for […] a just and lasting peace” is providing security guarantees to Ukraine. [18] This underlies the idea of strategic deterrence, which has been articulated by the Ministry of Defence Guido Crosetto as well. [19]
  5. Opposition to the deployment of Italian (and, by extension, European) troops on Ukrainian territory. [20] [21]

“Tomorrow We Never Know”… Or Do We?

The recently signed ten-year bilateral agreement on security cooperation is a clear indication of the political will of Meloni’s government to provide Ukraine with long-term security guarantees. However, Italy’s support to Kyiv may not remain as resolute and firm as it has been so far. Indeed, there are at least three elements that have the potential to undermine it.

First, as correctly pointed out by Fasola and Lucarelli, much will depend on the “operational reality of the war,” as well as on “the fluctuations of the geopolitical context.” [22] Italy has traditionally aligned itself closely with the United States, highlighting a stronger Atlanticism when compared to Paris and Berlin. Aspiring to be recognised as a pragmatic and trustworthy partner of the US, Italy not only supported Ukraine’s defensive efforts but also withdrew from the Belt and Road Initiative at the end of 2023. [23] Hence, to predict the future evolution of Italian support for Ukraine, it is essential to factor in the evolving attitude of the United States on this matter.

Besides geopolitical considerations, much will depend on internal challenges concerning the Italian defence sector. In March 2024, Minister of Defence Guido Crosetto publicly stated that the level of Italian defence — in terms of armaments, training, and personnel — is not sufficient “for the times we are living through,” calling for more investments. [24] In October 2023, he had already raised this issue and emphasised that providing military aid to Kyiv was contingent upon maintaining a minimum level of readiness for the Italian military. [25]

Adding to this is the longstanding issue of domestic sentiment. Already in October 2023, Meloni admitted that the conflict in Ukraine was generating fatigue in public opinion. [26] Not to mention that half of Italians are estimated to oppose the idea of supplying arms to Ukraine, [27] while only 18% of Italians believe that the European Union should support Ukraine in regaining its territories occupied by Russia (compared to the EU average of 31%). [28]

The recent ratification of a long-term security agreement by Meloni and Zelenskyy underscores Italy’s consistent commitment to supporting the Ukrainian defence effort, including militarily. Although it might seem apparent that Rome would adopt this stance, in reality, it was not that certain, especially when one considers the historical ties between Moscow and some of the political parties within the Italian government.

Given the extremely delicate political climate, it is difficult to make predictions. Yet, it would not be wrong to point out that some factors may expose Italy’s support for Ukraine to fluctuations over time, potentially leading to a decrease in intensity. Internally, much will depend on the condition of Italy’s defence sector and the public sentiments on the war in Ukraine. Externally, the evolution of the US foreign policy — especially following the presidential elections in November — is bound to play a pivotal role.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

[1] Sole 24 Ore (2022). “Berlusconi, nuovo audio: parla della guerra e dà la colpa a Zelensky. Meloni: Ue-Nato caposaldi, chi non è d’accordo fuori da governo, a costo di non farlo.” 19 Oct. 2022. 

[2] Mikhelidze, N. (2023). “Italy’s Response to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.” IAI Istituto Affari Internazionali, 24 Feb. 2023.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Fasola, N., & Lucarelli, S. (2024). “The ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy of the Meloni government: between ‘Euro-nationalism’, Atlanticism and Mediterranean activism.” Contemporary Italian Politics, P. 8.

[5] Il Fatto Quotidiano (2023). “Meloni, quando nel 2014 chiedeva di revocare le sanzioni alla Russia e si opponeva all’ingresso dell’Ucraina in Ue. […]” 23 Feb. 2023.

[6] Amante, A. & Armellini, A. (2022). “New Italian PM Meloni sees tough times, denounces Russian “blackmail.” Reuters. 26 Oct. 2022.

[7] Bechis, F. (2018). “L’altro contratto di Salvini (con Putin). Il Nos – e il Viminale – a rischio?”, 27 May 2018.

[8] Reuters (2024). “Italy’s League disavows accord with Russia’s ruling party.” 2 Apr. 2024.

[9] Horowitz, J. (2022). “Berlusconi, Caught on Tape Gushing over Putin, Heightens Anxiety about Italy.” The New York Times, 20 Oct. 2022.

[10] Sole 24 Ore (2022). 

[11] Istituto Affari Internazionali (2023). “L’Italia dal governo Draghi al governo Meloni. Rapporto sulla politica estera italiana. Edizione 2022.” 26 Jan. 2023. Introduction.

[12]Agreement on Security Cooperation between Italy and Ukraine”. Kyiv. 24 Feb. 2024.

[13]  Ibid. Pp. 10 – 11.

[14] Fasola & Lucarelli (2024). P. 8.

[15]Agreement on Security Cooperation between Italy and Ukraine”. Kyiv. 24 Feb. 2024.

[16] Fasola & Lucarelli (2024). P. 8.

[17] “Vertice Con Zelensky, Meloni: “Se Fossi Stata Invitata…”, 10 Feb. 2024.

[18] Corriere della Sera (2024). “Meloni: “Con Ucraina accordo decennale sulla sicurezza, continuiamo con il sostegno militare.” Corriere della Sera on Youtube, 25 Feb. 2024.

[19] Agenzia Nova (2024). “Speciale difesa: Crosetto, non c’è mai stato un soldato italiano nel Paese “e non ci sarà mai” ” 26 Mar. 2024.

[20] Ibid.

[21] RaiNews (2024). “Crosetto: “No alle truppe in Ucraina, in Europa si decide in 27. Vogliamo pace giusta”.” 16 Mar. 2024.

[22] Fasola & Lucarelli (2024), P. 9.

[23] Mazzocco, I. & Palazzi, A. L. (2023). “Italy Withdraws from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” Center for International & Strategic Studies, 14 Dec. 2023.

[24] Crosetto, G. [@GuidoCrosetto]. “Perchè no?” [Tweet]. Twitter. 27 Mar. 2024.

[25] La Repubblica (2023). “L’Italia frena sull’ottavo pacchetto di armi a Kiev. Crosetto: ‘Su aiuti antiaerea non c’è molto altro spazio. Non abbiamo risorse illimitate.’” 4 Oct. 2023.

[26] Ibid.

[27] IPSOS (2024). “Russia-Ucraina, le ultime news e sondaggi: opinioni degli italiani.” 1 Mar. 2024.

[28] Krastev, I. & Leonard, M. (2024). “Wars and Elections: How European Leaders Can Maintain Public Support for Ukraine.” European Council for Foreign Relations, 20 Feb. 2024.

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