It happened in the United States. Then there were the Netherlands, France and Germany. One after the other, the West’s leading democracies have staged national elections in which Russia is accused of using social media and fake news to try to influence the outcome.
Now, Italy is holding pivotal elections on Sunday that could shake Europe — and Russian meddling is again a concern.
But the difference this time is that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia might not even need to bother, because the parties most likely to do well in Italy would probably be favored by Russia, too.
Much has changed since Russia started its online misinformation campaigns, and much of it is good for Mr. Putin.
Just two years ago, Mr. Putin was on the defensive and facing the prospect of Hillary Clinton, no fan of his, occupying the White House. Instead, he got President Trump.
While Mr. Putin did not get his top picks in France and Germany, the angry populism and frustration with migration that is reshaping European politics has significantly weakened his chief adversary, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and suspicions of yet another Russian hacking roiled the German government on Thursday.
Italy is already traditionally one of the most pro-Russian countries in Europe, and among the favored outcomes for Mr. Putin in Sunday’s election, there are a lot to choose from.
Many of the leading parties share a widespread view that the sanctions against Russia for its land grab in Ukraine hurt Italian trading partners as much as they do Moscow, noted Lucio Caracciolo, the editor of the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes.
While Italy does not carry the weight of Germany or France, he said, having an Italian government willing to resist its Western partners furthers Russia’s interest in dividing European countries from the United States and one another.
“Any division inside NATO and the European Union could be used, maybe not now, but in the future,” he said. “It’s better to face a fractured enemy.”
The favored center-right coalition is led by none other than Mr. Putin’s good friend Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister who opposes sanctions against Russia, and who recently gave Mr. Putin a birthday present of a duvet cover of the two pals shaking hands. Years ago, Mr. Berlusconi was caught on tape apparently telling a prostitute to wait for him in the “big bed” that he referred to as “Putin’s.”
In his previous iterations as prime minister, Mr. Berlusconi sought to position himself as a bridge between the United States and Russia. Even so, American diplomats secretly suspected him of “profiting personally and handsomely” from a cut of energy contracts with Mr. Putin, according to cables released in 2010 by WikiLeaks. Mr. Berlusconi denied it.
Mr. Berlusconi’s ambitious coalition partner is Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party and an anti-immigrant politician who went to Moscow to sign a cooperation agreement with Mr. Putin’s Russia United party.
At a recent political rally, Mr. Salvini mocked those who alleged that he had accepted money from Mr. Putin by saying, “I admire Putin as a man of state, a man of government who defends the interests of his people and his businesses, who defends his values and borders, and I esteem him for free, not for money.”
The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the leading party in Italian politics, has echoed Russia’s antagonism toward NATO, blamed the European Union for Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and voiced skepticism about the eurozone.
A web-based populist party, it reversed its previous opposition to Mr. Putin in 2014 because, defectors say, the party leadership realized how popular Mr. Putin had become.
The least good option for Russia is the re-election of Italy’s Democratic Party, which is led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. In the run up to the referendum that cost him his job in December 2016, Mr. Renzi complained to Western leaders about Russian meddling in his country’s politics as fake news sourced to Russian propaganda outlets and signs of Russian high jinks surfaced on the Italian web.
In this election, Mr. Renzi has been outspoken against homegrown manipulation of Facebook and other social media to spread misinformation, but has been careful not to blame Russia.
Last week, Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, also of the Democratic Party, released an annual security report warning of online “influence campaigns” before the elections, but did not mention Russia by name.
“No one had seen anything concrete that points out Russian meddling in Italy,” said Maksymilian Czuperski, the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, who arrived in Italy this week to monitor the election for any online manipulation or interference. “Because they don’t necessarily need to.”
Now, as the Trump administration has in some ways withdrawn the United States from world politics, European diplomats in Italy lament that Russia has expertly exploited America’s absence by building relationships with politicians, economic ties, especially for oil and gas, and cultural affinity through Russian associations.
A map in the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Rome showed the scores of cities and towns where Russia had official and unofficial headquarters.
At a recent inauguration there of a “Russian Seasons” program of cultural events in Italy, the Russian ambassador, Sergey Razov, celebrated the 255 cultural events in 40 Italian cities. He said they had helped bring about a “positive development of relations between our countries.”
Asked by The Times whether his government also sought to bring the countries together by providing political aid to Italy’s many pro-Russian parties, the usually poker-faced ambassador allowed himself a slight grin.
“In the last months, your American colleagues tried to ask these questions about Russian influence, for example in the Italian elections,” Mr. Razov said before deferring to a denial made days earlier by Mr. Putin.
“It’s incredible that we might meddle in somebody’s elections, including in Italy,” Mr. Putin had told the leadership of Russian news agencies. “We see no point in it, as we know that no matter what forces rise to power in Italy, it has a national political consensus on the development of relations with Russia.”
That doesn’t mean everyone has ruled out the possibility that Russia is entirely sitting this one out.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, writing recently in Foreign Affairs magazine, alleged that a new Russian effort was “now underway to support the nationalist Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement in Italy’s upcoming parliamentary elections.”
The article offered no proof for the allegation, which Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Salvini both dismissed as “fake news.”
Mr. Salvini went the extra step of finding motivation for the article in Mr. Biden’s son’s being “nominated to the administrative council of Ukraine’s biggest energy company — you understand how the great powers work?” he said.
Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and now senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy, helped write the Foreign Affairs piece with Mr. Biden. “Based on my time in government,” Mr. Carpenter said, “I am very confident that the Russians interfered, used disinformation in the Italian campaign” against Mr. Renzi in 2016.
This month, the Italian newspaper La Stampa showed that some of the Russian trolls identified in the Justice Department investigation had retweeted messages in 2016 from Italian accounts. The post were critical of Mr. Renzi and supported the Five Star Movement and the hard right.
Mr. Carpenter said that he maintained a strong suspicion that Russian internet trolls actively supported the Five Star Movement and the League ahead of the coming elections, but that he no longer had the security clearances to prove that.
Amid all of the focus on the Five Star Movement’s sympathies for Russia, Luigi Di Maio, the party’s candidate for prime minister, has sought to create some distance. He now tempers his remarks about Russia by pointing out that he has visited Washington as well and that his “objective” is to remain an ally of the United States.
Mr. Di Maio spoke last month at Link Campus University, the former home of professor Joseph Mifsud, who American court documents allege told a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, that Russia had “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton.
“Many of you have heard talk about the relations between the Five Star Movement and the Russian Federation, and I remember there was here a prime minister who had very very friendly relations with Russia and also economic business that I believe was illicit,” Mr. Di Maio said, referring to Mr. Berlusconi.
“But, and who knows why, the only one who is denounced as having shadowy, disturbing relations with Russia is the Five Star Movement, which surely is the party that has less relations with the Russian Federation than all the others,” he said.