Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is set to meet US President Joe Biden at the White House, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and diverging domestic pressures when it comes to supporting Kyiv, are expected to top discussions.
The meeting on Tuesday came as Draghi, who has taken a hard line against Russia, contends with growing dissent among leaders in his coalition about supplying more Italian weapons to Ukraine, with former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose 5-Star Movement is the largest party in parliament, calling on the prime minister to seek a diplomatic solution to the war rather than send “heavier and more lethal weapons” that could further escalate the conflict.
For his part, Draghi has pushed for a truce, even if it’s limited, between Russia and Ukraine to allow talks aimed at ending the conflict to resume. However, he ignored Conte’s requests for him to address parliament before the Washington trip to clarify the Italian position that he planned to present to Biden.
Statements by Biden and his top officials, meanwhile, have been more aggressive, suggesting a larger goal of weakening Russia. Biden is currently seeking $40bn more from the US legislature to support Ukraine, including with military equipment. The US has already provided more than $3.8bn in direct military aid to Ukraine.
On Saturday, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, an influential member of Draghi’s coalition, heaped further pressure on the prime minister.
“More weapons to Ukraine? No. They would mean more death, more war, more famine,” tweeted Salvini, who before this year used to heap praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Even the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) which has so far been most supportive of Draghi’s tough line, is showing signs of internal division and a gradual shift of position.
“Draghi should tell Biden not to heighten tensions,” prominent PD legislator Graziano Delrio said on Sunday, adding that a negotiated settlement was the only viable option and “the Americans … must not think there can be a winner”.
Meanwhile, PD leader Enrico Letta told Corriere della Sera daily on Monday that Europe “mustn’t allow ourselves to be led by the United States” and called for the five largest EU countries to go first to Kyiv and then Moscow in a push for peace.
Observers have said the differences in tone in Washington and Rome reflect not only Italy’s geographic closeness to the fighting, but also its historic political and economic ties with Russia.
Italy gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and economic trade last year amounted to $21bn – much of that for energy purchases that Italy is trying to divert elsewhere. Nevertheless, Draghi has pledged support for any European Union sanctions on Russia’s energy sector.
The meeting came before crucial G7 and NATO summits in Europe next month. The gatherings are expected to cover help for Ukraine and measures against Moscow, as well as the global economy, Europe’s energy security and climate change.
Opinion polls show the Italian public is mostly at odds with Europe’s other G7 states the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, in its limited support for providing more arms to Ukraine.
Personally, Draghi has particularly close ties with the US. He did his PhD at MIT and worked for both the World Bank and US investment bank Goldman Sachs.
While in Washington, Draghi will receive an award from the Atlantic Council for distinguished international leadership.
It will be presented by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a ceremony on Wednesday.