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Italy Expels Russian Envoys Over Accusations of Espionage

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Investigators say that an Italian Navy official passed secret documents to Russian military officials stationed to Rome in exchange for money.

The Russian embassy in Rome on Wednesday.The Russian embassy in Rome on Wednesday.Credit…Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

March 31, 2021

Italy expelled two Russian diplomats on accusations of espionage on Wednesday after investigators say they observed an Italian Navy official giving the envoys classified documents in exchange for money.

The Italian official, assigned to a Defense Ministry department dealing with national security and foreign relations, handed over classified documents to a Russian envoy in a Rome parking lot on Tuesday night, the carabinieri, Italy’s national military police, said in a statement. Italy’s intelligence services had raised concern over the officials, investigators said, prompting them to be placed under surveillance.

The two were charged with “serious crimes tied to spying and state security,” the carabinieri said, prompting outrage among lawmakers in Rome and leading Italy’s foreign minister to order the immediate expulsion of the Russian envoy and another diplomat, both military officials.

Investigators said that the Italian official, identified as Capt. Walter Biot, had accepted 5,000 euros, about $5,800, and handed over images of classified documents on a USB stick. Mr. Biot, a 56-year-old expert in fighter jets, had worked in the Defense Ministry’s press office in the past.

The police said they also retrieved secret NATO documents believed to have been handed over to the Russians in previous meetings with Mr. Biot. The Russian envoys were not identified by name, and the role of the second diplomat was not immediately clear.

Neither Italian nor Russian officials indicated that their response to the episode would escalate.

“We will continue acting in line with our geopolitical position and our values,” Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, told senators on Wednesday. “But also safeguarding our fundamental interests, which require us to maintain a critical but constructive interlocution with Russia and China.”

The Russian Embassy in Rome said in a statement that it considered it “inappropriate” to comment, but said it hoped the case would “not impact on the bilateral relationship” between Russia and Italy.

In Russia, the official reaction was also low key, suggesting the Kremlin had no intention of playing up the incident.

A Russian lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, who is chairman of Parliament’s international affairs committee, said his country would retaliate, the Interfax news agency reported. But the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists in a conference call that Russia hoped to maintain good relations with Italy despite the incident.

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

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