With pro-Russia commentators regularly appearing on TV, Italians are less likely to back Ukraine than people in most other EU states
Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo
@lorenzo_tondo Thu 31 Aug 2023
Whenever Nello Scavo returns from Ukraine, he is overcome with frustration. As a war correspondent for the Italian national newspaper Avvenire, he knows the first question people will ask him is: “Is it really as bad as they say?”
“Sometimes I think that only if I come back badly injured will people start taking me seriously,” he told the Guardian. “It’s as if they don’t believe that Russia is massacring civilians. The problem is that Vladimir Putin has always enjoyed wide sympathy in Italian politics and public opinion, with the Kremlin always enjoying effective propaganda here.”
Although Italy’s far-right government is one of Ukraine’s staunchest European supporters, Russian propaganda and disinformation permeates Italian media – something researchers attribute to politics and historical anti-Atlanticism – with openly pro-Russian guests invited on the country’s most popular talkshows. A survey released by Ipsos in April revealed that almost 50% of Italians prefer not to take sides in the conflict.
Matteo Pugliese, an Italian security and terrorism researcher at the University of Barcelona has tracked the procession of Russian government officials, ideologues and media personalities hosted by Italian TV networks since the Russian invasion. They include the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his spokesperson, Maria Zakharova; the ultranationalist Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin; Olga Belova, a journalist at Russia 24, an outlet that denied the Bucha massacre; and Yulia Vityazeva, a journalist at NewsFront – based in Russia-occupied Crimea and operated by the FSB – who, in a Telegram post, wished a bomb would strike the Eurovision song contest in Turin after Ukraine’s victory.
“Compared to other western European countries, Italy gave disproportionate exposure to Russian propaganda, in my opinion simply because TV producers wanted to increase their share of certain shows with heated debates,” Pugliese said.
Pugliese noted the most Russian propagandists, 12, were hosted by Rete4, a channel from Mediaset, owned by Silvio Berlusconi, an old friend of Putin who, a few months before he died, claimed that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, “provoked” Russia’s invasion. Berlusconi, who served as prime minister three times, nurtured close relations with the Russian president, praising his leadership and helping to forge energy deals that some blame for Italy’s current dependence on Russian gas.
“In Italy, rightwing parties especially have maintained good relations with Putin,” Scavo said. “Not only Berlusconi, but even current deputy PM Matteo Salvini, who used to wear a T-shirt featuring Putin’s face.”
Italy’s parliamentary committee for security, Copasir, last year launched an investigation amid widespread concern about Kremlin-linked Russian commentators appearing on Italian news channels, as several Ukrainian journalists refused to accept invitations to Italian TV shows.
In some cases the guests on Italian TV are not Russian propagandists, but Italian commentators who seem to view the war as the result of western provocation. One regularly invited to La7 and Rai, is Alessandro Orsini, professor of the sociology of terrorism and political violence at Luiss university in Rome. Orsini has publicly said that Zelenskiy is as much a “war criminal” as Putin and has become so popular that his discussions in Italian theatres sell out. Orsini, who calls himself a pacifist, believes the only way to save Ukraine is to recognise Putin’s supposed victory. His ideas are widespread in the Italian pacifist movement, with several intellectuals pushing for peace at the cost of Ukraine’s surrender. When accused of being pro-Russian, Orsini said he “didn’t even have one Russian friend”.
“It’s not pacifism to suggest surrender as a solution,” said Arianna Ciccone, founder of Valigia Blu, an Italian independent factchecking website, and co-founder of the International Journalism Festival.
“These people have always been historically anti-Nato. They hypocritically hide their anti-Americanism behind a ‘mask’ of pacifism. In some cases this results in genuine anti-Ukrainian sentiment. We’ve often had well-known journalists and philosophers on TV expressing doubts about Bucha and Mariupol. Not even with the mountain of evidence have they had the courage to admit the truth. How can they be pacifists?”
Last year, an independent study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) revealed Italy had the most shared posts on social media casting doubt about Russian war crimes perpetrated in Bucha.
Italian TV presenters defend their decision to host alleged Russian propagandists or commentators with “different views” on the war as part of a duty to give voice to both sides of the conflict. “In doing so, however, they do not seem to care that those defending the Russian invasion often spread disinformation and thus help to destabilise viewers with baseless claims,” Ciccone added.
One glaring example is Moscow’s claim – dismissed by the UN, and used as a justification for its full-scale invasion in 2022 – that Ukrainian military action in the Donbas conflict amounted to genocide. Dozens of Italians joined Russian proxies in Donbas in the years after 2014 to fight against Kyiv.
The majority of them are rightwing extremists attracted by Russian ultranationalism, but their ranks also count among them men belonging to the extreme left. In part this was a legacy of the postwar strength of the Italian Communist party, which peaked at 34.4% share of the vote in 1976 and backed what was seen as the resistance of communist countries against American imperialism. This vision, in part, still animates supporters of the Italian extreme left who see Russia as a bulwark against the US, and also believe Putin’s claims about “Ukrainian Nazis”. To mark Victory Day in 2022, a holiday that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, the Communist party of Zagarolo, Rome, released a series of posters featuring the letter Z used by the Russian government as a pro-war motif. The organisers of the event dismissed critics, saying it “was not a provocation”.
According to a Pew Research Center survey released in July, Italy is among the countries in the EU where people have the lowest confidence in Zelenskiy. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Italians were the most sympathetic to Russia of member states polled, with 27% blaming Ukraine and the US for the war.
“The result of all this is a great confusion in Italian public opinion, which struggles over who to blame for the war, blaming equally Russia and Ukraine,” said Pugliese. “This is certainly a success for Kremlin propaganda.”