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24th Mar 2019

Italy dangles veto threat on EU's Russia sanctions

  • Italy's Giuseppe Conte (left of centre) brought dozens of Italian business leaders to Moscow (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Italy has made a show of friendship with Russia despite its nuclear sabre-rattling and new threats of military escalation in Ukraine.

The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to visit Italy during a joint press conference in the Kremlin on Wednesday (24 October).

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  • Russia was in violation of INF treaty, Nato's Jens Stoltenberg said (Photo: nato.int)

He also dangled the prospect of an Italian veto on EU sanctions against Russia.

"I would very much like you to visit Italy in the near future ... I wouldn't like the Italian people to get the impression that you don't pay proper attention to them," Conte said.

He described Russia as Italy's "strategic partner" and spoke of "the magnificent state of our bilateral relations".

When asked by a Russian journalist if Italy would veto EU economic sanctions on Russia when they come up for renewal at an EU summit in December, Conte said: "Italy considers it fruitful to convince all European partners to move in the same direction. Therefore, we would not make a decision now. We will take it in due time".

He said there was "no alternative" to the so-called Minsk ceasefire accord on Ukraine - an EU-brokered deal which says sanctions would only be lifted if Russia ended its covert military aggression in east Ukraine.

But Conte also said: "We must overcome this stage. It has lasted too long ... Italy is very ambitious. She would like to convince all other partners that dialogue is the best way to reach a solution".

Nuclear threat

His overtures came despite Putin's threat, at the same press briefing, to put EU states in his nuclear cross-hairs if they hosted new US ballistic missiles.

"If they [US missiles] are delivered to Europe, then naturally we will have to respond ... they [EU states] will have to understand that they are putting their own territory under threat of a possible retaliatory strike," the Russian leader said.

He spoke after the US abandoned a Cold War-era treaty on nuclear non-proliferation, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, raising the prospect of what Putin called an "arms race".

The US did it, president Donald Trump said, because Russia had itself violated the accord by developing new weapons systems capable of striking Europe and the US.

"We don't have an effective INF treaty if it's only respected by one side," Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg also said on Wednesday.

The nuclear rhetoric comes amid already heightened tension with the West.

Nato, on Thursday, launched mass-scale war games in Norway, called Trident Juncture, designed to defend Europe against what it called a "fictitious aggressor" - a thinly-veiled allusion to Russia.

But Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said the drill was "simulating offensive military action" against his country.

Ukraine escalation

The threat of full-blown war aside, EU states are also concerned that Russia is preparing to escalate its conflict with Ukraine amid its military build-up in the Azov Sea.

Russian warships have already wreaked economic damage on the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk by halting and inspecting commercial vessels, causing long delays.

The US has responded by giving Ukraine coastguard patrol boats to be used in the area.

Meanwhile, EU diplomats have held behind-closed-doors talks on sending warships to the area to deter Russian aggression, despite Moscow's warning for Western militaries to stay out.

"Mariupol was always part of Russia's 'Nova Rossiya' plan, so this could signal the opening of a third front [in Ukraine]," an EU diplomatic source told EUobserver.

'Nova Rossiya' is a term previously used by Putin to speak of extending Russia's domain in south-east Ukraine beyond its two existing fronts - the conflict in the Russia-occupied Donbas region and the frozen conflict over the Russia-annexed Crimea peninsula.

EU sanctions

Italy's new populist and pro-Russia government already tried to chip away at Russia sanctions in the run-up to last week's EU summit.

It proposed to EU capitals that two European lenders - the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development - should resume loans to small and medium-sized Russian companies.

The vast majority of EU states said no, leaving Conte to shelve the proposal when EU leaders met.

But diplomats expect the idea to come back on the table at the December summit, in which Italy might gain a smaller concession, such as EU visa perks for selected Russian travellers, including students or NGO members, instead.

For his part, Putin, on Wednesday, reeled off a list of promises to Rome if relations with Europe were to improve.

Putin's promises

He spoke of helping to stop migrants coming to Italy from Libya, where Russia has built ties with local warlords.

"The possibility of laying gas pipelines along the southern route to deliver Russian gas to Europe is [also] being considered," he said.

"We are exploring all possibilities: connecting Italy along various routes to the 'Turkish Stream' - it can be through Bulgaria, it can even be through Serbia or Hungary, it can be through Greece," he said, referring to a new Russia-Turkey gas pipeline.

He also backed Italy in its clash with the European Commission on Rome's plan to overspend on welfare in violation of EU fiscal rules.

"I believe that the Italian economy has good basic foundations, we trust in what the Italian government does," Putin said.

"I did not come here to ask president Putin to buy Italian papers," Conte said, referring to potential Russian purchases of Italian bonds.

"From the political level, we will not limit the work of our National Wealth Fund," Putin said, opening the door to further Russian investment despite Conte's avowal.

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