Americans are playing not for a win, but for a tie on the battlefield to exhaust Russia and get Putin to the negotiating table. Washington took the leadership and determined the Italian governmental position about the war in Ukraine as the Atlanticist line runs very deep into Italian institutions and establishment. On the other hand, Italian people do not think about foreign policy – they just want the war to end as they do not want to deal with the economic repercussions of the war. Greta Cristini and Federico Petroni, Italian experts associated with the geopolitical magazine Limes, talk to Michal Wojtylo about the future of the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the Italian perspective on the war.
Michal Wojtylo.: What is the most and the least probable scenario for the future of war in Ukraine?
Greta Cristini (G.C.): The least probable scenario is a complete defeat of Russia. More feasible is a scenario in which Russia is somehow contained within the Ukrainian territory, at least for the years ahead. Likely, there is going to be a ceasefire or at least a low intensity warfare after the current counteroffensive, which I don’t think will reach the goals Ukrainians aspire to.
My guess for the long term is that Ukraine will remain divided with more or less 20% of its territory being under the occupation and administration of Russia. This situation is not going to be officially recognized by the international community but unfortunately I think that de facto, as it was for Crimea in 2014, it will be silently accepted for the time being.
Federico Petroni (F.P.): I think that the most probable scenario is that Ukraine is going to continue to exist and that it is going to be in a low-level conflict for many years. The least probable one is that the war ends.
The war is already over a year and a half. What do you think is the future of support of the West for Ukraine?
F.P.: The West should and will continue to give Ukraine the means to survive because avoiding Russia enlarging to the West is a fundamental interest for the West. Unfortunately, I do not think that Western aid will be enough to achieve a complete military victory over Russia. It is very difficult to see Ukraine reconquering all the land it lost.
What is lacking from the part of the US and some Western countries is both political will and material means. They do not have the industrial capacity to overcome Russian industrial supplies. Of course, things will get better over the next two years, but it will not be enough to prevail on the battleground over Russia. There is also a line of reasoning that says that the US does not want to deplete its arsenals in order to be prepared for an eventual Indo-Pacific war.
Americans are playing not for a win, but for a tie on the battlefield. They want to see Ukrainian tactical victories on the ground and some territories being regained, but they do not think it is possible for Ukraine to regain all the lost land. The US just wants to exhaust Russia over the long haul and get it to the negotiating table.
Apart from the lack of belief in Ukraine’s full success, there is also a fear of provoking a wider war with Russia. The US had made that point very clear during the Prigozhin rebellion. They basically ordered the Ukrainians to refrain from helping the rebellion because they did not want to be seen as the ones bringing war into Russia to dismantle its regime. They do not want to help that narrative to spread in Western societies and in the rest of the world.
Another important aspect is the common approach of the actors inside the West. In my opinion, it is impossible for the EU to achieve an agreement on a wider Russia strategy. In Europe, we all consider the war as a basic threat to our security and we want to help Ukraine thwart the Russian aggression. But in terms of what to do with Russia, there is a really big divide that will basically impede the EU from finding a consensus on what place to give Moscow after the war ends.
G.C.: Although I do not believe in the classic rhetoric of a full unity of views among NATO members and Western countries, what Western Europe and the US do not absolutely want is to go into a direct conflict between Russia and NATO. At the same time, a complete defeat of Russia is not in their best interests either.
Americans and Western Europe do not hope for a collapse of the Russian regime: a major defeat of Putin in Ukraine may trigger a process of internal crisis among elites and the people which may have heavy repercussions on the European and the international order. We are talking about a country with over 6,000 nuclear warheads.
As to Italy, what I am perceiving from the public opinion is an overall Ukrainian support fatigue, and that is also probably true for most of Western Europe. Putin knows that and thinks that the time is on his side. This may very well push Russia to protract this conflict, counting on the gradual disengagement of the Western countries.
So the Western support is going to decline?
F.P.: I do not think so. Maybe the Western support is going to be smaller in terms of money, but it will focus on the stuff that Ukraine needs to survive. It is very clear that the West wants to give Ukraine the means to deter further Russian aggression. But in the case of the counter-offensive going into a stalemate it will be very hard for Ukraine to obtain significant new equipment.
Over the summer, the Ukrainians were rumoured to have lowered their goals. CIA Director, William J. Burns, came back from Kyiv in June with a promise made by the Ukrainians to start negotiations with the Russians if they gain a bridgehead close to Crimea. Then there could be an exchange – if Ukrainians win that bridgehead, Americans will give them the long-range rocket system to threaten Crimea and with that Kyiv will have leverage during the negotiations.
In the near future, there will be enormous pressure from the US on Ukraine to start negotiations. But if the Americans do not see some will from the Russian part, they will continue to plan for another counteroffensive in order to finally break the conviction of Putin that he has time on his side.
G.C.: Regardless of the end of this war, I think NATO and especially the US will push to weaponize Ukraine as much as possible so that Ukrainians may be able to defend themselves without having NATO countries directly intervening in the Ukrainian territory and to deter Russia from attempting future assaults on Kyiv.
