By Francesco Zecchini
CERNOBBIO, Italy (Reuters) - Giorgia Meloni, set to lead a new Italian government with two parties once close to Moscow, warned on Sunday of the risk posed to Western nations by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, calling it the "tip of the iceberg" in a struggle for influence.
"If Ukraine falls and the West perishes, the big winner will not be (Vladimir) Putin's Russia, but Xi Jinping's China," Meloni, leader of the nationalist Brothers of Italy party, told a business conference.
"And those who are weakest in the West, namely Europe, risk finding themselves under Chinese influence. So we have to fight this battle," she added at the Ambrosetti Forum in northern Italy.
Russia has sought to strengthen ties with President Xi's China following its invasion of Ukraine in February.
Meloni leads the largest party in a centre-right alliance with the League Party and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia which is on course for a clear victory in Italy's election on Sept. 25, making her set to become its first female prime minister.
Both the League and Forza Italia had close ties to Russia before the invasion of Ukraine.
Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy traces its roots back to a post-fascist party, has spoken out strongly in support of the Western line on Ukraine on a number of occasions.
"The war in Ukraine is the tip of the iceberg of a conflict aimed at reshaping the world order," she said on Sunday.
League leader Matteo Salvini told the same conference that the European Union should shield people in countries such as Italy who were suffering the economic side-effects of sanctions against Russia.
"Let's carry on with punishing the aggressor but let's protect our businesses and our workers," he said.
"Because winning the election and inheriting a country on its knees would not be very satisfying," he added.
(Reporting by Francesco Zecchini; Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)