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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after a joint news conference, on the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Kyiv, on Feb. 24.ALINA SMUTKO/Reuters

When Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Feb. 24 at Hostomel airport near Kyiv – the site of a decisive battle in the opening days of the war – she was not just showing her support for Ukraine. Her full Atlanticist credentials were on display.

Or were they?

Ms. Meloni, the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party and the country’s first female leader, was one of only two G7 leaders to meet Mr. Zelensky that day, the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The other was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom she will meet again in Toronto on March 2 during her first official visit to Canada since she took office a year and a half ago.

Ms. Meloni, like Mr. Trudeau, promised support for Ukraine “for as long as necessary and beyond,” though Italy’s aid contributions to Kyiv have been among the lowest in Europe. Still, her presence was seen as yet another declaration of her censure of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack. She supports Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Before Ms. Meloni went into election mode in the autumn of 2022, many Italian voters and some European politicians doubted that she would fully back European integration, support closer economic, political and military ties between North America and Europe – the “Atlanticist” agenda – and oppose Mr. Putin’s apparent attempt to recreate the Soviet empire. That’s because she had praised his 2018 election victory and her coalition political partners, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of the Forza Italia party (who died last year) and Matteo Salvini of the League party, had openly expressed their admiration for Mr. Putin.

But during and after the election she left no doubt that she wanted to embrace the mainstream European agenda even though she, like France’s Marine Le Pen, was considered a right-wing populist with a nationalist program. She shifted her message into the pro-Europe, pro-U.S., anti-Russia sphere and promised to supply Ukraine’s military with weapons.

Recently, there have been some hints that her Atlanticist stance is cracking, in spite of her recent show of solidarity.

She skipped February’s Munich Security Conference, where the focus was on Ukraine, as she did in 2023. She gave no explanation for her absence, though she may have been focused on the Feb. 25 regional elections in Sardinia (which her party lost, signalling the end of her political honeymoon).

As the Munich conference was getting under way, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny died in a Siberian prison. Unlike some Western leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, Ms. Meloni did not blame Mr. Putin for his death. Instead, in her official statement, she asked that “all the facts surrounding this worrying event will be brought to light.”

Shortly thereafter, a dozen or so peaceful mourners who came to lay flowers in Milan in memory of Mr. Navalny were stopped by Italian police.

“One is left wondering whether Meloni and her cabinet are walking away from their Initial Atlanticism,” said Francesco Galietti, chief executive officer of Rome’s Policy Sonar, a political risk consultancy.

At the same time, Ms. Meloni is cozying up to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the most pro-Russian of the EU leaders, and Eric Zemmour, the anti-Islam, anti-NATO French politician who leads the small, far-right Reconquest party. The parties of the two men are set to join the EU’s European Conservatives and Reformists Party, whose president is Ms. Meloni. Europe’s conservatives are expected to perform well in the European Parliament elections in June.

Whether Ms. Meloni is preparing to drop her strong Atlanticist stance or merely tweaking it to appeal to right-wing voters is not known. Some clues may be revealed when she meets with Mr. Trudeau on the weekend. The agenda will include climate change, the clean-energy transition, support for Ukraine and trade between two the countries (Italy is Canada’s second-biggest merchandise trading partner in the EU).

The dialogue is expected to be cordial even though they got into a public spat last year, when Mr. Trudeau criticized Italy’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues in a meeting with Ms. Meloni at the G7 summit in Hiroshima. He was reacting to the government’s move to limit the recognition of parental rights only to biological parents, not their same-sex partners.

The bigger test of Ms. Meloni’s Atlanticist credentials will take place in June at the G7 summit in Puglia, in southern Italy. Any hedging on her part will be broadcast around the world.

She will certainly be asked whether she supports seizing Russia’s foreign financial assets to help pay for the rebuilding of Ukraine, an idea that is gaining momentum in the West. The Biden administration has already signalled its support for legislation that would allow the seizure of Russian assets held in the United States (most are in Europe). So far, Ms. Meloni’s government, along with France’s and Germany’s, have been hesitant to endorse such a plan.

Mr. Galietti says Ms. Meloni will come under pressure in Puglia to firm up her anti-Russia stance. “The G7 at this political junction inevitably represents a litmus test, so the room for managed ambiguity ends up being fairly limited, even for Italy,” he said.

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