Biden hosts Italian PM Draghi for Ukraine talks

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (left) talks to US President Joe Biden at the White House. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and US President Joe Biden stressed transatlantic unity in the unprecedented Western response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine at a White House meeting on Tuesday (May 10).

"The ties between our two countries will always be strong and, if anything, this war in Ukraine has made them stronger," Draghi said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin "thought he could divide us. He failed," Draghi told Biden. "We stand together."

While calling out Russia's "butchery" in Ukraine, Draghi said it was time to "think deeply" about arranging a ceasefire.

"People want to think about the possibility of bringing a ceasefire and start engaging in credible negotiations," he said.

"People are asking, how can we end those atrocities? How can we reach a cease fire? At the moment it is hard to have answers to that, but we need to think carefully about those questions," Mr Draghi told President Biden.

Biden, who hosted Draghi in the Oval Office, also praised Western unity, saying in comments while reporters were present that "Putin believed he could split us, but we've all stepped up."

Despite Italy's dependence on Russian gas and Rome's traditionally friendly ties with Moscow, Draghi's government has been a staunch supporter of efforts to punish Russia for its assault on Ukraine.

Italy and the US also have cooperated on the seizure of Russian oligarchs’ assets. Italy has frozen about €1 billion (S$1.47 billion) of assets including yachts and villas with the help of US intelligence, according to people familiar with the matter.

Along with Western allies, Rome has sent weapons to support Kyiv, although there is increasing unease about the move within Draghi's national unity government.

Draghi has also pledged support for any European Union sanctions on Russia's energy sector despite the risks - 40 per cent of Italy's natural gas imports are currently coming from Russia.

The EU is currently debating a phased ban on Russian oil imports, although this move would not touch Moscow's huge gas exports.

Germany has ruled out an immediate embargo on all Russian energy, especially natural gas, although it aims to end Russian oil imports by the end of this year.

Contrary to expectations, "Italy is not opposing gas sanctions," noted Luigi Scazzieri, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

While some could accuse Italy of hiding behind Germany, Scazzieri highlighted that it was also "taking active steps" to diversify its supply, including a recent deal with Algeria.

'Good for everyone'

The meeting at the White House comes ahead of crucial G-7 and Nato summits in Europe next month.

Beyond Ukraine, the leaders were expected to discuss the global economy, Europe's energy security and climate change.

Biden, who has made a priority of repairing tattered US-EU ties after taking over from Donald Trump in the White House, told Draghi that "a strong European Union is in the interests of the United States."

"It's good for everyone," he said.

Remote video URL

Draghi has particularly close ties with the United States.

He did his PhD at MIT and worked for both the World Bank and US investment bank Goldman Sachs. He was also president of the European Central Bank for eight years.

While in Washington, Draghi will receive an award from the Atlantic Council for distinguished international leadership.

It will be presented by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a ceremony on Wednesday.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.