Draghi-Biden, the real role of Italy

Let’s try for a moment to shift the focus of the analysis of the meeting this week between Draghi and Biden. The summit has been triumphalistically portrayed in the local news. And not wrongly, to be sure, because it is certainly true that the Italian Prime Minister consolidated his role as European statesman in the eyes not only of the US but also of other EU leaders. A role corroborated, evidently, by his commitment to arrive at credible and constructive negotiations.

But an interesting news has challenged this perfect idyll. Indeed, a lengthy analysis in Friday’s Economist reveals an unexpected health of the Russian economy, in spite of those who predicted its rapid collapse. The actual economy is showing its surprising resilience. It is true that consumer prices have risen more than 10% since the beginning of the year in the wake of the ruble’s depreciation, which has made imports more expensive, and the escape of many Western companies, which has reduced supply. But the overall figures are largely holding up. Electricity consumption has fallen only slightly. And, according to numbers provided by Sberbank, after an initial shock in March, Russians seem to have returned to spending on cafes, bars and restaurants. In late April, Moscow’s central bank cut its key interest rate from 17% to 14%, signaling that February’s financial panic is subsiding. Today, analysts’ estimates, which expected GDP to collapse by up to 15 % this year, are beginning to look overly pessimistic. Holding up are mainly exports, including those to Western countries that have never stopped buying oil and gas from the Kremlin. Paying them, by the way, in rubles, as Putin himself demanded. The result of all this is that, according to experts, Russia’s trade surplus could reach record levels in the coming months. The Institute of International Finance estimates that the current surplus could reach 250 billion of dollar, 15% of GDP, more than double the 120 billion of dollar recorded in 2021.

In the White House meeting, Draghi in fact confirmed to Biden that Italy will pay for Russian gas in rubles. Although this decision weakens the incisiveness of sanctions on Moscow in practice. A reading that has also been emphasized by certain Italian press and did not escape the attention of Bloomberg, which focused the entire meeting between the two presidents on this news.

No double game, after all. Simply a realpolitik approach that Draghi is pursuing in dealing with the complex international situation, nominating Italy to have an indispensable influence not only in the peace process but also in defining future political and economic balances. An understanding that between the lines, with proverbial diplomatic acumen, Draghi confirmed precisely when, in the press conference at the Italian Embassy, he said: «It is not important to have a role, the important thing is to build peace», typical of the true international mediator. That is why it is functional to Draghi’s strategy to keep the relationship with the US firm on the one hand, acquiring in their eyes the right authority, which would also empower him, as he did, to ask them to lower their tone so that a ceasefire could be reached. But it is also useful, on the other hand, not to permanently break ties with Putin.

And if the Russian leader is suffering on the war and on the international front, with an isolation aggravated in recent days even by Finland and Sweden’s request for NATO membership, our Prime Minister does not seem to want to trigger an inexorable crisis in the Russian economy with a lunge on his monetary policy. Draghi’s goal is not to win the war, but to build peace. The difference is very subtle, but equally substantial.