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Europe's primary threats emanate from cyberspace, Italy's defense minister said while speaking at the Ambrosetti forum in Cernobbio, Italy on Sunday, corroborating the assessments of numerous Western defense leaders.
But while cyber threats from Russia in particular loom large for many European allies, the country remains a major trading partner — necessitating dialogue rather than conflict, she said.
"I think cyber is the most important and the worst threat that we have to face. And this means we have to make a lot of investment in cyber security," Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta told CNBC's Steve Sedgwick. But in response to the calls from NATO allies including the U.K. and Baltic states to take a tougher stance against Russia, Trenta stressed her country's need for a nuanced approach.
"What we say about Russia — we are sure that U.S.A is our biggest ally, but Russia is a trade partner," the minister said. "We should have a double track with Russia. Double track with Russia means we have to be very tough with them … But we have to have a dialogue with them a political dialogue, never to stop the dialogue. It is dangerous to stop the dialogue."
Italy is the EU's second biggest exporter to Russia, selling $7.46 billion worth of goods to Moscow in 2016, or 1.7 percent of all its exports, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Meanwhile, it imported $11.2 billion in goods from Russia in the same year, or 2.8 percent of all Russian exports.
"We want relations with a commercial partner," Trenta said. "I am not saying partner like ally, but a partner, a stakeholder, an actor, that is important also for our economy . "We cannot say that Russia is not an economic partner."
At the same forum, CNBC spoke with former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who testified to the increasing Russian-Italian trade links.
"Even despite the sanctions, we're increasing our trade with Europe — Italy trade increased, trade turnover went up 20 percent last year, 11 percent in first six months of this year," he said on Friday.
European and American defense officials have repeatedly called Russia's hybrid measures and "malicious activities" — including cyberattacks and the spreading of misinformation to disrupt foreign elections — one of their greatest security threats.
The leading parties of Italy's new government, the populist and anti-establishment Lega and Five Star Movement (M5S), have long advocated an end to Western sanctions on Russia and supported fostering closer relations with the Kremlin.
In response to a NATO warning to leave sanctions on Russia as they are, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said in early June that his government planned to continue building ties with Russia and would not take orders from others. He later stated that his administration would "not be spineless and yielding to the will of other states."
NATO partners pledged in July to spend 2 percent of their respective gross domestic product on defense. So far, only five NATO members do so, and Italy is not one of them.