The latest espionage scandal in Italy, whereby an Italian officer with access to confidential NATO information was caught red-handed while selling secret documents to a Russian military attaché, once again highlights hostile Russian actions against NATO. The resurgence of such activities occurred especially after the Euromaidan and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014.
Worthy of John Le Carre's novels, the arrest of the Russian spy and of the Italian officer was made after a long period in which the two had been kept under surveillance. In the morning of that day, the Russian military attaché took the subway, wearing a blue hat, to meet the Italian frigate captain Walter Biot in a parking lot next to a supermarket in Rome.
The latter handed the Russian a memory stick with confidential NATO information, including 181 photos of classified documents, nine of which identified as highly sensitive, and another 47 secret NATO documents on the Alliance's operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States and Russia already have disputes over intelligence that the Russians allegedly offered the Taliban bounties for the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Biot made no statement after the incident. Instead, his wife claimed that a mortgage of 286,000 euros and raising four children on a salary of only 3,000 euros per month pushed the Italian captain to such an action that could lead to a sentence of 15 years behind bars.
Italy quickly expelled two Russian diplomats. "On the occasion of the summoning of the Russian ambassador [Sergei Razov] to Italy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, we sent the latter the firm protest of the Italian government and notified it of the immediate expulsion of the two Russian officials involved in this very serious matter", the head of Italian diplomacy Luigi di Maio wrote on his Twitter account.
The same Di Maia also said, at a joint meeting of the foreign affairs committees of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, that “it is unacceptable for our naval personnel to be paid for information about NATO. This threatens not only our security, but also the security of the entire Alliance. "
Caught in the act, the only think that the Kremlin said was that it hoped the incident would not ruin the bilateral relations between the two countries.
Accusations: the pandemic, the best cover-up for the Russian intelligence
A year ago, Italy was the European country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Russia then sent 100 military doctors along with a humanitarian convoy of trucks that crossed part of Italy carrying the Russian flag, in a PR demonstration that should have shown the effectiveness of Moscow and the inefficiency of NATO and the EU, accused of being incapable to help its members in crisis situations. Russian propaganda broadcast images of Italians setting fire to the EU flag and hoisting the Russian one. Russian military doctors were less than 50 kilometers away from a NATO base.
Moscow diligently exploited the Italians’ despair and the Brussels’ bewilderment in the face of a new medical and humanitarian crisis of unprecedented magnitude. But even then, however, British political analysts were of the opinion that Russia was, in fact, intensifying its espionage activities in Italy, a theory that was quickly dismissed by the Kremlin propaganda. The allegations came after another scandal, from back in 2018, when the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned in a GRU (Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency) operation on British soil that had the West and Russia face new confrontations and a full-fledged diplomatic war. Returning to the present, the recent espionage scandal in Italy could even nullify the agreement between Russia and Italy on the production of the Russian anti-coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V. In early March, an Italian official announced that the Russian vaccine would be produced in Italy, which triggered a new smoldering dispute in the "vaccine war" between Europe and Russia. Everything was planned for June and Russia was already announcing that it was ready to deliver 50 million doses of vaccine to Europe (while only 3.5 million Russians had received two doses of vaccine, accounting for some 2.3% of the 145 million people that Russia has).
However, the Russian experts quoted by the daily Izvestia believe that the incident in Italy will not damage bilateral relations.
"We have already had cases of mutual expulsion of Russian and Western diplomats, but this does not affect Russian-Italian ties in any way," Tatiana Zonova, a professor in the Diplomacy Department at MGIMO University and Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science, told Izvestia
“Of course, such episodes do not help improve the relations, but fundamentally the current situation will not affect anything”, she claims.
A war on the invisible front
In recent years, the confrontation between the West and the East on the special services’ turf has reached levels worthy of the Cold War. Spies are not only active in the Mediterranean Sea, but also in the Black Sea or further north and west. In late March 2021, Bulgarian prosecutors claimed that members of an alleged spy network, which included former and current military intelligence officers, transmitted classified information about Bulgaria, NATO and the EU to an official at the Russian Embassy in Sofia. As a result, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov called on Russia to cease hostile actions against Bulgaria. "Friendship is friendship, we have always shown it," he added.
Bulgaria was one of the Soviet Union's closest allies during the communist era. Sofia maintains close cultural, historical and economic ties with Russia, which remains the country's main energy partner, but is also a country on which NATO relies to maintain a balance of power in the Black Sea. Bulgaria has expelled six Russian diplomats in the past year and a half, including a military attaché, on suspicion of espionage, which has led to the cooling of traditionally close diplomatic relations between the NATO and EU member country and Moscow. In early 2019, Belgium too was in a similar situation to that of Italy. At the time, the head of the counterintelligence service, Clement Vanderborre, was suspended on charges of spying for Russia via his relationship with a Serbian woman who was working for the Russians.
The German daily Die Welt wrote that, in 2019, the Internal Security Service of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in Brussels urgently warned European diplomats and military against the espionage activities carried out by the Russian and Chinese secret services. According to the security service, quoted by the German publication, there are "about 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies in the European capital." A similar case occurred in 2016, when the Russian citizen Sergei Pozdnyakov bought classified documents from a former Portuguese special services employee, Frederico Carvalhau Zhila, who was accused of espionage and disclosure of Portugal’s state secrets, another NATO member. Now, against this background of mistrust and suspicion generated by espionage scandals, we also have a worrying repositioning of Russian forces near the Ukrainian borders, but also the deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow. All this could lead to a new episode of smoldering confrontation between West and East, with the peculiarity that it would overlap with a global pandemic crisis which is far from over.