First, Salvini is soft on Russia, which is close to China. An influential Italian veto that leans toward China or Russia in the European Union or NATO, and that buttresses that of Hungary's Victor Orban and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could weaken Western defenses against the world's worst dictators.
We saw the risk, for example, when Turkey threatened to veto Sweden and Finland's accession to NATO. (Turkey eventually withdrew the objection.)
Second, Salvini's coalition acted against EU integration and belt-tightening reforms in Italy, just when they could be required for Brussels to release a total of 200 billion euros of COVID-19 recovery funds. Italy needs the money, and the European Union needs the cohesion.
The centrist Mario Draghi government that attempted to push through the necessary tightening came crashing down on July 21 when it failed due to the obstructionism of Salvini's League (Lega) party, along with Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia.
Both parties were minority partners in Draghi's centrist government, along with Giuseppe Conte's populist and anti-establishmentarian Five Star Movement. Draghi himself is center-left.
Did Russia Destabilize Italy?The Italian press is airing suspicions that the fall of Draghi was engineered by Moscow and supported by Lega and Forza Italia.
"We curbed corruption locally but found we had a bigger enemy: Russian influence," the former Bulgarian prime minister told The Sunday Times of London. "We didn't understand that corruption and Russian influence in Bulgaria are the same thing. Corruption is Moscow's best foreign policy instrument in the Balkans."
According to the left-leaning Project Syndicate, "the Kremlin is known to meddle in Western democratic politics, from interfering in the 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential election to financing Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally in France."
Putin's Friends in RomeOn Aug. 4, the Italian daily, La Stampa, reported a meeting between Salvini's Lega and Moscow. Intelligence documents leaked to the paper reportedly claimed that a senior Russian diplomat in Rome pressed Salvini, through a top adviser, about whether Lega would withdraw its support from Draghi's ruling coalition. That was two months before Salvini followed that strategy, which resulted in the government's fall.
A week after the invasion, Salvini reportedly had dinner with the Russian ambassador. He almost conducted a "peace mission" to Moscow, announced in May. The Russian Embassy in Rome paid for Salvini's flight to Moscow. This subsidized diplomacy caused public opposition to the trip, and Salvini backed down.
But all of that came to an end on July 21.
Lega promoted a taxi strike that put a new competition law in jeopardy. Italy has strained public finances, but the third party within Draghi's government to oppose him, the Five Star Movement, lobbied for more public spending and social welfare—exactly the opposite of what Brussels wanted.
Chinese Police, Russian SoldiersThe Russian and Chinese influence extends back to prior administrations. Since 2016, Beijing has sent approximately 10 Chinese police officers to Italy each year to conduct joint patrols with Italian police in cities like Rome, Milan, Prato, and Venice. The reason for the patrols is ostensibly to protect Chinese tourists.
Unnamed sources told La Stampa that the aid was 80 percent "useless." But it presented Moscow with a cornucopia of propaganda and intelligence-gathering opportunities. For example, the Russians operated just 30 miles from a U.S. military base.
Italy’s 'Post-Fascist' Fratelli d’ItaliaThe Lega and Forza Italia are teaming with the far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), led by Giorgia Meloni. The latest polls indicate that Fratelli d'Italia, which has its own links to Moscow, has risen to 22.5 percent of votes in the Sept. 25 election—more than any other party.
Thus, Meloni has a good chance of forming the ruling coalition and leading the government as Italy's first female head of state.
The Fratelli d'Italia is a mix of far-right and center politics. Its members tend to support business, conservative family values, and a constitutional amendment that would centralize power in a president rather than the rapidly shifting alliances of Italy's parliamentary system. Fratelli d'Italia is against high taxes and illegal immigration.
But Federico Fubini, writing in the left's Project Syndicate, is dubious. Meloni opposed sanctions on Russia in 2018, and "earlier this spring, she argued not just that Italy should receive 'compensation' from the EU for the cost of sanctions, but also that the United States should not expect Italy to serve as the 'workhorse of the West' by reducing its exports to Russia."
According to the Financial Times, "Although established only a decade ago, Brothers of Italy is a descendent of the Italian Social Movement, the neo-fascist party founded after the second world war by associates of Benito Mussolini."
Broder, writing in The New York Times about the Brothers of Italy, noted that a recent documentary includes "allegations of money laundering, illicit campaign financing and ties to neo-Nazis in the party's organization in Milan. The film exposed the close collaboration of the leader of Brothers of Italy's group in the European Parliament with Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, a neo-fascist militant known as the 'black baron.'"
In Italy, the drift toward fascist symbology and links to Moscow are making some uncomfortable with the far right.
Putin Weaponizes RefugeesCarfagna believes that geopolitics is behind the fall of Draghi. One issue that makes the left unpopular is the rise of illegal immigration.
In July, the number of immigrants increased to approximately 11,000 from 7,000 in the same period of 2020.
Investigate Russian InfluenceTwo of Italy's former prime ministers have called for an urgent probe into Salvini's ties to Russia. The intelligence committee of the Italian parliament would be the optimal place for an investigation. But officials on the right, who would likely serve in the next government, have already indicated that they would not investigate.
So Brussels should go ahead with its own investigation. No party is above the law when it comes to foreign influence.