During the first week in March 2022, the New York Times published three articles on Italy and its relationship with Russia that has changed since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The first article reported on Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s speech to the Italian Parliament on March 1 affirming his country’s unity with NATO against Russia.
Because Italy receives more than 40% of its natural gas from Russia, aligning itself with NATO and imposing sanctions on Russia would surely have a boomerang effect. “In case of interruptions of gas supplies from Russia, Italy has more to lose compared to other European countries that rely on different sources,” Draghi said, but “this does not diminish our determination to support sanctions that we deem justified and necessary.” Italy is standing firmly with its European allies.
This was not always the case. During much of the post-WWII era, Italy had maintained a close connection with Russia. Following the fall of Mussolini’s fascist regime, Italy’s Communist Party was the largest outside the Soviet bloc. Italy was once seen by both Russia and nervous NATO allies as the soft underbelly of Europe, allowing Putin more influence in the region.
Italy’s ties to Russia have been particularly strong in the port city of Bari in Puglia, which houses the tomb of St. Nicholas, a saint revered in both countries. Sailors brought the relics of St. Nicholas from present-day Turkey to Bari 1,000 years ago. They have been entombed in the Basilica San Nicola ever since. While the basilica is Roman Catholic, once a week it invites the Orthodox faithful to hold their own service. In 2007 Putin himself went to Bari and knelt in front of St. Nicholas’s tomb. Years earlier he donated a statue of the saint that stands in front of the piazza of the basilica.
Today Bari is an epicenter for the tensions between Ukrainian and Russian residents of the city. Many former Ukrainians come to pray to St. Nicholas to end the war. Residents have petitioned the city for removal of the plaque bearing Putin’s dedication of the statue.
Italy’s dependence on Russian energy supplies today prompted Draghi to announce that Italy would accelerate diversification projects, building up renewable energy and new gas supplies, in order not to be dependent on the decisions of a single country. Besides energy, with the rise of the oligarchs, Russia had become a market for Italian agriculture, banking and luxury goods, a market now in peril.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the European Union and the United States have been pursuing the luxury assets of oligarchs close to Putin. Several superyachts have been seized, and one in particular is under investigation in the Tuscan port of Marina di Carrara. Even in the rarified world of superyachts, the Scheherazade rises above the others: At 459 feet (140 meters) and at a cost of $700 million, it has two helicopter decks, a swimming pool with a retractable cover that converts to a dance floor, a fully outfitted gym, and gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms.
Called “Putin’s Yacht” by the locals, the Italian financial police have opened an investigation into the ownership of the yacht, which is cloaked in secrecy. Interviews of the ship’s captain and crew have yielded little information as they are under a “watertight nondisclosure agreement.” Dry-docked in the Tuscan port since last September, efforts are now underway for the Scheherazade to set sail as the Italian police race to finish investigating ownership. *
Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, has personally called for Europe to take even further measures against Russian oligarchs with assets of more than 10 million euros ($11 million). He wants to intensify pressure on the Russian Central Bank and has asked the Bank of Settlements, which is headquartered in Switzerland, to join the sanctions against oligarchs.
In his speech, Draghi emphasized that Italy and Europe had “adopted an increasingly tough and punitive response to Moscow.” He also said that Italy had responded to the appeal of President Zelensky of Ukraine for military arms, equipment and vehicles: “When a democracy under attack asks for help, it’s not possible to respond only with encouragement.” Draghi set out a vision of Europe calling the Russian invasion “a decisive turning point in European history.”
* On May 6, Italian authorities impounded the Sheherazade, claiming that its owner had “significant economic and commercial ties” with “prominent elements of the Russian government.”