A little more than a year ago, on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia officially invaded Ukraine and the world was forever changed. At the time, experts predicted that the war could be the largest conflict in the West since World War II.
At its start, Italy’s stance, led by then-Prime Minister Mario Draghi, was clear: the government condemned the war and offered “full support” for Ukraine. This wasn’t just metaphorical — those words translated to the approval of multiple military aid packages to Ukraine and roughly 390 million euro in support through the European Peace Facility, according to the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. The government also earmarked more than 800 million euro to help roughly 168,000 Ukrainian refugees in Italy.
But when far-right leader Giorgia Meloni was elected as prime minister in September 2022, Italy’s position against Russia was called into question. Her alliance with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party put a changing rapport with Russia ever closer, given the latter’s close social relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Yet since Meloni’s takeover, little has actually changed in practice between Italy, Ukraine and Russia. The prime minister has continued to reiterate her support for Ukraine in meetings with global leaders like United States President Joe Biden and a recent visit to Kyiv in February 2023. In fact, she noted at that time that Italy had no plans to renege on its commitment to supporting Ukraine and would continue to send funds and weapons.
But now that a year has passed since the war, surveys of public opinion show that not all Italians agree with Meloni’s strategy. A February 2023 survey conducted by market research firm Ipsos revealed that 45% of Italians were against sending arms to Ukraine and 34% were for it.
Another survey published January 2023 showed that the vast majority of Italians see the conflict as far away, excluding young people. About 51% of young Italians feel the hostilities of the war as very close and roughly 16% see them as relatively close, according to results from Milan institute Euromedia Research.
Compared to other European countries, Italians also tend to hold Russia as less responsible for the war, based on statistics provided by the European Council on Foreign Relations from June 2022. In Finland, 90 percent blame Russia for the war and only 5 percent hold the European Union, US or Ukraine responsible. Contrast that with Italy, where only 56 percent think Russia is to blame and 27 percent would implicate the EU, US or Ukraine.
For Italians on the ground, there is a difference between their personal feelings and how they believe the government should act. Umberto Naro, 46, lives in Rome and served for many years in the Italian military, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan. His predominant fear remains that the war could arrive in Italy, either on account of a nuclear attack, geographic proximity or the fact that the country is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and would have to get involved should a member state be attacked.
“My fear is very deep, but I feel it is a little bit hidden,” Naro said. “As a member of NATO, we are obligated to intervene and I am also of the age to serve in the military. But I’ve already served in my wars and I don’t want to anymore. I want to be here at home defending my family—I don’t want to leave for a foreign country.”
Naro hopes that the government might move to a more neutral position—he calls its current stance very much favorable towards Ukraine, a fact reinforced by Meloni’s own words.
Other Italians are focused on the tangible impacts of the war, like rising prices for basic necessities, including gas and electricity. In October 2022, the country’s inflation hit 11.9%, the highest it had been since June 1983. Between February 23 and July 31, 2022, European gas and electricity wholesale prices increased by 115% and 237%, respectively, per Bank of Italy economists.
28-year-old Lorenzo Giannotti studies law in Rome. To him, the war has largely impacted the daily lives of Italians from this economic standpoint. But he holds out that the government maintains a resource it has not used: Berlusconi’s relationship with Putin.
“Berlusconi could play a fundamental role,” Giannotti said. “This is a card that Italy could play but has not yet played.”
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