Italy's Meloni ready to risk unpopularity over support for Ukraine

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Italy

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) - Italy will continue to back Ukraine against Russia even if this dents the Rome government's approval ratings, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Tuesday, as polls show that military aid to Kyiv is unpopular with voters.

"We will continue to do it because it is right to do so in terms of national values and interest," Meloni said in a speech to the Senate ahead of the European Council summit on March 23-24.

The issue of supporting Ukraine's war effort is proving a headache for Meloni, a staunch supporter of Kyiv whose conservative coalition government allies are far more ambiguous on the issue.

Forza Italia leader and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is an old friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin who last month blamed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for provoking the conflict.

Forza Italia has nevertheless voted in favour of arms supplies to Ukraine, as has the League party of deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, another past admirer of the Kremlin chief.

A poll published in late February by daily Corriere della Sera showed some 45% of Italians were against sending weapons to Ukraine, against 34% in favour. Some 21% of those polled did not reply to the question.

Even supporters of Meloni's Brothers of Italy party had misgivings, with 47% saying they were against arms supplies.

Nevertheless, in her Senate speech Meloni stood firm on her position.

"The Ukrainian people are defending the values of freedom and democracy on which our civilisation is based, and the very foundations of international law," she said, adding that military aid was needed to help a nation under attack.

Italy has sent several military aid packages to Ukraine under the previous national unity government of Mario Draghi, and Meloni's administration is working with France to deliver the SAMP/T-MAMBA air defense system.

Meloni told lawmakers that Italy would continue pursuing efforts for a fair peace in Ukraine, but added that conditions were not yet in place to achieve such a result.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Keith Weir and Alvise Armellini)