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Russia's espionage agencies are redoubling efforts to penetrate NATO, Western intelligence officials say, and are focusing on recruiting moles in the defense ministries of the pact's member states.
Italy expelled two Russian diplomats this week after they were caught in a parking lot in Rome handing cash to an Italian naval captain in exchange for sensitive military documents, which included NATO files.
The 54-year-old Italian naval officer, Walter Biot, had been working at the Italian Ministry of Defense in Rome for a decade and was attached to the policy unit within the office of the Chief of the Defense Staff. According to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Biot's unit handled "all confidential and classified documents," including NATO dossiers.
The Carabinieri, one of Italy's main law enforcement agencies, said Biot, a father of four, was caught "red-handed" exchanging the documents stored on a flash drive and was being detained on "serious crimes linked to spying and state security."
This wasn't Biot's first meeting with his Russia handlers, according to Italian investigators, and he was paid more than $5,000 each time he met with them.
His arrest followed months of surveillance by Italy's domestic intelligence agency AISI, according to an Italian official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity. He compared the surveillance to the painstaking 2001 counterespionage operation in the United States that unearthed Robert Hanssen, a top FBI counterintelligence agent, as a Russian mole.
Timing was key
"Senior defense staff were informed of the suspicions about Biot, but it was important that there wasn't a premature arrest and that he was caught actually handing over classified documents," he added. "The Russians seemed mainly interested in NATO secrets."
Biot's arrest came just weeks after Bulgaria broke up a military spy ring and expelled a pair of Russian diplomats. The half-dozen Bulgarians arrested, some of them Defense Ministry employees, have been charged with leaking classified NATO and European Union information.
One of the six Bulgarians detained on March 18 made a full confession, according to local media, and reported he was paid $3,000 each time he handed over classified information. The most senior Bulgarian recruit was Ivan Iliev, a former chief of Bulgarian military intelligence. His wife, who is a dual Bulgarian-Russian citizen, was also a member of the ring.
The Italian government denounced the Russian spying. Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio described the incident as a "hostile act of extreme gravity." He summoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Razov and ordered the expulsion of the diplomats who handed the cash to Biot.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed midweek his "solidarity" with Rome and criticized "Russia's malign and destabilizing activity that is designed to undermine our NATO ally."
Kremlin accents 'positive' ties
The Kremlin played down the possibility that the spying allegation could disrupt relations with Italy. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters he hoped "the very positive and constructive nature of Russian-Italian relations will continue and will be preserved."
Moscow is currently negotiating with the Italian government of Mario Draghi to sell Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. The Russian Embassy in Rome said it "regretted" the expulsions of the two diplomats but withheld threat of any tit-for-tat expulsions of Italian diplomats, despite Russian media reporting that the Kremlin might retaliate.
Eleonora Tafuro, a Russia expert at the ISPI research organization in Milan, told Agence France-Presse the incident "really takes us back to the Cold War period."
Biot's wife, Claudia Carbonara, a psychotherapist, told Italian reporters Thursday that her husband was "desperate" because of the family's economic situation and said any material he handed over wouldn't have compromised national security.
"He had truly been in crisis for some time because he was afraid that he would not be able to face up to all the spending we have," she said.
She added, "I assure you that he gave the minimum he could give to the Russians. Nothing compromising - he is not stupid or irresponsible. He was just desperate, desperate about our future and that of our children." She said the family had "been impoverished by COVID."
'Dazed and disoriented'
If convicted, Biot faces a minimum of 15 years in prison. On Thursday, he appeared before a magistrate but declined to answer questions.
"He said he was dazed and disoriented but ready to clarify his position. He asked for time to collect his thoughts," Roberto De Vita, Biot's lawyer, said.
The court declined Biot's request to be released from jail and to be placed under house arrest.
The Kremlin's more muted response to the Biot incident contrasted with its reaction to the expulsion last month of Russian diplomats by Bulgaria and to the expulsion in December by the Dutch government of a pair of Russian diplomats.
Dutch officials alleged the diplomats were spies and had been targeting the high-tech sector and building a "substantial network of sources" in the industry. The two diplomats were working for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the officials said.
According to Dutch Interior Minister Karin Ollongren, the Russians targeted companies dealing with artificial intelligence, semiconductors and nanotechnology. Ollongren said the spy network had "likely caused damage to the organizations where the sources are or were active and thus possibly also to the Dutch economy and national security."
The Russian Foreign Ministry described the accusations as "unfounded" and warned the decision to expel the diplomats was "provocative."
The Biot incident came just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin bemoaned "the unsatisfactory state of Russia-EU ties." He blamed tense relations on the "often confrontational policies" of Brussels.