Italy expelled two Russian officials on Wednesday after an Italian naval captain was recaptured by police selling secret documents to the Russians.
The Italian frigate captain was arrested on espionage charges after officials who taunted him saw him late Tuesday in Rome in a “secret meeting” with a Russian military officer, according to a police statement.
The two men met in a parking lot, according to media reports. The special operations police stopped them both but only arrested the naval officer and accused him of having provided “confidential documents” in exchange for money.
The Russian, an embassy official, avoided custody due to diplomatic immunity, police said.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio summoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Razov on Wednesday morning to a formal protest.
The diplomat was informed of the “immediate expulsion of the two Russian officials involved in this very serious affair,” Di Maio said.
Eleonora Tafuro, a Russian expert on the ISPI think tank in Milan, said such incidents in Italy were rare.
“It’s very serious … and really takes us back to the Cold War,” she told AFP.
The ANSA news agency, citing investigative sources, appointed the naval officer to Walter Biot and said he worked in the military political unit within the office of the Chief of Defense Staff.
The unit handled “all confidential and confidential documents”, including NATO documents, says the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
It was also reported that Biot received 5,000 euros in cash from its Russian contact.
A NATO official referred questions to Italian authorities, saying: “We do not comment on intelligence issues.”
The navy captain took pictures of secret documents on his computer screen and sent the files to a pen unit which the police confiscated, according to AGI’s news agency.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed “solidarity” with Italy and condemned “Russia’s malicious and destabilizing activities designed to undermine our NATO ally”.
The embassy “regrets”
Police said the suspected spy was discovered after lengthy investigations led by Italy’s domestic intelligence service AISI, with the support of the chief of defense staff.
Moscow is currently involved in a series of Western attacks, most recently over the prison of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, a move that triggered EU sanctions against senior Russian officials.
But Italy is one of the countries in the European Union and NATO with the warmest relations with Russia. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he hoped “the very positive and constructive nature of Russian-Italian relations will continue and will be preserved”.
The Russian embassy in Rome confirmed that a member of the office of its military attaché was stopped by police on Tuesday, but said it was “inappropriate to comment” in detail.
In a later statement, the embassy expressed “regret” for the expulsion of two members of its military affiliate office, but did not mention any possible retaliatory measures.
Tafuro suggested that Moscow could avert the deal to avoid countering an ally while trying to get the bloc to approve the use of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.
“Russia is pushing hard [for this]”and” Italy has often spoken out in favor of this Russian demand, “so destroying relations with Rome” could be a counterproductive step, the analyst said.
Bulgaria, an EU and NATO member such as Italy, expelled two Russian diplomats last week after six people were arrested, including several Defense Ministry officials suspected of spying for Russia.
Also last week, the Kremlin issued a statement deploring Putin’s “the unsatisfactory state of affairs between Russia and the EU ties”, which he blamed on our partners’ “unconstructive, often confrontational policies”.
Earlier this month, relations between Moscow and Washington fell to a new low after US President Joe Biden called the Russian president a “killer”, leading Putin to say: “It takes one to know one.”