Italy has expelled two Russian officials after an Italian navy captain was arrested for allegedly passing confidential documents to one of them.
Police said they had intervened “during a clandestine meeting” between the Italian and a Russian military official and “immediately after the transfer of a document by the Italian officer in exchange for a sum of money”.
The two people involved are accused of serious crimes related to spying and state security, the police said. “The Italian official was taken into custody, while the position of the foreign national is still under consideration in relation to his diplomatic status.”
The Italian foreign ministry summoned Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Razov, on Wednesday morning to discuss the matter. Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, later wrote on Facebook that two Russian diplomatic officials “involved in this very serious affair” had been expelled. They were reportedly the official at the meeting and his superior.
The Russian embassy confirmed the detention of a member of its military attache but declined to comment further. “The circumstances surrounding the incident are the subject of investigation,” it said. “For now, we consider it inappropriate to comment on what happened. However, we hope that what happened does not affect bilateral relations between Russia and Italy.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said: “We regret the expulsion from Rome of two employees of the Russian embassy. We are investigating the circumstances of the decision. We will make a further announcement on our possible next steps in relation to this measure, which does not correspond to the level of bilateral relations.”
The meeting on Tuesday night reportedly took place in the car park of a shopping centre in Rome, during which the navy officer allegedly received €5,000 (£4,200) in cash in return for documents reported to have come from a unit of Italy’s defence ministry. Police seized the money immediately after it was exchanged.
According to the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, the navy officer sold “top secret” Nato files as well as sensitive Italian military dossiers to the Russian official. The news agency Ansa claimed documents containing information on military telecommunications had been handed over.
The spying suspicions first arose a few months ago after the AISI, Italy’s internal intelligence and security agency, signalled a relationship between the navy captain and the Russian official. Their movements were followed and when enough evidence had been gathered, the police intervened.
It is not the first case of alleged spying involving Italy and Russia, although past activity has involved the industrial sector, Corriere reported. This is the first time a case involving defence and security information has come to light.
Politicians from the opposition party Brothers of Italy called for the prime minister, Mario Draghi, to address the matter in parliament immediately.
La Repubblica newspaper said it was the most serious incident with Russia since the end of the cold war, recalling a 1989 precedent when Russian and Bulgarian spies were discovered in Italy.
The affair comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions between Moscow and the west, most recently over the jailing of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, which triggered EU sanctions against senior Russian officials.
Bulgaria, an EU and Nato member like Italy, expelled two Russian diplomats last week after six people were arrested in the country, including several defence ministry officials, on suspicion of spying for Russia.
Also last week, the Kremlin issued a statement in which Vladimir Putin bemoaned “the unsatisfactory state of Russia-EU ties”, which he blamed on the “unconstructive, often confrontational policies of our partners”.
Relations between Moscow and Washington sank to a new low this month after Joe Biden called Putin a “killer”, leading Putin to say: “It takes one to know one.”