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Italy has been a strong supporter of Ukraine — but that is starting to change

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 5: a woman holds a placard reading Peace = Stop Putin' during a rally in support of Ukraine at Arco della Pace in Milan, Italy on November 5, 2022 (Photo by Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 5: a woman holds a placard reading Peace = Stop Putin' during a rally in support of Ukraine at Arco della Pace in Milan, Italy on November 5, 2022 (Photo by Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

ROME — When Italy's new right-wing coalition government was sworn in last month, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni vowed to continue her country's staunch support and military assistance for Ukraine.

Her stance hasn't changed but as Europe braces for its first winter without Russian gas supplies, and thermostats are turned down with households struggling to pay rising utility rates, there is concern that Italians are getting tired of the war, of sending ever-larger quantities of weapons to Ukraine, and would like Ukraine and Russia to settle their differences at the negotiation table rather than the battlefield.

Ukraine says it intends to keep fighting till it wins back all the territory Russia has seized since 2014.

Italian support remains critical to European and NATO support for Ukraine, and any wavering from Europe's third-largest economy could cause fractures in the consensus on helping Ukraine through this conflict, as the continent heads into a trying and difficult winter.

"Italy is by large, it's the most skeptical country in Europe in supporting Ukraine on a military basis," says Stefano Feltri, editor of the daily newspaper Domani. "We are open to Ukrainian migrants and refugees but the military option is very unpopular." He says that's true across the political spectrum, "from left and right."

Italy has taken in more than 171,000 Ukrainians since the Russian invasion this year, according to United Nations figures.

Polls show fewer than 40% of Italians approve of their country supplying weapons to Ukraine, a lower rate than other European Union countries surveyed.

Many Italian businesses, meanwhile, are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and closure, due to rising energy costs and interest rates. And inflation is at an eye-popping 11.9%.

Nomisma, a research institute, reports that 62% of Italian households currently live on less than $2,000 a month — and many blame the war in Ukraine for their economic woes.

Italian author and journalist Michele Santoro has been one of the most outspoken critics of military aid to Ukraine. "The poorest and weakest here in Italy are paying for this war, those unable to defend themselves," he said on a popular TV talk show last week. "The issue," he added, "is no longer whether to provide military aid to Ukraine. It's now Europe's No. 1 priority to end this war."

Italians want the war to end

This past weekend in Rome, an estimated 100,000 people marched in the biggest peace rally since the war started. The demonstration was organized by trade unions, numerous Catholic associations and peace groups.

Banners carried the words "peace," "no to war" and "stop sending weapons." Many protesters said sending weapons to Ukraine further fuels the conflict.

Stefania Vaziolo came all the way from Venice to proclaim her opposition to assisting Ukraine.

"Europe is very weak now, and subject to American authority," said Vaziolo, who is convinced the United States has a vested interest in prolonging the war in Ukraine.

Another peace marcher, Pietro Vergano, offers his family's history during World War II as reason for why he is opposed to all wars. Born in Sicily, he says his mother was left homeless when the U.S. bombed Palermo in 1943, and a father who was a soldier in the Italian army before he was deported to Germany by the Nazis.

He also believes the only winners are global oil and gas giants. "They're getting richer and richer and they're destroying European and Italian economies," Vergano says. The sanctions on Russia, he adds, "are very harmful to us, the cost of living is rising, businesses are shutting down because they can't handle energy prices."

The majority of marchers who spoke to NPR acknowledged that Russia started the war, but said it's high time for peace talks. Yet most were vague on exactly how the warring parties can be brought to the negotiating table.

Also among the demonstrators, Laura Boldrini, a member of parliament with the left-of-center Democratic Party, says, "We have to get a cease-fire." She wants "an international conference with all the world leaders to impose peace" and pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin so that he has no choice.

A government under pressure

The government is set to approve Italy's sixth package of military aid for Ukraine. During the campaign, Prime Minister Meloni said that "Italy will never be the weak link of the West."

But some analysts are beginning to wonder.

"I think I have doubts that her pro-Ukrainian stance can be consistently maintained in the future," says Federico Fubini, editorialist at Corriere della Sera newspaper .

He believes Meloni faces opposition from within her own ranks.

"To say it bluntly, she's a populist and she perceives that large parts of the Italian public opinion," he says, "especially among, you know, center-right and rightist voters, are not so much for sanctions and not so much for Ukraine."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.