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Politics & Policy

Draghi Toughens Italy’s ‘Soft Underbelly’ Reputation

The war in Ukraine has forced Rome to re-examine its entanglements with powers inimical to Europe.

Mario Draghi on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Mario Draghi on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Photographer: REMO CASILLI/AFP

Popular history has Winston Churchill anointing Italy as Europe’s “soft underbelly” when he advocated using the country’s south as the avenue to undermine Nazi Germany’s hold on the continent.

The reputation for vulnerability has persisted ever since the end of the war. Critics saw Italy’s factionalism — ranging from hard right to far left — as a way foreign powers could subvert Europe. Three years ago this month, Italy was the first major European country to sign up to China’s Belt and Road initiative, the vast infrastructure project espoused by Beijing. And for years, there’s been an annual Russo-Italian business conference in northern Italy. Just before the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, a group of senior Italian executives met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a video call.