Italy has expelled two Russian officials due to an Italian navy captain allegedly caught red-handed selling secret documents to a Russian military officer.
According to a police statement, the frigate captain was apprehended on spying charges following a “clandestine meeting” with the Russian in Rome.
Both men were intercepted by special operations police. However, only the Italian was arrested. He is accused of passing on “confidential documents” in exchange for money.
The police said that the Russian, being an embassy official, avoided custody thanks to diplomatic immunity.
This Wednesday, March 31, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio summoned Russia’s ambassador to Rome, Sergey Razov, to lodge a formal protest.
Di Maio said the Russian diplomat was informed about “the immediate expulsion of the two Russian officials involved in this very serious affair.”
La Repubblica newspaper stated that the navy captain worked at the Chief of the Defence Staff’s office and had access “to a wide range of documents” concerning both Italian defense and NATO activities.
Another newspaper Corriere Della Sera also said the captain was paid 5,000 euros ($5,860) in cash by the Russian.
Police said the suspected spy was found after long investigations led by Italy’s domestic intelligence agency AISI, supported by the Chief of the Defence Staff.
The newspaper La Repubblica remarked it was the “most serious” incident with Russia since after the Cold War, recalling a 1989 incident when Russian and Bulgarian spies were discovered in Italy.
Moscow is involved 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. It should be noted that former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Rome, the Russian embassy confirmed that an official in the military attache’s office was stopped by police on Tuesday but said it was “inappropriate to comment” in detail.
“In any case, we hope that what happened will not affect the bilateral relationship between Russia and Italy,” the embassy said.
Only last week, Bulgaria, EU, and NATO members like Italy, expelled two Russian diplomats after six people were arrested, including several defense ministry officials, on suspicion of spying for Russia.
Recently, 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.”