Democratic Rights Are No Excuse for Airing Russian Perspectives in Europe

As the European public continues to turn against the fast-collapsing Project Ukraine, we’re seeing increasingly desperate attempts to blame Russian disinformation for the eroding support.

In Italy, spooks, media, and think tanks are warning that the crafty Russians are stealthily manipulating Italians. This isn’t unique to Italy, but bears watching as the public there has never been all that supportive of the Ukraine proxy war and larger economic war against Russia. There are a variety of reasons for that, including the fact that Europe’s second largest manufacturing base (behind Germany) with longstanding strong economic ties to Russia had a lot to lose.

Heretics and Hysteria

In January, the city of Modena blocked the use of a public hall to host a private event focused on the reconstruction of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Speakers at the conference-exhibition were set to include Luca Rossi, president of the Russia Emilia-Romagna Cultural Association, which organized the event; Dmitry Shtodin, Russian Consul-General; Eliseo Bertolasi, Italian representative of the International Russophile Movement; and Andrea Lucidi, a freelance journalist active in the Donbas.

It’s worth noting that the event was going to take place in Modena – a manufacturing capitol in the manufacturing region of Emiglia Romagna. According to the Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia, the region hosts 20,000 manufacturing firms with a heavy focus on farm machinery and earth-moving equipment, automated industrial equipment, geared motors, precision components, pumps and valves. According to Coldiretti (Italian Farmers’ Association), the EU’s economic war against Russia has hammered Italy’s agricultural sector with small and medium enterprises taking the biggest losses.

Nonetheless, Italian intelligence agencies are now sounding the alarm that “pro-Kremlin” people are attempting to connect farmer protests to the thirteen sanctions packages the EU has imposed against Russia.

Of course, it’s not just the Italian agriculture industry that has been hurt; all Italian industry has been hit hard by the economic war against Russia and the ensuing energy crisis, which has made Italian manufacturing uncompetitive. The country’s manufacturing continued its nosedive with December marking the ninth-straight month of declines in output and new orders, and a Hamburg Commercial Bank analysis notes that the purchasing managers’ index “fails to convey any signals of hope.”

While the Hamburg Commercial Bank analysis deals with the financial side of the ledger, the canceling of the Modena event displays the bleak outlook on another front. Any viewpoints that stray from the Project Ukraine party line continue to be censored.

In the Tuscan town of Lucca, home to Italy’s energy-intensive pulp and paper industry, the Best Western Italia canceled the reservation of a conference room where the event “Towards a New Multipolar World” was set to feature controversial Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

Also canceled was a showing of a Russian drama film about the war in Ukraine, “The Witness.” The film was going to be screened in Emilia-Romagna’s capital of Bologna on Jan. 27. Let’s not forget, too, that the Russian news sites RT and Sputnik are still banned in Europe.

What does it say about the backers of Project Ukraine that they are too scared to allow opposing viewpoints? Italian lawmaker Lia Quartapelle, of the neoliberal Democratic Party, was one of those demanding that the events be canceled. “Italy is on the side of Ukraine’s freedom,” she wrote on X.

What type of freedom is this? Whatever it is, Italians are increasingly opposed. The European Council on Foreign Relation’s (ECFR) January polling shows Italians want peace with Russia:

The ECFR’s takeaway two years into the conflict: “But it is also possible that many Europeans simply need to be convinced that the EU is capable of supporting Ukraine and helping it win the war.”

December polls from La Repubblica showed those against continuing to send military aid is now at 57 percent. Those in favor has dropped from 50 percent in April of 2022 to 47 percent in September of 2023 to 42 percent now. Other polls have found even less support.

What could be the cause of Italians’ declining support?

It could be that the economic war against Russia has hurt Europe (and especially Italy) much more than it has hurt Russia. While the IMF doubles Russia’s 2024 GDP growth forecast to 2.6 percent, real wages in Russia grew by 7.8 percent in 2023 and the economy grew 4.6 percent.

