As if Italian officials didn’t already have enough on their hands with the deadly coronavirus causing havoc — a media report now suggests the Russians have placed GRU spies amid its aid contingent, sparking a war of words between the two nations, Yahoo News reported.
The Russians came last week to help disinfect hospitals and care homes in a northern Italian region that has recorded over half of the country’s 14,681 official Covid-19 deaths, the report said.
It was a chance for Russian President Vladimir Putin to exert “soft power” at a moment of dire weakness for the West.
But Italy’s La Stamp newspaper said Thursday that the 104-strong contingent of doctors and experts almost certainly included officers from Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, the report said.
“Without a doubt, there are GRU officers among them,” former NATO chemical weapons expert Hamish De Bretton-Gordon told the paper.
Britain accuses GRU officers of trying to poison former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal in England in 2018, the report said.
The GRU — which stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate — has a long-running program to run ‘illegal’ spies who work without diplomatic cover and who live under an assumed identity for years until orders from Moscow.
“We can assume that (the Russian team) will want to find out as much about Italian forces as possible and set up intelligence networks,” the former NATO expert told La Stampa.
Moscow’s response was livid and swift.
Its embassy in Rome tweeted a statement from a defence ministry spokesman condemning La Stampa’s “Russophobic Cold War fake news.”
The defence ministry accused the Italian paper of “hiding behind the ideals of free speech” to spread stories reminiscent of “anti-Soviet propaganda.”
The vehemence of Russia’s attack on one of Italy’s main newspapers prompted the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to briefly turn its focus away from the raging virus crisis and tell Moscow to back off, the report said.
“While grateful for Russia’s support, one cannot but criticize the inappropriate tone of certain expressions used by the Russian defence ministry spokesman,” the government said in a statement.
“Freedom of expression and the right to criticise are fundamental values of our country,” it said.
It noted that Russia had “the right to respond (to the allegations), but in a formal and correct manner.”
Italians near Milan “met the Russian column of trucks with applause, singing the Russian national anthem,” ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said in Moscow.
Zakharova accused La Stampa of “distinguishing itself by running a number of defamatory articles about Russian humanitarian aid.”
Anonymous sources within the Italian government told La Stampa that the Russian delivery contained equipment for bacteriological disinfection and a field laboratory for chemical-biological sterilization — not ventilators and PPE (personal protective equipment), The Daily Mail reported.
“Of those Russian supplies, 80 percent were completely useless or of little use to Italy. In other words, the delivery was more like a pretext,” one source alleged.
Dubbed “From Russia With Love,” officials said it is likely that Prime Minister Conte accepted the package in order to secure a good personal relationship with President Putin.