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Rome tries to reassure Moscow over Italian NATO troops in Latvia

by Andrea Carli

Italy will send 140 soldiers to Latvia to join a Canada-led NATO mission in the Baltic country. From 2018, Italy will lead NATO’s force at the border with Russia.
The report was confirmed on Friday by Italian Defense and Foreign Ministers Roberta Pinotti and Paolo Gentiloni, after NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, in a trip to Rome, announced it in an interview with the La Stampa daily newspaper.

The decision, if not a true U-turn, represents a surprising move in recent relations between Italy and Russia. Since the NATO summit in Pratica di Mare in 2002, where then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi invited Moscow to attend, relations between the two countries have been of a positive dialogue.

Enrico Letta, the predecessor of Matteo Renzi, was the only prime minister of a western country to participate in the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014 (a year later, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the opening of the Universal Exhibition in Milan (welcomed by Renzi).

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Italy has taken a more prudent position, between dialogue and closure (similarly to Germany). Analysts dubbed it “double track policy”: on one end, Rome implemented the sanctions decided by the European Union against Moscow; on the other end, it kept the dialogue open, especially to safeguard the economic and trade ties with Russia (from energy to steel).

Renzi also tried to have Italy join the bilateral relationship between Germany and Russia, with an eye to Nord Stream 2, the new Russian gas pipeline that will carry Russian gas to Germany through the Baltic region, bypassing Ukraine. The goal is to ensure the participation in the project of Italy’s Saipem, controlled by oil giant ENI.

In such a context, Italy’s decision to join the NATO mission in a country bordering Russia, basically in Putin’s courtyard, has sparked tension in Moscow. “NATO’s policy is destructive,” said the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova.
“The Alliance is engaged in constructing new lines of division in Europe, instead of deep, solid relations as good neighbors,” she added.

In a joint press conference with Stoltenberg, Gentiloni tried to pour cold water. The decision to deploy 140 Italian troops to the NATO mission in Latvia “was taken in July at the summit in Warsaw as part of the Italian contribution to the Alliance in Baltic countries,” the minister said.

“This is not part and parcel of a policy of aggression against Russia but it’s part of a policy of reassurance and defense of our common borders as Atlantic Alliance and has nothing to do with the current tensions in Syria, and does not represent a suspension in dialogue with Russia,” Gentiloni underlined.

The tension is growing by the hour. Renzi tried to cool it down with a joke, during a work lunch at the Quirinale palace with President Sergio Mattarella, ahead of the Council of Europe meeting. The prime minister was accompanied by Gentiloni. As Mattarella welcomed him, Renzi said: “We were planning to invade Russia.”

The announcement of the participation of the Italian troops in the NATO mission in Latvia sparked a debate also in Italy. The main opposition party, the Five Star Movement, said the decision is “entirely incompatible with peace, and risks exposing our country to war scenarios that would roll the clock back by 30 years.”

The leader of the anti-establishment movement, Beppe Grillo, commented on the report. “This ill-advised action is against national interests, exposes Italians to mortal danger and has been undertaken without consulting the citizens,” he wrote.