Almost immediately after US President Donald J. Trump caused a major rift in the Euro-Atlantic alliance by castigating his closest allies in the UK, Canada, and Germany by refusing to endorse a communique that called for an international, rules-based trade regime, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte joined Trump in further infuriating the Western alliance by for Russia’s return to the international forum.
Both Trump and Conte were clear that they want Russia to be readmitted to the Group, despite Moscow’s refusal to withdraw its occupation forces from Crimea – which it forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014 – and eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s armed forces and their local proxies continue to fight a war that has killed nearly 11,000 people in just over four years.
“Italy’s international position is absolutely not in question, but we are certainly in favour of dialogue and we are very attentive that sanctions should not impact Russian civil society,” Conte said, according to Italy’s public news agency, ANSA. “It’s in everyone’s interests,” Conte added, in an echo of Trump’s own words after the combative US president shocked both his allies and those back in his own country when he announced in Washington that, “Russia should be in (sic) this meeting,” Trump told reporters in Washington as he left the White House. “Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting? Whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run, and in the G7, which used to be the G8, they threw Russia out,” he said without making a reference to the reason for Russia’s expulsion – the invasion of Ukraine. “They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.” adding, “I think it would be an asset to have Russia back in.”
Responding to Trump’s comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would be happy to meet Trump once Washington is ready to hold a summit and welcomed the US president’s call to bring Russia back into the G7 group of leading industrialised nations.
“The US president has repeatedly said that it’s reasonable to hold such a meeting,” Putin said on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. “As soon as he is ready, the meeting will take place, depending, of course, on my working schedule.”
Conte’s about-face on Italy’s position on Russia came after his meeting with Tusk and Juncker, prior to the G7 summit, At that meeting, Tusk said that Brussels and Rome shared the same general view regarding how to deal with Putin, but differed slightly on the details. Juncker added that the EU is open to beginning a dialogue with Russia, “but in other ways” that do not concern ending the sanctions regime until Moscow’s ends its occupation of large parts of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
The leader of the largest coalition partner in Italy’s new Eurosceptic government, 5-Star Movement head and newly-named Industry and Labour Minister, Luigi Di Maio, insisted that the West’s sanctions on Russia are harmful to Italy’s economy, adding, “I have always said that our country must remain in NATO but that the sanctions on Russia damage us,” adding that “we are pro-Italian, not pro-Russia.”
The new government in Rome has previously said that the sanctions on Russia have severely damaged Italy’s agriculture and tourism industries, well as its design and handicraft sectors, after Italy became the top country in Europe for Russia’s monied oligarchs to spend money on luxury goods and vacation property during the years of Italy’s convicted former prime minister, as well as Putin’s close personal friend and an acquaintance of Trump’s, Silvio Berlusconi.
Matteo Salvini, the openly pro-Russian leader of the coalition government’s minority partner, the far-right Lega party, has been more emphatic in his opposition to the West’s sanctions against Moscow, which, along with Trump’s recent comments, have been widely circulated on Russia’s state-run propaganda outlets.
The Russian government’s representative in Crimea, Georgy Muradov, extended an invitation to Salvini to visit the occupied peninsula, the Kremlin-controlled TASS news outlet reported. Muradov expressing confidence that Salvini can help lead both Italy and Europe into a new era of cooperation with Moscow.