Italy and Ukraine strengthen bilateral cooperation

On June 10, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio paid an official visit to Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. The rich agenda broached all aspects of bilateral relations but notably included the signing of a police cooperation agreement and a state-committed rescue equipment purchase contract (Esteri.it, June 10).

During the visit, Minister Di Maio reiterated Italy’s support for Ukrainian territorial integrity and condemned the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia (Agi, June 10). In a highly symbolic gesture, he laid flowers on the monument for the fallen in Donbas (ansa, June 10). During Di Maio’s meeting with Kuleba, the two foreign ministers coordinated their position on the upcoming G7 and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summits, agreeing that the issue of Russian aggression against Ukraine would need to be raised and highlighted during both of those events (mfa.gov.ua, June 10). Moreover, Di Maio stated that Italy recognizes and will concretely support Ukraine’s European Union membership aspirations, as it has done in the past by backing the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and Schengen visa liberalization deal (Ansa, June 10).

Di Maio and Kuleba also jointly opened this year’s session of the Ukrainian-Italian Business Forum ( Confindustria , June 10). And in the presence of Avakov and Di Maio, representatives of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine and Italy’s Cela Industry signed a contract to purchase rescue equipment, with production partially localized in Ukraine (Cn.dsns.gov.ua, June 11). Possibilities for further cooperation in trade and investments, especially in the infrastructure and energy sectors, were also discussed with Prime Minister Shmyhal (Mfa.gov.ua, June 10).

Italy is one of Ukraine’s main European economic partners, with mutual trade totaling around $4.5 billion a year, and is home to a sizable Ukrainian community, numbering around 240,000 people (Oec.world; Lavoro.gov.it, accessed June 30).

Negotiation to deepen and broaden Ukraine and Italy’s bilateral relations resumed last year, when Rome and Kyiv agreed to work to resolve their outstanding political issues, like the case of Vitaly Markiv, a Ukrainian army officer sentenced in Italy for the killing of Italian reporter Andrea Rochelli and his Russian interpreter, Andrei Mironov. After being sentenced to 24 years, Markiv was acquitted on appeal in late 2020. Ukraine considered the original sentence politically motivated and a sign of alleged Russian pressure on Italy; as such, Kyiv welcomed the appeals court’s sentence, which freed Markiv (Ansa, November 3, 2020; Linkiesta, November 5, 2020). Another important bone of contention has regarded the opening of several Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republic” (DPR, LPR) quasi-diplomatic offices in Italy in recent years. Those offices have not been functioning since late last year (see EDM, February 26, 2020).

More on the topic: Sentenced to 24 years by Russian propaganda: report exposes Kremlin disinformation in Markiv case

In May of 2021, the Special Operations Group of the Italian Military Police (ROS Carabinieri) arrested an Italian volunteer fighting for the Moscow-backed “separatist” militias in Ukrainian Donbas (LaSicilia, May 6).

This recent operation, along with a number of previous similar arrests, demonstrated to Ukraine that the Italian government is now taking the disruption and prosecution of such trans-border volunteer fighter networks more seriously than it did several years earlier (see EDM, October 16, 2015).

During Di Maio’s visit to Ukraine, the two governments notably signed a cooperation agreement on the direct sharing of operational information between the Italian and Ukrainian police forces (Mvs.gov.ua, June 10). In this respect, the agreement can be seen as a formalized version of what has already become consolidated practice between Kyiv and Rome in intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism.

Most bilateral cooperation is carried out within the framework of the Ukrainian-Italian Intergovernmental Council for Economic, Financial and Industrial Cooperation.” But security and, in particular, military cooperation is systematically curated through a separate platform. Namely, the third division of the Italian Defense Staff, the Military Policy and Planning Office—targeted last April by Russian espionage efforts (see EDM, April 14)—organizes sessions that gather representatives of the Italian and Ukrainian defense ministries. The latest of these meetings was summoned in May and resulted in the signing of a bilateral defense cooperation plan for 2021–2022 ( Ukrinform , May 7).

Read more: Luigi & Mokryna: an Italian-Ukrainian love story spanning the 20th century

These bilateral defense ministry assemblies, along with Zelenskyy’s visit to Italy last year, paved the way for Di Maio’s June trip to Ukraine, which crucially came on the eve of the NATO Brussels Summit (June 11–12). In the weeks leading up to it, Zelenskyy had been attempting to raise more awareness among Ukraine’s Western partners regarding Russian aggression in the Black Sea region. And he sought to cultivate Euro-Atlantic interlocutors that would advocate for granting Kyiv a Membership Action Plan (MAP) (see EDM, June 17).

Ukraine is also increasingly pushing—now in a coordinated effort with Georgia and Moldova—to obtain more concrete membership prospects from the European Union (see EDM, June 8). In this respect, Italy has been particularly clear in its backing of European enlargement to include Ukraine.

Italian-Ukrainian relations have traditionally been largely limited to economic, cultural and humanitarian matters. So, at first glance, Foreign Minister Di Maio’s visit may have appeared to stress economic cooperation. But the importance of the trip, as shown by the highest-level diplomatic protocol that Kyiv bestowed on Italy’s foreign minister, clearly exceeded the economic aspect of the talks. The fruits of this visit are also meaningful in geopolitical terms.

First of all, Italy used the diplomatic visit to exemplify a break in Rome’s foreign policy. The clear-cut stances expressed by the foreign minister on Ukraine and Russia were designed to demonstrate that Italy is distancing itself from its counterproductive ideological approach to foreign policy and turning to a more focused and goal-oriented approach. Second, the lengthy preparatory process behind this visit demonstrated to the Ukrainian side that Italy is able and willing to abide by pacts and to act in a coordinated manner with its allies, making Rome a reliable and effective partner to on the global stage. Third, the prompt agreement by Italy to participate in the Crimean Platform proposed by Kyiv gives Rome the chance to participate in addressing one of the fundamental European security dossiers and includes Italy in a fresh negotiation framework—as opposed to the fatigued Normandy quartet reserved to France and Germany (along with Russia and Ukraine) (see EDM, February 15). Italy’s renewed cooperation with Ukraine is, thus, mutually beneficial for both sides.

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