Some of the analyses that I agree with consider that the part of Ukraine still under Kyiv’s control will adhere somehow to the European Union, also in order to facilitate its reconstruction. On Washington’s mind this will provide a counterbalance to the fact that Ukraine will not enter NATO any time soon. Let’s remind, however, that for some European countries this scenario will also pose problems: the entry of Ukraine into the European market is going to affect EU countries, as Poland very well knows given the issue of the Ukrainian grain imported to the polish market.
Federico, you are an expert on US politics. From Washington’s perspective, what are the conditions that would probably be needed for the real peace talks with Russia and Ukraine to start?
F.P.: That is very difficult to guess. The Biden administration has not decided how to end the war – their whole approach is based on trial and error. The White House wants to see how the counteroffensive goes and they will reassess after its end.
There is an internal fighting inside the Biden administration between the military representatives and the diplomats. The Armed Forces in general would like for negotiations to start soon, for them to be able to focus on the Indo-Pacific as they feel that the major threat is China. They feel the Biden administration did not give them the resources to be prepared for a war with China and they would like the current approach to shift. This is part of the reason why you saw General Mark A. Milley talking about the need to find a solution at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield.
On the other side, there are diplomats in the State Department, who has the most hawkish approach. They think that in order to deter China, the US needs to defeat Russia first. So you have this paradox. The diplomats are supposed to do negotiations, but they argue against them. The military is supposed to make war, but they are against it. This results in a stalemate inside the Biden administration that impedes the US to decide how the war should end.
Are the US elections a threat to the continuation of the US support? If Trump goes back to the White House, is he going to change Washington’s policy towards the war in Ukraine?
F.P.: The US election process is already having an impact on the war in Ukraine. The Biden administration does not want to go to the polls with an open-ended war going on. They want to be able to provide the voters a view of the war scaling down.
This is one of the main reasons why the US has already pressured the Ukrainians to show more willingness to negotiate with Russia. There have been a lot of incentives proposed by the US to the Ukrainians to soften their territorial goals. They were not effective because there is just one real leverage the US has with Ukraine to force them to the negotiation table – the threat to stop the arms supplies.
There is only one politician in the US that would really and fully use it, and his name is Donald Trump. I do not know how a second Trump administration would exactly behave but, for sure, it would put a tremendous pressure on Kyiv to stop the war and to go to the negotiation table. However, it is hard to see Trump winning again in November 2024 because of its trials which have been useful to gain support in the Republican base, but they will be costing him votes from the moderate electorate. Overall, I do not see a realistic scenario for the US terminating aid to Ukraine.
Greta, you have been recently for four months in Ukraine, also near the frontline. What did you hear from the soldiers and the local people? What do they say about the big picture of the war?
G.C.: I talked to officials, diplomats, civilians, but especially soldiers to check on their morale. The mindset of the people who go to war is a crucial factor to understand the chances for the war to continue or to end. My impression is that military people – both professional and volunteers – really have this missionary idea of fighting for the Ukrainian State’s independence. It is truly considered as an existential mission. They usually tell me that Ukraine must and will win. Simultaneously, civilians in Kyiv are zealous about this national dream, so there is still a unity between the civilians and the military.
However, soldiers are also conscious of the need to have continued military refurnishing from the Western countries and they do not like how this is handled. They consider the current military support as too slow and weak and they seem not to understand why. Or better, they feel Western countries do not really trust them as being able to defeat Russia, which in some cases is actually true.
What I also perceived recently is that civilians are starting to become more hesitant in their support for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. During my first trip after the full-scale invasion in March and April of 2022, I clearly recall a complete unity around the political leadership of Zelenskyy. Now this cohesion is starting to erode. I heard many voices more critical about the handling of this war by the Ukrainian government and the political opposition is starting to speak up. Additionally, the presidential election planned for next year is not taking place. Legitimately, Zelenskyy must keep the unity of the state during a war, but the political purges he conducted during this time of martial law will expose him to further criticism.
Let’s go back to the 24th of February and to Italy. There was fear in Central and Eastern Europe about the Italian response to the invasion on Ukraine with its image of having close political and business links to Russia. However, it ended up being pro-Ukrainian. What was the perspective from Italy on the first reaction of the business and political elites to the crisis?
F.P.: The first reaction was a total surprise. Before that, Italy thought it was outside history and that war in Europe was not possible anymore. It was a fantasy, but it was present in the Italian minds. Cooperation with Russia before the invasion was not a result of love for Russia but more about the idea that the history is finished.
I find the Central and Eastern Europe doubts on Italy misplaced. Italian elites are not able to imagine a post-American Europe. The Atlanticist line runs very deep into Italian institutions and establishment because our country was built as a republic under a US-led European and global order. We do not have the same anti-Americanism the French have. Also, we have to remember that this war is not only about Ukraine but also about initiating the destruction of the American sphere of influence in Europe. So the reaction was as expected, especially since there was a very pro-Atlanticist government led by Mario Draghi in place.
G.C.: At the highest political level there is complete unity in the support of Ukraine, at least rhetorically. The Americans took the leadership and determined the Italian governmental position about this war. Mario Draghi’s reaction was a result of the historical Atlantic pressure on Italian foreign policy. Our current government completely followed the previous one and repeats that we have to make sure Ukraine arrives at the negotiating table as weaponized as possible, so Kyiv can talk from a position of strength.
