After its suspension from the G8, Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to worry Italy and the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, the Middle East is plunging further into chaos. 
These issues are having unavoidable consequences to the international economy. On the occasion of Putin’s recent visit to Italy, we asked Andrea Mennillo about how to begin a dialogue that addresses these crises – something which is advocated by many, but appears still far away.

1. Dr. Mennillo, what do you think about the current relations between Italy and Russia?

I think that our country is in a very difficult position, divided between two fires: on the one hand, there’s the responsibilities of its membership in the European Union, on the other, there’s the need to protect its specific interests. You cannot deny the authoritarian character of the Russian regime and the delicate situation in Crimea, which caused the EU to impose sanctions on Russia. But there are also important economic exchanges between Italy and Russia that cannot be ignored. As premier Matteo Renzi met Putin in Milan, he was no doubt thinking about the strong bond that links Italy to Russia when he said the extension of sanctions has not been an easy decision but it will not affect efforts to increase dialogue with Moscow. The Italian government clearly sees that this situation prevents free and full cooperation with the Russian government; the head of the Kremlin stressed the need to eliminate restrictions, or to at least modify them, in order to support companies that want continue to do business with Russia. It should not be forgotten that the sanctions caused Italian entrepreneurs to lose 1 billion euro in contracts that had already been signed. Putin’s message to Matteo Renzi was clear: sanctions must be eliminated. I think that’s the right thing to do.

2. What impact have the sanctions against Russia had on the European economy?

Definitely more than expected. Europe risks great economic damage¹. According to the latest figures reported by the Italian press², we expect a loss of 2 million jobs and 100 billion euro in exports. For Italy, the damage is estimated to be at least 12 billion euro, with a loss of 215,000 jobs. In Europe’s food and drink sector alone, 45 percent fewer products were exported to the Russian Federation in the first quarter of this year. Meanwhile automobile exports have collapsed by more than 80 percent, the highest decline among all sectors. Then there’s the blow to fashion and textiles, which have seen their exports decline by more than 30 percent. And of course, the scenario is also very negative for banks and large enterprises. From these figures, we can easily imagine negative repercussions for all European citizens.

3. Silvio Berlusconi has been outspoken in his belief that sanctions represent enormous damage to the Italian economy. Do you agree with the former premier?

Berlusconi has already promoted a parliamentary initiative to eliminate sanctions on Russia. It seems very realistic, because it is now inevitable: Russia cannot be cut off from international debate, because it is definitely an economic and military power that on more than a few occasions has proven its strength. In a highly complex scenario that changes daily, the Russian government has to be involved in the strategic decisions concerning the Middle East. Russia is an important player in the delicate equilibrium of this key area for global stability. It is certainly not easy to maintain dialogue, considering Putin’s attitude toward NATO and the West. Although in 2009 it was the Obama administration that hypothesized the possible entry of Russia into NATO, the organization was born to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union. After the Crimean issue, things changed. But the ostracism of Russia does not help normalize relations — on the contrary, it strengthens the distance of Putin’s strong leadership from the West. Ultimately, this issue is about tensions that generate additional worrying political dynamics and, above all, concerns about potential further consequences.

4. It appears that in the attempt to make the Russian government respect the Minsk agreements and the sovereignty of Ukraine, there is a clear attempt to weaken Russia. What do you think?

It seems absurd, but this Western conspiracy theory is catching on in the pro-Russian political environment. The President of United States, Obama, is definitely the main supporter of the Minsk agreements. This clearly desired position from Washington is likely to undermine the peace process. As always, the equilibrium is somewhere in between: Russia has enormous responsibilities, but at the same time we have to admit that the United States and the European Union have in some way helped to exacerbate Russian nationalism. We cannot, in fact, talk about Ukraine’s entry into NATO or the EU without taking into account the political, economic and military consequences for Russia. If these consequences have been even minimally considered and the Ukraine policy is being carried out in spite of everything, then the West has deliberately taken a very high risk. Now the sanctions hitting the Russian economy have worsened the situation. At this point, an economic solution, not just a political one, may be the only effective path for Putin and the West to avoid an unnecessary and costly military escalation. Russia was in fact one of the first countries to recognize Ukraine’s independence, but – I repeat – its entry into NATO would undoubtedly have been too much for Russia to stomach. Western intrusion in the affairs of Ukraine was seen by the Kremlin as an attempt to weaken the stature of the Russian Federation at the political and military level.

5. To burden an already complicated situation, the radical jihadist group known as ISIS or Daesh has advanced in Syria, intensifying the diplomatic activities of Moscow in the Middle East. Dr. Mennillo, do you think it is correct to involve Russia in decisions that affect such a strategic area?

As a strong believer in dialogue, I think that Russia and the West must together resolve the problems in the Middle East. This also makes sense if extreme instability continues in the region and a very high number of actors remain involved. The peace process will be slow and complicated. Moscow certainly is not involved out of interest in the region’s oil – Russia is one of the world’s largest producers oil and, in any case, today it has lost much of its value. Moscow is trying to guarantee its own space and to create political alliances, which can be monetized on an economic level, with Middle Eastern countries that are very similar to Russia. The goal of the Kremlin, which is also shared and supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, is to reshape the international perception of Russia, showing the world that Putin is a global leader, and that Moscow can be a viable alternative to Washington. The fact that Putin’s ambitions are a minor issue is demonstrated by certain political choices taken by countries that have historically been US allies, such as Egypt, which is now trying to improve its relations with Russia. I wonder at this point, why not to speed up and work on the formation of the international anti-terrorist alliance to fight Daesh and its affiliates?

1) From an investigation made by seven European newspapers belonging to the Leading European Newspaper Alliance (Lena)
2) Il Giornale, June 19, 2015