Meanwhile, the Bank of Italy estimates GDP growth will slow from 0.7 percent in 2023 to 0.6 percent this year. Istat reports that the slowdown was mainly due to “reduced pressure on energy prices,” which only climbed by 1.2 percent, but that’s on top of the 50.9 percent surge in 2022. In 2021, Russian imports accounted for 23 percent of Italian fuel consumption with gas depended on more heavily (about 40 percent of imports)

The effects from the loss of cheap and reliable Russian energy have been a disaster:

There have been many complaints about the cost of living crisis in the US, but please take a look what has been happening in Europe

— Michael A. Arouet (@MichaelAArouet) January 27, 2024

In 2022, 35.1 percent of Italian households experienced worsening financial conditions, according to the National Consumer Union (UNC). The numbers haven’t been released for 2023 yet, but similar highs wouldn’t be surprising. The president of the UNC said just last month that an increasing number of Italians are on “forced diets” while still spending more on food.

So, it could be that all the economic carnage and declining living standards are behind the declining support. But the spooks, think tanks, and media see a different culprit: Russian disinformation. Italy’s intelligence services said in their annual report to parliament on Feb. 28 that Russia is waging a “hybrid” war on Italy with disinformation, cyber attacks and the exploitation of migration in an attempt to influence the upcoming European elections.

Last week, the Financial Times came out with the big summary titled “Russia unleashes war propaganda offensive in Italy.” Some highlights include the fact that the film “The Witness” did screen in the small Umbrian town of Foligno to horrific results:

“I wanted to have a different perspective of the war,” said Roberta, a 49-year-old primary school teacher in the audience who declined to give her last name. “Mainstream channels — that is propaganda channels — provide the same explanations. I wanted to understand alternative views.”

FT mentions that the leader of the conservative League party, Matteo Salvini, urged Italians to withhold judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny until “Russian doctors and judges” established the truth (according to even Ukraine, Salvini was proved right in his restraint).

FT alleges that Russia is being aided by its network of Italian sympathisers in politics, media, academia and civil society. This includes anyone who does not swallow Project Ukraine hook, line, and sinker. Quartapelle, the politician mentioned above who has been a leader in efforts to censor any and all dissenting views, warns that sympathizers are “preparing the ground” for political forces on the right and the left that suggest “we can suspend our aid to Ukraine or condition it to some sort of peace process”. She adds, “They know what the Italian ear listens to; what we are sensitive to.”

A step further and Quartapelle will be agreeing with Zelensky who recently told the Italian daily Corriera della Sera that Italy should expel all “Putin supporters.” What else can you do with people who “know what the Italian ear listens to”? More from FT:

Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Italy’s chief of defence staff, warned last week of an “intensification” of Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at promoting the “image of a Russia eager for peace, and the picture of a war that is now pointless and whose outcome in Moscow’s favour was no longer in question”.

Is it still in question? And what is the evidence of these disinformation campaigns? FT gets to the damning stuff:

In one initiative, Vento dell’Est [a small Italian organization that seeks to counter Russophobia and re-establish friendship between Italy and Russia] video-linked a high school outside Rome with one in the Russian-occupied Donbas for an online “cultural exchange” under the auspices of a government initiative to connect Italian students with counterparts abroad.

Other alleged disinformation initiatives were the above-mentioned events that were canceled. That’s the extent of it. A few canceled events, a high school cultural exchange, a politician correctly urging caution before jumping to conclusions.

The spook-media-think tank alliance have been warning about Italians being duped by Russians for years. The ECFR was talking nearly a year ago about how Italian elites need to prepare the citizenry for the “long war”:

The government should invest more in monitoring disinformation trends, including by making the most of available EU funds. It should focus on strengthening citizens’ digital literacy, offering them training and equipping them with tools to recognise disinformation, and to train political representatives and civil servants.

