By COLLEEN BARRY Associated Press
MILAN (AP) — Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is meeting this week with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington as Europe faces another “whatever it takes” moment with Russia’s war in Ukraine in its eastern flank.
Both Rome and Washington will emphasize their historic friendship and shared desire to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s two-month invasion when the leaders meet on Tuesday. Energy, climate change and promoting global economic prosperity are also on the agenda.
Still, there are differences of tone about the war, and public sentiment in Italy against sending weapons to Ukraine is growing.
Draghi is pushing even for a limited truce to allow talks to resume, also mindful of the impact on Italy if the war spreads beyond Ukraine’s borders. Statements by Biden and his emissaries have been more aggressive, suggesting both regime change and the goal of weakening Russia.
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These differences reflect not only Italy’s geographic proximity to the fighting, but also its historical political and economic ties with Russia. Italy gets 40% of its natural gas from Russia, and economic trade last year amounted to 20 billion euros ($21 billion).
“There are two currents regarding Russia,” Sergio Romano, the Italian ambassador to Moscow during the Cold War, told The Associated Press. “There is the position of the countries that see in the war in Ukraine the possibility, or the hope, of the decline of Russian power. I think this current is strong in the US.
“I don’t think this is the position of the Italian government, which in the past has had cordial and positive relations with Russia.”
Draghi, a former central banker adept at mincing his words, is one of the few European Union leaders to visit Washington since the war broke out, and can be expected to represent not just Italy’s perspective, but Europe’s as well. His “whatever it takes” stance as head of the European Central Bank saved the euro during the currency bloc’s crisis a decade ago.
Arming Ukraine has become a political issue in Italy, with growing public opposition to sending Italian weapons for fear of sparking a wider conflict spilling over into neighboring EU and NATO member states.
A key party in the government, the 5 Star Movement, insists that only short-range defensive weapons be sent, not with offensive capabilities, while right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, a former interior minister, is against further arms shipments to Ukraine. . .
Members of the left-wing Democratic Party are also urging Draghi to advise the United States to tone it down.
Public sentiment against sending weapons to Ukraine has nearly halved, according to Renato Mannheimer, a sociologist at the market and social research agency Eumetra. Some of that sentiment is rooted in pacifism, partly conditioned by Italy’s closeness to the Vatican, as well as an anti-American streak stemming from US-led wars on foreign soil. That is accompanied by fears about the start of a broader war that could escalate into a nuclear threat, he said.
Italians over the age of 40 have palpable memories of their geographical location close to Ukraine. Shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, nuclear contamination reached Italy and Italians were warned not to eat salad or drink milk for weeks.
Italy has already invoked secrecy over its military support for security reasons. But Draghi can also point to parliament’s overwhelming support for helping Ukraine last month to minimize any friction within his broad coalition.
“Perhaps the message that Draghi will bring to Biden in these hours is: ‘We are on the side of the Americans, but let’s not make this a war of good against evil, of light against darkness,'” said Alessia De Luca , a political analyst at the ISPI think tank in Milan.
“This is a risk because Americans have this binary way of looking at things. For us Europeans, the consequences of the spillover of the war are dramatic”.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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