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Explained: An ‘espionage plot’ in Italy, and how it could impact Russia-NATO ties

The incident in Italy adds to the long list of occasions on which Russia has been accused of spying in Europe.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 3, 2021 9:48:40 am
italy navy officer arrested, Russia official arrested, Russian embassy, italy espionage plot, indian expressGeneral view of the Russian Embassy after a Russian army official, who is accredited with the embassy, and an Italian navy captain were arrested on suspicion of spying, in Rome, Italy, March 31, 2021. (Reuters Photo)

In what is being described as the most serious spying incident since the Cold War, an Italian navy captain was arrested in Rome after allegedly being caught handing over classified information to a Russian diplomat, police said on Wednesday.

The two were apprehended during a “clandestine meeting” on Tuesday night in the capital city, where sensitive information was said to be swapped in exchange for money. They now stand “accused of serious crimes tied to spying and state security”.

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Later on Wednesday, Italy expelled two Russian embassy staff accused of being part of the alleged spying plot– one of them being the diplomat caught the day before.

The whole affair is believed to have cast a shadow on ties between Italy and Russia, which have remained friendly despite Italy being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Russia considers antagonistic to its interests. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called the incident an “extremely serious affair”.

The spying plot

The Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police, carried out a sting operation in Rome targeting the two men – the Italian officer named Walter Biot, who has been identified as a frigate captain working in the office of Chief of the Defence Staff, and a Russian diplomat, a military attache working at the country’s embassy in Rome.

The police said that the pair was “caught immediately after the transfer of a document by the Italian officer in exchange for a sum of money”. The meeting between the two took place in a car park, and involved the exchange of 5000 pounds in cash.

The Italian foreign ministry then summoned Russia’s ambassador Sergey Razov to lodge a formal protest before expelling the two embassy staff, although the role of the second Russian in the plot has not been disclosed to the media.

Despite the banishment, Russia tried to strike a conciliatory tone, and expressed hope that the “very positive and constructive nature of Russian-Italian relations will continue”. The country, however, is expected to issue a reciprocal response to the expulsions.

What the navy officer stands accused of sharing

According to Reuters, the police recovered from Biot a memory card containing 181 photos classified as confidential, nine classified as highly confidential and 47 classified as secret documents from NATO.

The police were able to nab Biot after a long investigation by Italy’s AISI intelligence agency, along with support from the Chief of the Defense Staff. Italy has denounced the alleged espionage as a “hostile act”.

Although Biot’s lawyer confirmed that his client had handed over the information for money, he denied handing over classified documents. If convicted, Biot faces a minimum sentence of 15 years.

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What this means for NATO

Because of its warm relations with Russia, some experts have considered Italy as a backdoor for the Kremlin’s efforts aimed at subverting NATO.

Relations between Russia and the military bloc began deteriorating since the former’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, and have continued to worsen due to thorny issues such as the recent detainment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

In 2019, two persons –one from Italy and the other from Russia– were arrested for colluding to steal secrets from an American aviation company, the BBC reported.

Prosecutors in Italy are also investigating whether Russia tried to siphon money to the party of Matteo Salvini, a far-right populist.

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In response to this week’s incident, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Twitter, “The United Kingdom stands in solidarity with Italy and its actions today, exposing and taking action against Russia’s malign and destabilising activity that is designed to undermine our NATO ally.”

Russia’s alleged spying attempts in Europe

The incident adds to the long list of occasions on which Russia has been accused of spying in Europe.

In March this year, Bulgaria, another NATO member, said it had unearthed a network of Bulgarian military officers that was allegedly spying for Russia, and expelled two Russian diplomats.

In February, Germany charged a man who was accused of sharing the floor plans of the German parliament with a Russian intelligence agent.

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