They have also been shutting down even the hint that Project Ukraine is a bad idea. About a year ago, the late Silvio Berlusconi – a former prime minister and leader of one of the parties in Meloni’s coalition government – set off a firestorm with his mild suggestion that maybe, just maybe, this whole NATO proxy war against Russia is a complete catastrophe that deserves some more critical thought.

“If I were prime minister, I would never go talk to Zelenskyy,” Berlusconi said, adding, “We are assisting in the destruction of his country, the killing of his soldiers and civilians. All that was needed was for him to stop attacking the two autonomous republics in the Donbas, and this would never have happened.”

He also urged Washington to pressure Zelensky into a ceasefire by cutting off the supply of NATO weapons. That it was up to Berlusconi to be the voice of reason was strange enough, but the response was a full scale meltdown. Italian politicians and media attacked Berlusconi. Meloni quickly declared her unwavering support for Ukraine, NATO, and the US. According to Politico,  conservative “politicians from nine countries criticized the comments and several said they planned to boycott an upcoming gathering of conservatives in Naples, Italy, if Berlusconi attended.”

According to the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, all of these instances are signs that Russia is waging an information war against Italy, and no one can be allowed to hide behind quaint ideas like freedom of speech:

Organizers of pro-Russian events meanwhile invoke democratic rights and freedom of speech in response to criticism…Allowing Kremlin disinformation agents to operate freely has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

Post-Conflict Positioning

Would it be wise for Italy to start positioning itself to rebuild ties with Russia once the conflict in Ukraine ultimately ends? As the FT noted, Putin himself wooed Italians recently, reminiscing about his past visits to the country. “Italy has always been close to us,” he told an Italian student at a forum in Moscow last week. “I remember when I came to Italy, how the people welcomed me. I felt completely at ease.”

Italy didn’t play a key role in stringing Russia along with the Minsk agreements the way Germany and France did, although former European Central Bank president, Goldman Sachs man, and unelected Italy Prime Minister Mario Draghi was an architect of the sanctions war against Russia. Current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who built her reputation on her nationalist positions that questioned the EU and NATO, has seamlessly followed in Draghi’s footsteps.

There are deep roots between people and businesses in both countries, however.

After World War Two the strong Communist Party in Italy, which was the largest in Europe, was a natural ally to the USSR, and Italian companies were some of the biggest traders with Russia during Soviet times. Fiat built the USSR’s largest car factory in the town Stavropol Volzhsky, which was then renamed Togliatti after the Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti.

Since the breakup of the USSR, Italy strongly supported the creation of the NATO–Russia Council in 2002 and was skeptical about NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia and Italy remained strong business partners until recent years, as well. For example, Italy shared manufacturing know-how, such as on civil aircraft and helicopter projects, as well as the modernization of rail transportation, and Russia had the energy. Many mid-sized Italian businesses were also eager to get into the emerging Russia market. They’re now doing what they can to stay there. Italian exports to Türkiye, for example, have jumped 87 percent over the last two years with much of that increase likely attributable to the effort to bypass sanctions. Additionally, as the Rev Kev pointed out recently:

Russia and Italy enjoyed such close ties that back in 2020 when the Coronavirus hit Italy pretty bad, the Russians sent ‘eight medical brigades and another 100 personnel include some of its most advanced nuclear, biological and chemical protection troops.’ I don’t think that they did this for any other EU country. Of course the Italians must have compared this to how the EU was letting them swing in the breeze while Trump was sending military cargo planes to swipe medial gear from Italy to bring back to the US.

The Center for European Policy Analysis of course labels Russian aid during the early days of the pandemic as a “Russian influence operation” and blames then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for allowing it to happen.

All these examples of the decades-long strong ties mean Italy is, in the view of the New York Times, the “soft underbelly allowing Mr. Putin to break Europe’s liberal consensus.” And that is probably why there is such an outsized effort to demonize anyone in Italy who strays from the official line that Russia is evil. You can’t have people running around  invoking “democratic rights and freedom of speech” when the liberal consensus is at stake.

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Conor Gallagher