Italy’s choice to expel two Russian diplomats over espionage concerns marks a radical shift in a historically close relationship. Rome has never been so Europeanist and Atlanticist, and it’s starting to show. Will Italy finally abandon its lingering Russophilia?
On Wednesday Italy expelled two Russian diplomats after they were found to be involved in espionage. One of them was caught red-handed as he exchanged cash for classified documents – reportedly dealing with military telecommunication systems and NATO – with an Italian Navy official.
The Italian government, led by Mario Draghi, sent a stark warning to Russia. Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio, who had summoned the Russian ambassador Sergey Razov that morning, spoke of an “extremely grave hostile act” in front of Parliament. Moscow vowed that it would retaliate with a reciprocal response, although the Russians’ statements hinted at protecting the existing relationship.
Italy’s shift is stark. A year ago, the Russian army roamed around a pandemic-struck Italy, loaded with medical equipment, in a display of soft power (with the former government’s silent assent). And then-minister of justice Alfonso Bonafede decided to release Alexander Korshunov, the Russian tycoon who had been arrested near Naples because of industrial espionage following an FBI warrant.
Even today, the Italian pro-Russian vaccine front is substantial and spanned across the political spectrum, and Italians are a prime target for Russia’s propaganda (as denounced by Italy’s intelligence committee).
“Putin’s relations have been especially strong with Italy, which purchases substantial quantities of Russian natural gas and which does not share the view of other NATO members that see Russia as a threat,” wrote the political expert Mark N. Katz in an Atlantic Council report.
Now, however, Italy’s government is sternly Europeanist and Atlanticist, as Mr Draghi remarked in his inaugural speech. As such, it is more averse to Russian interference, in line with Joe Biden’s harsh stance on Vladimir Putin (which he called a “killer”) and the EU’s deep distrust of its neighbouring power. The certainty with which government apparatuses moved to expel the Russian spies bears testimony to the absence of doubts in that regard.
On the other hand, the Kremlin is embarked on a voyage of permanent power projection. Everything from vaccine diplomacy to military posturing serves to prop up its image as a powerful global actor, especially within its own borders. And as US Admiral James Stavridis told Formiche.net, there is “nothing more dangerous than a weak nation that wants to look strong.”
“Moscow always retaliates against publicised Western expulsions, and already we have seen nationalists in the Duma (parliament) calling for reciprocal action. In that context, if Moscow did not expel someone it would fear looking weak or admitting that it was to blame,” said Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence and senior associate fellow of the Royal United Service Institute, when contacted by Formiche.net to comment on the diplomatic incident.
In a way, Moscow is trapped in its own rhetoric, argued Mr Galeotti, who expects that Russia will retaliate with at least one expulsion even at the cost of worsening ties with Italy.
Naturally, this espionage episode does not spell the end of Italian-Russian ties. Rome’s reaction, however, does signal a radical shift in tone towards (or rather, away from) Russia. And this time, the entire government seems to stand by it – including those parties that always enjoyed warm relations with the Kremlin, such as the League.
And so, even as party leader Matteo Salvini voices his support for the Russian vaccine disregarding European authorities, his second-in-command Giancarlo Giorgetti, who is minister for the economic development, remarks the importance of adhering to a system of liberal-democratic values and upholds Europeanism and Atlanticism as Italy’s guiding principles, specifically when it comes to vaccine approval.
The current government is the least Russophile in a long while and the latest events are, as Mr Di Maio put it, “extremely grave.” Moscow may well retaliate, but even if it refrained from doing so, the cracks in the Russian-Italian historically close ties are starting to show, if only because of Italy’s clear-cut stance on the international scene. It seems like Italy has finally picked a side.