Italy has generally aligned itself with the EU and the U.S. position on Russia, while promoting a stance of moderation and engagement rather than confrontation and isolation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Italian Premier Matteo Renzi during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, June 17, 2016. Photo: AP

The recent European Council meeting that took place on Oct. 21-22 in Brussels discussed the possibility of imposing further sanctions on Russia for its bombing of civilians in Syria’s besieged city of Aleppo. Britain, France and Germany were among the countries supporting a new wave of sanctions, while nations such as Italy, Spain and Greece were opposed to this stance.

European nations have already condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its hybrid war in the southeast part of Ukraine. On March 17, 2014, the EU, in fact, imposed the first travel bans and asset freezes against Russian and Ukrainian officials, later extending them to other individuals. After the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines civilian aircraft over Ukraine, the alleged direct Russian military presence in the Donbas and the non-observance of the Minsk Agreements, more stringent measures were introduced on July 31, 2014.

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The EU adopted further sanctions regarding investments in Crimea and specifically targeted separatists in Eastern Ukraine and their supporters in Russia by adding them to the list of sanctioned individuals. Although many countries were reticent (Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Austria), they finally agreed in January 2015 to extend the term of existing sanctions.

At that time, then European Council President Herman Van Rompuy affirmed that “sanctions are not a question of retaliation; they are a foreign policy tool. Not a goal in themselves, but a means to an end.”

So far, smart and punitive sanctions have not altered the Kremlin’s posture and Russia has gained control of more Ukrainian territory and has successfully preserved a frozen conflict in the eastern part of the country. Sanctions have not even been a determinant in fostering diplomatic solutions since they are not part of an escalation, as military intervention is not contemplated.

Russia has generally shown a very slim hint of compromise. Paradoxically, sanctions have been a boomerang for the EU, after Russia, being the third-largest trading partner of the EU, decided to apply restrictive measures against European products in August 2014. In order to remedy the reduction in imports from the West, Russia has already strengthened economic relations with China and such a transformation of trade risks becoming structural, with geopolitical implications too.

It is also worth mentioning that while the EU finally agreed on condemning the Kremlin’s aggression through the imposition of sanctions, the Dutch people, in April 2016, rejected the EU’s free trade and political Association Agreement with Ukraine in a referendum (although non-binding), giving a very contradictory signal on the part of the EU.

The above considerations call for a serious reflection on the efficacy of sanctions in such a puzzling and complex situation as the conflict in Syria, where so many external actors promoting different and often clashing interests are involved. From this perspective, the decision to drop a reference to sanctions in the summit communiqué of the latest European Council and to replace it with a more ambiguous statement - “The EU is considering all available options should the current atrocities continue” - might be plausible.

In short, the proposal suffered already from a lack of wide political legitimacy. Moreover, the EU became divided once more as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - along with Austria, Spain, Greece and Cyprus - opposed further sanctions. Even in that occasion, the EU showed its weakness and its limits.

The reasoning of those supporting an overture towards Russia is that sanctions would not achieve the objective of forcing the country, a powerful stakeholder in the Syrian conflict, to negotiate a peace settlement.

Also read: "Will the misunderstanding between the EU and Russia continue?"

The history of EU-Russia relations shows that every time the Kremlin has felt ostracized, there has been a grave deterioration of the relationship with serious implications on the regional and international landscape. Escalating the tension with Moscow is not happening within the framework of a brinkmanship tactic, as the EU is not a hard power. Therefore, if not risky, it would be certainly ineffective.

It seems that pragmatism rather than appeasement has guided the position of those reluctant to use sanctions to stop Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo. The Italian prime minister arrived in Brussels from Washington, where he took part in U.S. President Barack Obama’s final state dinner.

Being well aware of the fact that the Obama administration is unlikely to pursue direct military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and that the sanctions are an ineffective tool of persuasion, which only can obstacle the negotiations, Renzi refused to support a new round of sanctions. Realpolitik suggests that the only way out from the Aleppo catastrophe is to re-engage seriously all parties of the conflict in a diplomatic process.

The position of Renzi can be certainly interpreted as a tentative move to defend Italy’s economic interests, as the country has deeply suffered because of the Russian counter-sanctions: It has been estimated that Italian exporters lost $4 billion in earnings between 2013 and 2015. Pressed by the national business community, Renzi already questioned the automatic renewal of EU penalties against Moscow at the end of 2015. Italy is also the second-largest consumer of Russian exports, as the import of Russian gas accounts for about 42 percent of all Italian gas consumption. 

In addition, Renzi has called for a referendum on constitutional reform, which is scheduled for Dec. 4. Its outcome will be crucial since he said he would resign if the vote goes against him. Therefore, he needs to gather a large consensus. Italian populist parties have been very critical about previous sanctions against Russia and expressed strong scepticism about the EU. Opposition to further sanctions might also be seen as a way to capture the votes of that part of the population.

Besides these contingent reasons, Italy has historically kept good relations with Russia: no matter what government was in power (either center-left or center-right), the partnership has been strengthened and broadened. Any time Russia has infringed international law (as seen by the West) – notably in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine – Italy has aligned itself with the EU and the U.S. position, while always promoting a stance of moderation and engagement rather than confrontation and isolation of the country.

As a result, the Italian position at the recent European Council meeting can be explained by a host of different factors: Italy’s traditionally accommodating position towards Moscow, its economic interests, the domestic referendum campaign, the nation’s political pragmatism in international relations and, finally, the likely ambition of the Italian prime minister to play an increasingly important role in the EU’s foreign policy.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.