Did coming to power of Giorgia Meloni change anything in the reaction to the war in Ukraine?
F.P.: When Giorgia Meloni’s rule was to be started there were a lot of fears she would change the Italian approach to the war in Ukraine. But in truth, as Greta said, our foreign policy margins are very narrow – we cannot substantially change our foreign policy, as we are not entirely its owners.
Before the elections, Meloni suffered from a lack of trust from the US, so she made a very smart diplomatic move to even increase the pro-Atlanticist line and intensify the internal rhetoric about helping Ukraine. Her arguments were very close to the ones that Draghi underlined – that Italy cannot tolerate aggression and redrawing of borders by force in Europe. Another argument was that if Russia succeeds, NATO and the EU would be next, as it would bring further aggression from Putin.
Meloni was a more credible figure in Italy using this narrative than Mario Draghi. Draghi had an image issue in his country. He is seen negatively as a part of the establishment, a banker, an enforcer of the strict lockdown and vaccine rules.
G.C.: Meloni came to power with a sin of credibility towards Washington. The distrust also came because her right-wing coalition included political parties and eminent figures like Berlusconi which were very close to Putin. Meloni worked hard to achieve a good reputation in Washington – she totally aligned Italy’s position with the US perspective on the war and she began a process of abandoning the memorandum with China on the Belt and Road Initiative previously signed by President Giuseppe Conte. I wonder whether she tried or not to get something in return (like the American support to the Italian position about the migration issue in the Mediterranean Sea).
The international pressure and inner constraints of belonging to the Atlantic alliance are still very important for the Italian government, which does not have real autonomy in foreign policy. Italy does not have a solid strategic thinking as, for instance, Poland or France. We are much more like Germans – both politicians and public opinion are generally not interested in international affairs so we really do not know how to promote our national interest at the diplomatic level and we end up aligning blatantly with our protector. As a result, Meloni’s coming to power did not change much compared to Draghi’s foreign policy.
But the US sooner or later is going to change its position from a more aggressive and strong support of Ukraine (which Poland expects) to a more moderate one. Americans will start pressuring Zelenskyy to go to the negotiation table after the Ukrainian counteroffensive and Italy is going to get in line with that as well.
What is the mood in the Italian society about the future of the war in Ukraine?
G.C.: The public debate on foreign affairs in Italy has always maintained fluidity, not necessarily in terms of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian voices, but rather in terms of pro-war and pro-peace views. It is different than the debate in Poland and Germany, two countries where there is no question about the continued support to Ukraine.
I am not sure that right now the Italian government’s stance is in line with the majority of the Italian public opinion. Italians do not think and talk about foreign policy – they just want the war to end. We are worried about the economic repercussions of the war, starting from our bills. Also, within the Italian population, a growing faction sees the US more often than not as the bad ones trying to exercise their influence on Europe in a way that is not in line with our national interests.
Moreover, in Italy there is an increasing hostility towards the figure of President Zelenskyy himself. For instance, his European tours where he legitimately asks for weapons and money are perceived negatively. People, more often than before, think about him as an arrogant figure who is coming just to demand and get our resources. As such, I think that because of our alignment with the Atlantic position, the Italian political spectrum does not reflect a good part of its inner popular feelings.
F.P.: Some polls indicate now that the majority of the Italian population would like to have a pacifist stance or only to send non-military support to Ukraine. The main difference in perspective, compared to Poland, is that we do not want to fight the war to the end. Italy is very close to the American, German and French stance – we do not want Russia to disappear from the map. We think that Russia has a role will play a role in Europe after the war. In fact, Italian diplomacy was the first one to propose a peace plan in the Spring of 2022 based on a ceasefire and Ukraine’s neutrality.
Right now in the society, there is some growing disillusionment on how Ukraine can regain their territories. We feel the economic hurdles and some people are starting to point to the money spent on aid for Ukraine. There is a perception that the war is going into a stalemate. Once we are there, some pressure will begin from the Italian population to tone down the support to Ukraine. But Italy will not go alone in decreasing aid for Ukraine – it will be a coordinated decision with our allies.
Greta Cristini – Geopolitical analyst, contributor at Limes, war reporter and writer (“Geopolitica, capire il mondo in guerra” Piemme, 2023). Former white-collar lawyer in New York City.
Federico Petroni – Geopolitical analyst and Editor at Limes, Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica. Program coordinator at the Limes School of Geopolitics. Previously, lecturer on Geopolitics at Università Vita e Salute – San Raffaele in Milan.
The interview is part of a series of conversations with Western experts on the future of the war in Ukraine. Previous interviews in chronological order:
- Fredrik Löjdquist, director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS): ‘Russia’s imperialistic behaviour is not going to go away only because of a peace or truce with Ukraine’;
- James Carafano, Vice President of The Heritage Foundation: ‘Support for Ukraine will continue because it is the easiest path forward for the politicians’;
- Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe programme at the ECFR: ‘The French public supports Ukraine. Is this the definite end of the partnership with Russia?’.
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2023".
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”