View from Rome: Sanctions should be accompanied by dialogue

Commentary

Italy has been hard hit by sanctions on Russia, but it has held the European line, while still promoting further dialogue.

The Ukraine crisis has damaged the traditionally strong economic ties between Italy and Russia. As the situation worsened, then Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini declared that Russia was no longer “a strategic partner” but instead “a strategic player”, for whatever that means.

Italy believed and believes that Russia should abide by international law, and that the accession of Crimea was against international law. Still, dialogue is considered the best way to proceed. Nobody liked what Vladimir Putin did with Crimea and nobody likes Putin’s interference in Ukraine.

However, we cannot declare war on Russia, nor can we accept another frozen conflict on our doorstep. And, more generally, it is hard to imagine a world without Russia’s engagement. Think about Iran and Syria or even Libya: do we really think that we can solve these crises merely by deploying so-called Western power?

This is the basic assumption behind Italy’s position. It is not just concerned about Russia’s oil and gas, on which, by the way, Italy is less dependent than are other countries such as Poland.

Italy and Italian companies have been badly hurt by sanctions, especially those on Iran and Russia.

Sanctions are neither good nor bad. They are a tool: one of hard power. Sometimes they can have the effect of a “declaration of war”, as in the case of Iran. In some (very limited) circumstances, they can be effective, but they are not automatically so. They must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, because there no “one size fits all” formula – and it is always worth trying smarter solutions, both to protect the population of the country to which they are to be applied and to safeguard our own interests.

Italy and Italian companies have been badly hurt by sanctions, especially those on Iran and Russia. Even so, Italy has aligned itself with European common decisions for the sake of the continent’s unity.

Italy is Russia’s second biggest trade partner and roughly 400 Italian companies operate in Russia. According to a recent study, in 2014 Italy lost €1.25 billion worth of exports to Russia because of ongoing political tensions and the effects of the embargo. Italian exports for the year dropped 11.6 percent as compared to 2013. Among the worst hit industries were the agro-industrial, transport, textiles, and furniture sectors. The possible increase of sanctions and the likely slowdown of the Russian economy could bring about further changes in Italian exports to Russia. 

Italy has politically committed itself to making an individual as well as a collective effort […] to re-launch a new dialogue with Russia on European security.

Italy has politically committed itself to making an individual as well as a collective effort to preserve the Minsk agreement, to stop the civil war, and to re-launch a new dialogue with Russia on European security. However, it acknowledges one fundamental condition to all this: everything depends on Russia and on Russian willingness to respect the agreements.

Diplomatic isolation should never be used as a first tool of political confrontation –instead, the basis for engagement should be inclusiveness and constructive dialogue.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: View from the Capitals, Wider Europe, Russia, EaP, Ukraine

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