Analysis. Russian hackers have backed a propaganda campaign aimed at boosting the far-right Lega Nord party and Eurosceptic 5 Star Movement. They also pushed the “No” vote in Italy’s constitutional referendum at a time Obama was rooting for Yes.

Biden’s report on Russian interference stirs Italian politics

Putin’s hackers are the ones who have been pumping up the propaganda of Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo supporters for the upcoming elections. It’s not Matteo Renzi who is saying it this time, even though he’s been promising to deal with the issue of fake news every two weeks during the election campaign. It’s not even The New York Times or BuzzFeed with their own inquiries, limited as they are by relying on research by a former Renzi consultant. This time, it is none other than the former vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, who is claiming this, in an article about the Russian threat to democracy.

In Italy, the news broke out in the press Friday, and was then picked up by Beppe Grillo’s blog — of course, in order to deny it. The Italian Democratic Party dialed up the drama, to the point of asking the Italian foreign minister to summon the Russian ambassador to ask for explanations. Morani, the Renzi-backing deputy, also called for the convening of the American ambassador, ignoring the fact that Biden is arguing that the Trump administration is covering up the maneuvers by the Kremlin.

Published on Tuesday on the website of Foreign Affairs, a diplomatic magazine that is a stronghold of Atlanticism, and signed together with another former member of the Obama administration, ex-Undersecretary of Defense Michael Carpenter, Biden’s article is a tale told in the unmistakable Cold War style. It contains a long discussion of Putin’s initiatives to spread the Kremlin’s “malign influence” to the West, ranging from corruption to the spread of “fake news” in order to undermine democracy in European countries.

In his accusatory fervor, Biden attributes political killings in the West to Russian agents, yet cites the murder of Boris Nemtsov, killed in 2015 in Moscow, as an example. He also suggests some countermoves: first of all, the need to entrust NATO with the defense of the Atlantic allies against Russian hackers, and, as a consequence, the need to ask the European partners for an increase in military spending (a proposal that Trump also supports).

The designated leader of the 5 Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, responded to Biden, saying that both the former U.S. vice president and Renzi “must learn how to lose” — Biden’s party defeated by Trump and Renzi “by the Italian people, not by Putin” in the constitutional referendum. According to Alessandro Di Battista, “some in the U.S. are still unable to comprehend the thrashing that Renzi received, despite (or perhaps because of) him employing Jim Messina, Obama’s communications guru.”

As for the support by Russia during this election campaign, Lega Nord were the ones to reply: “Our friendliness towards Trump, just as towards Putin, has a political explanation, because it always fits with the most important interest — that of the Italians,” said Deputy Secretary Giancarlo Giorgetti. And everyone, both Lega Nord supporters and Grillo supporters, is now throwing the charge of “fake news” back at Biden — a Trumpian defensive move, who usually accuses newspapers and TV stations of precisely that when they unmask his propaganda.

The passage from Biden and Carpenter’s article devoted to the alleged Russian maneuvers aimed at the European elections is not too long, and can be quoted verbatim: “In France, the widespread knowledge of Russia’s prior involvement in the U.S. campaign somewhat lessened the Kremlin’s first-mover advantage. But Russia has hardly given up, and it has taken similar steps to sway political campaigns in a wide range of European countries, including for referendums in the Netherlands (on Ukraine’s integration with Europe), Italy (on governance reforms) and Spain (on Catalonia’s secession). Russian support for Alternative for Germany, a far-right party, aimed to increase the group’s vote totals in last fall’s parliamentary elections by amplifying its messaging on social media. A similar Russian effort is now under way to support the nationalist Northern League [Lega Nord] and the populist 5 Star Movement in Italy’s upcoming parliamentary elections.”

Biden probably remembers that Obama did all he could to support Renzi, including inviting him to the White House as a guest of honor during the referendum campaign, and that the U.S. ambassador in Rome, John Phillips, asked openly for a “Yes” vote (to the point that Mattarella had to intervene to remind him that the decision belonged to the Italians). Renzi certainly has not forgotten this support, and now took the opportunity to attack those of the 5 Star Movement who were attacking Biden: “Those in the blogosphere are happiest when they can throw themselves headlong into a conspiracy, real or theorized. We have to be wary of the garbage being shared online, for the good of our children — I’m not worried about the political dimension of fake news.”

Yet his allies are demanding the summoning of the ambassadors, while next week the Democratic Party will present a report on fake information shared online, fulfilling Leopolda’s promise.

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