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Russia unleashes war propaganda offensive in Italy

At the local museum in the central Italian town of Foligno, some 80 people gathered on Sunday to watch a Kremlin-backed propaganda film about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Witness — which depicts Ukrainian soldiers as Nazis pledging allegiance to Hitler, waving Mein Kampf and committing atrocities — played to empty cinemas in Russia last year. But the film is now being shown across Italy at special screenings organised by Moscow-friendly groups.

“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.”

The recent proliferation of Russian propaganda events — and the extensive network behind it — highlights the internal tension between the pro-Ukraine stance of rightwing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her junior coalition partner, the far right League party, whose leader Matteo Salvini has had strong links to Moscow.

Meloni, who ardently supports Ukraine’s cause, travelled to Kyiv on Saturday to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. She has consistently condemned Vladimir Putin’s military aggression and this weekend praised Ukrainians for their “heroic resistance”.

Salvini, the deputy prime minister, has meanwhile sparked controversy with his response to the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in a remote Arctic prison. Though most western governments and Navalny’s widow have squarely blamed Putin for his killing, Salvini urged Italians to withhold judgment until “Russian doctors and judges” established the truth.

The comments by Salvini — a longtime Putin admirer — have triggered fresh scrutiny of the League’s alliance with Putin’s United Russia party, formalised in a co-operation agreement signed in 2017. 

“It is a question of fundamental national security,” opposition lawmaker Carlo Calenda, leader of the centrist Azione party, said in a television interview. He is demanding that Salvini clarify whether the League’s ties with Russia have been severed or not.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomes Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni before an award ceremony in Hostomel on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine © Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout/Reuters

The furore comes as analysts warn that Moscow is stepping up efforts to stoke public opposition to Meloni’s pro-Ukraine stance and generate pressure for a settlement on the Kremlin’s terms, aided by its network of Italian sympathisers in politics, media, academia and civil society.

“We see this surge in propaganda,” said Lia Quartapelle, a lawmaker with the opposition centre-left Democratic party. “They are waiting to spread the idea that peace is possible, coming to terms with Putin’s Russia is possible and it is Ukraine that does not want the deal.”

Quartapelle said such efforts appear to be “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”.

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”.

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.” 

Rome historically had friendly ties with Moscow dating from the cold war, when Italy had the largest Communist party in western Europe. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, Rome often sided with Moscow in its fraught relations with the EU — sympathies underpinned by a personal friendship between Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, who was Italy’s premier for a total of nine years over three terms and remained an influential figure until his death last year.

More recently, Nona Mikhelidze, senior fellow at Rome’s Institute of International Affairs, said Moscow has nurtured a wide network of local level civic groups to promote Russia’s cause, especially in the industrialised north — the League’s traditional stronghold.

“In these last 10 to 15 years, Russia invested a lot to create these city-level cultural associations on Russian-Italian friendship,” Mikhelidze said. “Where the League is present, Russia has a strong foothold.”

Such groups are now actively pushing the Kremlin’s narratives about Ukraine, appealing to Italians’ pacifist or humanitarian impulses. “These are very professional foreign agents,” Quartapelle said. “They know what the Italian ear listens to; what we are sensitive to.”

Retired businessman Palmarino Zoccatelli, who was a League member for years, founded the Veneto-Russia Cultural Association in 2016, initially to promote the cause of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Now, it justifies Russia’s military offensive to Italian audiences.

Zoccatelli said he got involved with the cause “by chance” in 2014, the year Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and fuelled a separatist conflict in the Donbas. He said he was approached by Russian-speakers from Mariupol while promoting a historic re-enactment of Verona’s 1797 revolt against French occupying forces. He was moved by their tale — and agreed to help. “We are not Kremlin agents — we are free people,” Zoccatelli said.

As a self-described “traditionalist Catholic”, Zoccatelli admitted he admired Putin. “I would have never embraced Russia at the time of the Soviet Union,” he said. “But Russia is defending traditional values that the west is abandoning completely.”

Another association formed in 2022 that is active across Italy is Vento dell’Est [East wind], which seeks to “counter Russophobia” and “re-establish . . . traditional relationships of friendship . . .[after the] wretched deterioration in recent times”.

It is led by Lorenzo Berti, an erstwhile far-right activist who unsuccessfully ran on a League ticket in local elections in Tuscany in 2022. Vento dell’Est said it had held more than 30 conferences and 10 demonstrations against Italy’s support to the “criminal regime” in Kyiv and “counterproductive sanctions” against Russia.

In one initiative, Vento dell’Est 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. 

Ukrainians demonstrate against the screening of ‘The Witness’ in Foligno, Italy © Giuliana Ricozzi/FT

Russian propaganda efforts do face some resistance in Italy, especially those held in public buildings.

Following widespread backlash, the city of Modena last month revoked permission to use a municipal building for a seminar called “Mariupol: Rebirth after the war”, celebrating the Russian occupation of the city. Local officials said they had not initially understood the details of the programme.

Also in January, Vento dell’Est scrapped a seminar that was to have included a video link with Russian nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, who has long advocated the recreation of the Russian empire, after the hotel venue cancelled the booking amid complaints.

In Foligno, the mayor, an independent supported by rightwing parties including the League, rebuffed calls to cancel The Witness screening, but about 100 demonstrators, many from Italy’s Ukrainian community, protested outside. “We cannot have terrorist propaganda in a free country,” said Uliana Telep, 29. 

For all the efforts to sway Italian public opinion, analysts do not expect Meloni’s support for Kyiv to waver, even if it puts her at odds with some of her rightwing electorate ahead of EU-wide elections in June.

But they say Russia’s propaganda onslaught may have other repercussions, particularly when it comes to the urgent but sensitive issue of increasing defence spending.

“We are at a critical juncture. There are decisions — long-term decisions — that need to be taken now, which Italy is not taking,” Quartapelle said. 

“In Italy, like elsewhere in Europe, the arsenals are empty. Some European countries decided to order more arms and spend more on defence. So far, Italy didn’t.”

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