Analysis. The Italian government gave Vladimir Putin praise and promises, but the facts on the ground have not changed: the European sanctions remain. The biggest opening may have been with the Catholic Church.

What we learned from Putin’s visit to Rome

Among G8 countries, the Italian government has the strongest orientation toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As is well-known, the Italian cabinet set for itself the goal of lifting the sanctions against Russia, and vice-prime minister Matteo Salvini has never hidden his sympathy for the Russian leader. Nevertheless, the Russian President’s visit to Rome on Thursday will probably be remembered only for leading to a (temporary) solution to the garbage disposal crisis in the Italian capital.

The Italian policy toward the Russian Federation has been cut down to the bone—one might even say it lies in splinters. In more than a year of Enzo Moavero Milanesi’s tenure at the head of the Foreign Ministry, he hasn’t taken even a single significant position concerning Russia. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, both on his October visit to Moscow and Thursday in Rome, limited himself to arguing that “sanctions against Russia should be a means, not an end”—that is, in order to reach a compromise for the Donbass.

This position implicitly confirms Italy’s adherence to the sanctions imposed by the European Union (including those of last November as a result of the crisis in the Kerch Strait, while the yellow-green government was already in office)—but also represents a shift of the Italian position, from wanting to “cancel” the sanctions to “going beyond” them.

The only clear position on Ukraine on the part of the Italian government remains that of Salvini, who wants the recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the division of Ukraine into spheres of influence. But maybe this would be too much to ask of Italy, when even the EU doesn’t have a coherent foreign policy toward Russia: it’s enough to recall the vastly different attitude of Warsaw and Berlin toward the Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that will deliver 55 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia to Germany by 2020.

Putin has never harbored any vain illusions regarding our country’s loyalty. “We know that Italy is a loyal member of NATO and the EU, and we’re not expecting it to change its strategic focus,” he said a few weeks ago, when the specter of crisis was looming at the Palazzo Chigi.

In Rome on Thursday, Italian and Russian companies signed a few new contracts and negotiated others, but the status quo remains mostly unchanged for now, despite the recovery in bilateral trade after it collapsed following the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and the violent devaluation of the ruble between 2015-2016. The difficulty in developing economic relations between Italy and Russia is not due to mere historical accident.

In an interview published in Corriere della Sera on Thursday, the Kremlin leader was asked about the possibility that Russia would purchase Italian public debt. Putin responded cautiously, saying only that he had never discussed the matter with Conte, while carefully sidestepping the fact that his country would never be able to perform such a financial operation: it’s an absurd scenario given the actual state of the Russian economy. But the question illustrates how many people overestimate Putin and his country, with the Kremlin leader often imagined as a sort of deus ex machina.

Russia’s GDP is smaller than Italy’s, despite the fact that the Russian Federation has more than twice the population. Portugal’s GDP per capita is twice that of Russia. In terms of the world economy, Russia remains a semi-peripheral country, an exporter of raw materials (especially oil and gas) and importer of finished products and high technology.

Given the current oil prices, in order for the country to reach the growth rates Putin is dreaming of (an average GDP growth of 3.8% a year), it will need to promote large-scale national programs, particularly in the infrastructure sector, raking in big capital and possibly harming internal consumption, while Italy remains a country with a vocation for export.

In several ways, Putin’s meeting with Pope Francis was more important than his meeting with Conte and Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Putin remains a possible ambassador for dialogue in the Christian world between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Formally, Russia remains a country where the division between state and religion is a clear one, and where multi-confessionalism is an essential ingredient for the social cohesion of the Federation.

However, in his nearly 20 years as president, “the Tsar” has done plenty, albeit indirectly, to ensure the supremacy of the Orthodox Church in his country. The massive program for the construction of new churches is the most obvious sign. The Moscow Patriarchate, after the schism with Constantinople and Kiev a few months ago, will have to face a painful restructuring, but one which might end up bringing it new opportunities.

Pope Francis didn’t ask Putin to organize a visit to Moscow in the near future, which would have been a step far beyond even the wildest hopes of the Vatican. However, the possibility of ​​a fresh start after a millennium of sparse communication between the two largest Christian denominations might eventually lead to a common front against the rise of the ascendant spiritual agnosticism of “Communist” China.

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