This week, an audio recording of a meeting between Italian and Russian officials surfaced, apparently confirming close ties between the two nations’ political leadership. While the evidence is inconclusive, one thing is clear: Russia’s use of commerce as a facade to mask support of far-right European movements is widespread.
The recording covers more than an hour of plans to funnel Russian oil money into Italy’s League Party. The League’s foreign policy has so far caused havoc in the EU as its positions threaten relationships with other states. For example, the party has pushed for reform of the EU framework in order to protect its borders and restrict migrant access. This new line on immigration issues poses a problem for collective European security, as it deepens divisions within the already-fragile EU. For example, in early July the Italian government responded to the presence of a ship carrying nearly 700 sub-Saharan African migrants by asserting Malta’s responsibility for dealing with them. The dispute was only resolved when Spain allowed the vessel to dock in Valencia.
The man behind the League’s rise is Matteo Salvini, who in June 2018 was elected Deputy Prime Minister. In May 2019, the League won 34% in parliamentary elections, surpassing the Five Star Movement as Italy’s largest political party.
While Salvini was not present for the taped negotiations—and has since denied receiving Russian money—one of his key spokespeople, Gianluca Savoini, is prominent on the recording, and has deep ties to Russia. Savoini is president of the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, an organization founded in 2014 to advocate for Putin’s cultural views. The Association’s website asserts the need to align with Russia as a “bastion [of] hope” in contrast to a Western world “lost in… delirium.” This sentiment fits with Putin’s recent claim that international liberalism is “obsolete,” and that a return to traditionalism is needed. Savoini has been a member of the League since 1991, but his advocacy of Putin’s values is only the tip of the iceberg of the party leadership’s alignment with Russia.
League’s Pro-Russia Position
Salvini has long angled for close affiliation with Russia, specifically with Putin’s long-dominant United Russia Party. He and Putin signed a “cooperation and collaboration agreement” in 2017, formalizing their commitment to economic, legal, and cultural ties between their two parties.
Since then, Salvini has consistently defended pro-Russian positions. In 2018, he pushed for lifting sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea, as well as for allowing Russia’s return to the G8. These arguments signaled his acceptance of the annexation as legitimate, a position largely decried by the rest of the international community.
In another controversial move, Salvini criticized the EU and NATO for their response to the Russian military intelligence organization’s nerve agent attack in Salisbury. Both these examples show Salvini’s desire to position himself—and by extension the League Party—as a staunch ally of Putin, even if such a stance is taken at the expense of other European alliances.
A Pattern of Supporting Far-Right Parties
This recent evidence connecting Russia to the League should not come as a surprise. Rather, the country’s support of Salvini is one example among many demonstrating the Kremlin’s goal to break current European alliances by strengthening right-wing extremism. As they seemed to have done with the League, the Russian government’s method of choice in carrying out this objective is using business transactions to mask exchanges of political power. Salvini is not the only recipient.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally, received 11 million euros in the form of loans from Russian banks after publicly supporting the annexation of Crimea. Due to the National Rally’s history of racism and anti-Semitism, the party has been turned down for loans from French banks.
Earlier this year, Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party, was caught negotiating the exchange of public contracts for Russian financial campaign support.
Russian influence is also evident in the rise of far-right politics in Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban infamously declared “shipwrecked liberal democracy” to be a thing of the past in his country, echoing Putin’s statements on the issue. Hungary’s connections to the Kremlin have solidified recently due to nuclear energy deals.
Russian ties to Salvini and the League are yet another example of the Kremlin’s strategy of using commerce to support the rise of European nationalism and populism. By aiding the growth of far-right political power in Europe, Russia plays the long-game of weakening key Western alliances.