Why Italy’s Giorgia Meloni Became a Russia Hawk

Why Italy’s Giorgia Meloni Became a Russia Hawk

It is a welcome change to have a leader, even in the far-right, willing to help defend Ukraine as it fights to protect the European continent.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni has had a remarkable ascent in European politics. As a one-time admirer of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, her rise as a polarizing figure of the far-right sounded alarm bells across Europe. Far-right politicians in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban, have typically aligned their fortunes with Russia. Meloni is proving to be an anomaly for European security as a strong proponent of NATO and a supporter of Ukraine’s war effort. These issues offer her the chance to showcase herself as less of a radical and present an opportunity to help lead Europe’s fight against Russia and take the helm of European security leadership.

Much of Russia’s foreign policy activism in Europe has focused on propping up the far-right. Moscow looks for opportunities to interfere in European elections and keep its opponents off-balance. Allies are usually found in the far-right, which is typically more sympathetic to the anti-LGBT, pro-Christian strand of conservatism espoused by Putin.

Over the years, Russia has had tremendous political success in countries such as Austria, Italy, France, and Germany. At one point, former Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl—who danced with Putin at her wedding in 2018—later landed a cushy job on the board of directors of Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil giant. For years, this behavior was normal, and Europe did little to fight off Russian influence.

For its part, Germany continued to double down on its close ties with Russia, becoming more energy dependent on Moscow and pushing Ukraine into unfair agreements with Russia over its eight-year war in the Donbas. True to the warnings of Washington and Kyiv, Russia has weaponized the flow of gas to Europe. Europe is now facing a long winter with sky-high energy prices.

Even now, Moscow’s allies on the far-right continue to do its bidding. Orban has been among the European Union’s most vocal proponents of lifting Western sanctions against Russia and blocking aid for Ukraine. In 2018, Italy’s far-right government said it was “not afraid” to use an EU veto to lift sanctions imposed on Russia after its attack on Ukraine in 2014.

Most recently, the leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, stated that “the unprecedented sanctions the West had imposed on Russia over the Ukraine invasion weren't working.” Meloni herself was somewhat fond of Putin, even saying in 2018 that his election victory represented “the unequivocal will of the Russian people.” However, Meloni has flipped her stance on Russia due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Her political messaging has been pro-Europe, pro-U.S., and anti-Russia. This radical shift from the far-right sentiment of the recent past highlights how quickly Russia’s influence has evaporated in certain European spheres.

Meloni decried Russia’s invasion as an “unacceptable large-scale act of war by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine” and supports supplying more weapons to Ukraine. She recently stated that "it is worth supporting Ukraine because negotiations can only emerge from a balance of power on the field.” Italy is also preparing a new arms package for Ukraine that will include air defense systems, which the country desperately needs as Russian missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities.

While the Russian occupiers recently dismantled a monument to victims of Holodomor—the man-made Soviet famine that starved millions of Ukrainians to death—Meloni has presented a fresh proposal to have the Holodomor recognized as a genocide.

Meloni likely sees a vacuum among Europe’s leadership. Former British prime minister Boris Johnson recently claimed that France was “in denial” about the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and that the German government favored a quick Ukrainian military defeat over a long conflict. In June, French president Emmanuel Macron said that he has spent at least 100 hours over the past six months in phone talks with Putin. And Germany continues to drag its feet on giving Ukraine heavy weapons.

NATO allies in Eastern Europe, such as Poland and the Baltics, feel that Europe’s continental powers have not done enough to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia. In fact, Poland and the Baltics pushed back against German-French proposals to reconcile with Russia in 2021, shortly before the full-scale invasion. Macron had an opportunity to unite the continent against Russia and establish a small Napoleonic legacy for himself as Europe’s leader. Surprisingly, he instead seems to be more of a pawn for Putin as he continues to push the idea of “good peace” with Russia.

With the German and French powers lacking a backbone, Europe is desperate for bold leadership. Perhaps Meloni is promoting the Ukrainian cause to seem less radical, or maybe she sees an opportunity to take the helm of European leadership. Regardless of your views on domestic politics, one thing is certain: it is essential not to have a Russian trojan horse within Europe’s security structure. It is a welcome change to have a leader, even in the far-right, willing to help defend Ukraine as it fights to protect the European continent against Russia. Meloni rightly understands that negotiations with Russia should be done on the battlefield.

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press. He tweets @DVKirichenko.

Image: Reuters.