An Italian naval officer and a Russian diplomat were arrested, “charged with serious crimes relating to espionage and state security,” Italian police said on Wednesday.
The pair were caught exchanging confidential documents for money during a “clandestine meeting” in Rome on Tuesday evening.
Italy expels officials, Russia promises to respond
Later Wednesday, Italy ordered the deportation of two Russian officials in connection with the spy scandal.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in a statement that Italy had lodged a formal protest with the Russian ambassador and notified him of “the immediate expulsion of the two Russian officials involved in this very serious affair.”
It was not immediately clear whether the expelled diplomats understood the Russian who had been arrested on Tuesday evening.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has promised a reciprocal response to their ban, according to the Interfax news agency, citing a Russian lawmaker.
What caused the fallout?
The Italian paramilitary police of the Carabinieri carried out an injection operation, catching a naval officer and a diplomat in the act, immediately after the handing over of the documents.
The Italian officer, who is a frigate captain, was arrested, police said.
The Russian, a member of the armed forces stationed at the Moscow embassy in Rome, was also arrested. Its status is “under consideration” given its diplomatic position, the statement said.
What we know about the Italian suspect
According to La Repubblica Daily, the naval captain worked in the office of the Chief of Defense Staff and had access to “a wide range of documents” relating to both Italian defense and NATO activities.
NATO documents were said to have been among the articles the naval captain handed to the Russian official, the Ansa news agency said.
It was discovered after lengthy investigations carried out by the Italian domestic intelligence agency AISI, with the support of the Chief of the Defense Staff.
Russia hopes relations will not be affected
Italy’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Razov following the incident.
The Russian Embassy has confirmed the detention of a diplomat but has not commented on the incident.
“In any case, we hope this will not affect bilateral relations,” the embassy said in a statement.
Russian espionage in Europe
If proven, it would be the latest of several recent incidents of Russian espionage in Europe.
Bulgaria said this month it had discovered a group of Bulgarian servicemen who were allegedly spying for Moscow. He expelled two Russian diplomats from the country.
Swedish prosecutors have also charged a 47-year-old man with espionage for allegedly providing Russia with information about Swedish companies in exchange for payment.
And in Germany, a man was indicted in February after he allegedly passed floor plans of the German parliament to a Russian intelligence agent.
kmm, jsi / rs (UKTN, Reuters, UKTN)