Italy's deputy prime minister says his country will oppose a renewal of European Union sanctions against Russia, but he suggested Rome is not ready to break with the rest of the EU and veto a rollover of the sanctions.
"I come here because I am convinced that sanctions are economic, social, and cultural madness," Matteo Salvini said on a visit to Moscow on October 17. Salvini leads Italy's far-right League party and is also Italy's interior minister,
He criticized the basis of the sanctions, which were imposed on Moscow after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine in a war against the government.
The EU's dominant powers, Germany and France, and most other EU members have said the sanctions should stay in place until progress is made in ending that conflict.
Salvini charged that the EU is sanctioning Russia for "alleged violations against Ukraine," while taking no action over Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus -- "a European country" -- since 1974.
"It is folly," he said, vowing to "do his best" to bring an end to the Russian sanctions, or at least to resist attempts to make their renewal every six months automatic.
"If we are asked to confirm, we will say no. It's clear that it makes no sense that they are in place," he told a gathering of Italian businessmen in Moscow in a speech live-streamed on his Facebook account..
But he stopped short of saying Rome would veto a plan to roll over the sanctions, which is expected to come before a summit of EU leaders in December. The sanctions are due to expire in January.
"We can only play the veto joker once in Europe," Salvini said, noting that Italy is also battling Brussels on other fronts, including over the EU budget, immigration reform, and Italy's own, contested 2019 budget.
"If they reject that, I don't know what card I will play," he said.
EU sources have told RFE/RL that Italy might agree to extend the sanctions if the EU agrees to Rome's proposal to soften them somewhat by reviving EU bank funding for small Russian businesses that were not targeted by the sanctions.
Both Salvini's League party and Italy's other governing party, the Five Star Movement, are opposed to Russian sanctions on the grounds that they hurt Italian businesses and the economy.
Salvini has openly expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the League signed a cooperation deal in 2017 with United Russia, Russia's dominant political party.
"I feel at home here. In some European countries I don't. Here, I feel as safe as in my home," Salvini told the Moscow gathering.
During his visit, Salvini was received by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is due in Moscow next week for talks with Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.