09242017What's Hot:

With Italy No Longer in U.S. Focus, Russia Swoops to Fill the Void

A deliberate, gray-haired career diplomat, Mr. Razov has been plugging away at building relationships with Italian politicians, organizing concerts for Italy’s earthquake survivors and visiting Italian regional officials who lament the “unfair” sanctions on Russia — which Moscow dearly wants lifted.

Next month, Mr. Razov will offer a sumptuous buffet when he hosts the annual Russia Day celebration amid the dripping chandeliers, coffered ceilings and gilded interiors of his Villa Abamelek residence.

Like Mr. Razov’s energetic diplomacy, much of Russia’s relationship building is being done in plain sight, as when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia hosted Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni this month in Sochi, and President Sergio Mattarella a few weeks before that in Moscow.

But there is a fear among Italian, European and American officials that Russia is also using the same kind of behind-the-scenes influence and news media obfuscation it has employed in the United States and elsewhere, creating a tilt in Italy toward Moscow.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi complained privately to his counterparts about Russian meddling in his country’s politics by supporting anti-establishment parties. And websites controlled by a leader of the Five Star Movement, one of Italy’s most popular anti-establishment parties, have spread reports published on Sputnik Italia, an Italian version of the Russian state-funded news operation.

Russia “has invested a lot in influencing public opinion in this country,” said Celia Kuningas-Saagpakk, the Estonian ambassador to Italy. She previously worked in her country’s Foreign Ministry, where she covered Russia and monitored its strategies and propaganda tactics in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Photo

From left, Sergei Razov, the Russian ambassador to Italy; Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide; Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister; President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia; and Matteo Renzi, then the prime minister of Italy in 2015. Credit Pool photo by Alexei Nikolsky

The effects of Russian attempts to influence Italy can already be seen. Long shaky, Italian politicians across the spectrum, ever mindful of business ties and energy deals, are wobbling more than ever on the hard line the European Union has taken toward Moscow since its land grab in Ukraine in 2014.

The enforcer of that tough-minded approach has been Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has acted as Europe’s main liaison with Russia. But the erosion of her relationship with Mr. Putin over Russia’s meddling in Ukraine has created a breach that many in Italy hope their country will step into.

Italy’s many Russia enthusiasts are heartened by the recent visit of Prime Minister Gentiloni. His predecessor, Mr. Renzi, visited Mr. Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last year and said he opposed the “automatic” renewal of sanctions on Russia.

The reanimated former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who once wore matching furry hats with Mr. Putin, said last month that he hoped sanctions would soon be lifted, too.

But the most consequential warming to Russia has come from the surging Five Star Movement, which now leads in the polls as Italy faces the prospect of elections late this year.

The Five Star Movement has called for a referendum on Italy’s inclusion in the eurozone, an end to sanctions on Russia and a de facto geopolitical shift away from the United States and toward Russia.

At a recent unveiling of their foreign policy platform in Parliament, Five Star Movement leaders depicted Russia as a strategic partner that had been unfairly punished, and the United States as an abusive ally whose 70-year relationship with Italy had run its course.

“There’s a limit,” Manlio Di Stefano, the head of the Five Star Movement’s foreign affairs committee, said about Italy’s post-World War II alliance with the United States.

Mr. Di Stefano said he had met Ambassador Razov, who declined an interview for this article.

On the Five Star Movement’s popular blog, Mr. Di Stefano wrote in a recent post that NATO was secretly preparing a “final assault” on Russia.

In an interview, he argued that his party had opposed the sanctions on Russia to alleviate the suffering of Italian businesses and lamented that the once-promising Mr. Trump had proved to be a disappointing pawn of the military-industrial complex.

“He said he wanted to improve relations with Russia and stabilize the Mediterranean,” Mr. Di Stefano said. “Then he started bombing” Syria, which is an ally of Russia.

Photo

Mr. Putin, left, and Silvio Berlusconi, then the prime minister of Italy, outside Moscow in 2003. Credit Kremlin Press Service, via Reuters

Soon after Mr. Trump’s election, Beppe Grillo, a co-founder and leader of the Five Star Movement, and many members of the party celebrated his victory as a finger in the establishment’s eye, and party leaders expressed approval of Mr. Trump’s kind words about Mr. Putin.

But as Mr. Trump’s position on Russia has become more ambiguous and tense, a latent anti-American sentiment in the Five Star Movement has surfaced.

Many of the movement’s leaders attended a conference organized last month by Davide Casaleggio — a major, if quiet, power in the Five Star Movement, whose internet firm spread the Sputnik Italia content. Mr. Grillo sat with the mayor of Rome and other leading party members, applauding speakers who have promoted conspiracy theories about the C.I.A. as they cheered the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the stage.

On the sideline, Alessandro Di Battista, a party leader, said the era of Italian subservience to the United States was over. His party, he said, would seek to move Italy away from the United States and toward Russia “to a more equidistant point” once it came to power.

In 2014, the Five Star Movement went from criticizing Mr. Putin for his human rights abuses to championing his leadership.

That about-face raised suspicion among government officials in the United States and Europe that the party had received Russian financial assistance (“It’s a lie,” Mr. Di Battista said) or electoral assistance through fake news and propaganda through Sputnik. (“RAI does a lot more fake news than Sputnik in this moment,” Mr. Di Stefano said, referring to the Italian state broadcaster.)

No evidence of the Five Star Movement’s receiving funds from Russia has surfaced.

Still, some American and European officials see Mr. Putin’s invisible hand in the shifting allegiances.

“We are aware that Putin is trying to weaken the E.U. and the institutions,” Senator Bob Corker, a Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. “He’s done the same thing in Italy and other places.”

The Trump administration, which is considering Lew Eisenberg, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman, for the ambassadorship in Rome, declined to comment about Italy’s place in its worldview or the notion that inattention risked giving an edge to Russia.

But the American absence has been noted. During a recent visit to the Vatican, Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia, met with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the foreign minister of the Holy See, which declined to comment about the meeting.

“Gallagher was very interested in talking about Russia,” Mr. Kaine said in an interview. He recalled that he had brought up and discussed with the archbishop doubts that European allies had about relying on assistance from the United States since America had not protected itself from Russian influence.

“If the U.S. is leaving a vacuum,” Mr. Kaine recalled Archbishop Gallagher saying generally about Europe and beyond, “that’s going to be filled by somebody, and a lot of that somebody these days is Russia.”

Source: NYT > World

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