Matteo Salvini got caught red-handed. The leader of the sovereignist League party defended himself on Wednesday, June 1, in the face of leaks in the press reporting his meetings not authorized by the Italian government with Russian representatives since the invasion of Ukraine. “You have to work with the ambassadors and governments of many countries to achieve peace,” said Matteo Salvini, whose party is a member of the government coalition led by Mario Draghi, on his Twitter account.

The president of the League (extreme right) had dinner on March 1 with the Russian ambassador to Italy, Sergei Razov, only a few days after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, reports the daily Domani, which specifies that the Russian embassy in Rome confirmed the meeting and that the two men met on three other occasions.

In Italy, the secret talks between Matteo Salvini and Vladimir Poutine shake the political jar, especially since these meetings would have been organized behind the back of the President of the Italian Council. The services of Mario Draghi, himself a firm supporter of sanctions against Moscow, told AFP that they had not been informed of any meeting whatsoever. The security committee of the Italian Parliament, Copasir, has opened a preliminary investigation into these interviews. He was reportedly accompanied in his interviews by Antonio Capuano, an informal foreign policy adviser who claims to be a lawyer with experience in diplomacy.

According to the daily Domani, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio knew nothing of the meetings between Matteo Salvini and Sergue Razov, nor of the planned trip to Moscow. Questioned, the services of Mario Draghi did not answer on this point. Asked by journalists about Matteo Salvini’s activities, Mario Draghi said on Tuesday that it was important for relations with Russia to be “transparent”. This affair has offended heavyweights within the League itself. “We must act in concert with the government”, reacted Giancarlo Giorgetti, key figure of the party and Minister of Economic Development.

On Wednesday June 1 on Twitter, the former Minister of the Interior remained opposed to European sanctions against Russia, according to one of his latest posts: “The sanctions against Russia are creating serious problems for the Italian economy. Exports from Italy decreased by 48% and the value of imports from Russia increased by 118%. Maybe the strategy needs to be revised?” Matteo Salvini has long had close ties with Moscow. At the time, he did not hide it, he even posed proudly with T-shirts bearing the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the Red Square of the Kremlin. In 2014, during the annexation of Crimea by Russia, he showed his support for the policy of his Russian counterpart.

But the links would not only be political, since the League is accused of benefiting from Russian funding. This is what the Italian weekly L’Espresso declares in an investigation, published in 2019, accusing the League of having tried to benefit from several million euros from oligarchs who are close to the Kremlin. Charges that have never been confirmed by the courts.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Italian politician has tried to make people forget his closeness to Russian power. On March 10, “Il Capitano” went to the Ukrainian border – on the Polish side – to bring concrete help to the refugees. Suffice to say that he was very badly received by the mayor of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, who did not hesitate to humiliate him in public.

While Matteo Salvini tries to put on a good face, the media reminds him of his Poutinian prism. The Italian online newspaper Linkiesta reported on March 4 the praises unveiled on Twitter by the leader of the League for Putin. In October 2014, Matteo Salvini wrote: If I could, I would replace [then Prime Minister] Renzi with Putin, tomorrow morning.” Less than six months later, journalists evoke two photos dating from May 9, 2015 representing Salvini at the sides of the Russian president with the caption: “I am with him”.

Another element proving that the Italian politician is indeed a “Putinophile”, a statement after the election of Donald Trump to the White House: “Trump, Le Pen, Putin and other leaders could guarantee the peace that Obama and his allies have no guarantee.” In an article dated Thursday June 2, the Milanese daily Foglio goes further, describing Matteo Salvini as “Putin’s hostage”.

If Matteo Salvini has stopped public praise, since the war in Ukraine, discussions with the Kremlin seem to continue behind the scenes.