Italy’s political crisis could rob Ukraine of weapons, warns Di Maio

ROME — The turmoil engulfing Mario Draghi’s government threatens to deny Ukraine vital military support in its fight against Russia, Italy’s foreign minister has warned.

In a phone interview with POLITICO on Friday, Luigi Di Maio accused Draghi’s critics of doing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s work, and the foreign minister launched a passionate last-ditch appeal for political parties not to bring down the government in next week’s confidence vote in the Italian parliament.

“The Russians are right now celebrating having made another western government fall,” Di Maio said. “Now I doubt we can send arms [to Ukraine]. It is one of the many serious problems.”

If the government collapses, it will continue in a caretaker role with limited powers until after an election, he said. That could lead to paralysis, leaving the country without the authority to continue to arm Ukraine, help families with the cost-of-living crisis or sign new gas deals to build up reserves in case Russia turns off the taps, Di Maio cautioned. 

“If the government falls on Wednesday, we won’t have the power to sign any new energy contracts and this is serious because we are headed into winter,” the minister said.  

The 5Star Movement, which has been part of Prime Minister Draghi’s coalition, boycotted a confidence vote on Thursday, leading Draghi to offer his resignation. Head of state Sergio Mattarella rejected the resignation, and Draghi will go back to parliament Wednesday, potentially holding a vote on his government or resigning.

Di Maio said that Draghi had been one of the most hawkish western leaders standing up to Putin. With Italy a key member of the western alliance opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Draghi was among the first to propose strong sanctions and the freezing of Russia’s foreign reserves, as well as supporting Ukraine’s EU candidacy. 

Di Maio once led the 5Star Movement but left the party a month ago in a row over sending weapons to Ukraine. He accused current party leader and former premier Giuseppe Conte of helping Putin by seeking to bring down the government of one of the Kremlin’s most resolute adversaries.  

“The incredible thing is this is an ex-prime minister attacking Draghi, helping Putin’s propaganda and autocracy over democracy,” Di Maio said. He referred to a tweet by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, crowing over Draghi’s parliamentary setback.

The 5Star Movement has tried in the past few months to weaken the government several times, Di Maio said, by opposing Italy’s increase in defence spending to meet NATO commitments, and with a resolution in parliament against NATO and Italy’s support for Ukraine, which was welcomed by the Russian ambassador to Rome.  

Di Maio said Conte’s actions are what “hurts him the most.”  

One of Di Maio’s main concerns is that Italy will not be able pass its 2023 budget, which usually moves through parliament between July and December.  If there are elections in September or October, a new government may not be in place for months due to the complications of putting together coalitions, thereby delaying the budget.  

Italy’s political crisis could rob Ukraine of weapons, warns Di Maio
Di Maio said that Draghi had been one of the most hawkish western leaders standing up to Putin | Pool photo Jens Krick/Getty Images

After the last election, it took 100 days to form a government, Di Maio recalled. “There have not been elections in Italy for more than a hundred years in the autumn because it’s so sensitive,” he said.  

Without Draghi, the executive wouldn’t be able to finish the government program of EU-mandated reforms either, which might mean Italy misses getting payments from the EU’s pandemic recovery plan, which are essential for the economy.  

Yet Di Maio remained hopeful that the government could remain in place.  

Pressure is growing on Draghi to stay in post, with economic institutions and labor unions united in appealing for a fully functioning government. “Even unions who have had conflict with the government are asking for continuity,” Di Maio noted.  

Much depends on “the maturity of the parties,” the minister added. The majority of parties “recognize” the value of Draghi, he said.

“They must put aside vetos and banners so that Draghi can go on, we can pass the budget law and the legislature can reach its natural conclusion,” Di Maio said.