What you need to know about Italy's Russian spy scandal

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What you need to know about Italy's Russian spy scandal
A picture taken on March 31, 2021 shows a view of the Russian Embassy in central Rome. - Italy expelled two Russian officials after an Italian navy captain was allegedly caught red-handed selling secret documents to a Russian military officer. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Italy has expelled two Russian officials and summoned Russia's ambassador after uncovering a suspected spy in the Italian navy. Here's a primer on the espionage scandal.


Who is suspected of spying?

An Italian navy officer, who was caught red-handed by police selling secret documents to the Russians. 

The officer has been named as Walter Biot, a captain who worked in the military policy unit within the office of the Chief of the Defence Staff. That unit handled "all confidential and classified documents," including NATO dossiers, the Corriere della Sera newspaper said.


What is he accused of?

The naval officer is accused of passing on "confidential documents" in exchange for money.

He had been under investigation for some time by Italy's domestic intelligence agency AISI. Late on Tuesday, officers tailing him saw him head to a "clandestine meeting" in Rome with a Russian military officer, according to a police statement.

The two men met in a car park, according to media reports, where special operations police stopped them both but arrested only the navy officer.

The captain had taken pictures of secret documents on his computer screen and saved the files onto a pen drive which police confiscated, according to the AGI news agency. He reportedly received €5,000 in cash from his Russian contact.

The Russian, an embassy official, avoided custody thanks to diplomatic immunity, police said.

Why did he do it?

According to Biot's wife, the officer was motivated by money. "He's not stupid, he's not irresponsible. It's just that he was desperate," Claudia Carbonara, told the Corriere della Sera. "Desperate for our future and that of the children."

Biot's salary of €3,000 a month was insufficient to support his family of four children -- one of them with a serious handicap -- and four dogs, Carbonara told the paper. A 1,200-euro mortgage, school costs and activity fees for the children all pushed the navy veteran of 30 years to hand over secret documents in exchange for cash, she claimed.

"Because of Covid we've become impoverished," said Carbonara, adding that her husband had not discussed with her beforehand what he planned to do.

How has the Italian government responded?

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio summoned Russian ambassador Sergey Razov on Wednesday morning to lodge a formal protest.

Italy's "Farnesina" Foreign Ministry building in Rome. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

The diplomat was notified of "the immediate expulsion of the two Russian officials involved in this very serious affair", Di Maio said.

The foreign minister told parliament that Russia's move was a "hostile act that will have consequences".

What has Russia said?

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he hoped that "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 attache 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 attache office, but made no mention of possible retaliatory moves.


What's the wider context?

Moscow is currently embroiled in a series of rows with the West, most recently over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, a move that triggered EU sanctions against senior Russian officials.

But Italy is one of the countries within the European Union and NATO with the warmest relations with Russia. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Eleonora Tafuro, a Russia expert at the ISPI think tank in Milan, said such incidents in Italy were rare. "It is very serious ... and really takes us back to the Cold War period," she told AFP.

Tafuro suggested that Moscow might play down the affair to avoid antagonising an ally while it is 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 up for this Russian request," so ruining relations with Rome "could be a counterproductive move," the analyst said.

READ ALSO: Italy to be first EU country to make Russian Sputnik vaccine

Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In London, Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed "solidarity" with Italy and condemned "Russia's malign and destabilising activity that is designed to undermine our NATO ally".

Bulgaria, an EU and NATO member like Italy, expelled two Russian diplomats last week after six people were arrested, including several defence ministry officials, on suspicion of spying for Russia.

Also last week, the Kremlin issued a statement in which Putin bemoaned "the unsatisfactory state of Russia-EU ties", which he blamed on the "unconstructive, often confrontational policies of our partners".


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