“From Russia with Love”: a crime mystery of Moscow and Rome

Two years ago, Russia helped Italy deal with the first wave of Corona, and the event was called an old spy movie. Now the Italians are wondering if Moscow was really dealing with espionage at that time.

For weeks, there has been speculation in Italy about a Russian aid operation that took place two years ago. At that time, the first corona wave broke out in Lombardy, northern Italy, and military trucks drove the coffins from Bergamo. Russian assistance was gratefully accepted at that time, in March 2020. Now there are doubts. Did the Russians really help or was it just a cover for a spy mission? There is no hard evidence, but some incidents have left rumors to explode.

Even the tough confrontation between former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and current Prime Minister Mario Draghi raises questions. The goal is to increase the arms budget to 2% of GDP, as agreed within NATO in 2014. Today it is just under 1.6 percent. Conte rejects the 2% target. “Of course, the agreement must be respected,” he said a few days ago. However, implementation in the next two years should not be a dogma. First you have to help families and businesses.

March 22, 2020 in Moscow, cargo planes are being loaded.

(Photo: Photo Alliance/AA)

Similar arguments were used in Germany until the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Conte, now the head of the Five Star Movement, still sticks with it. In Italy, the question now arises as to whether his resistance stems solely from concerns about the country’s economic hardships. It could also have something to do with the “Dalla Russia con amore” mission. This is what Operation Russian Relief was called, based on the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”, originally “From Russia with Love”.

The mission was outlined in a telephone conversation between Conte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini was not convinced of the mission at the time. It was March 22, 2020 when 13 large Russian cargo planes landed near Rome at Pratica di Mare military airport. 104 people got out of the machines, specialists, as they were called at that time, who were primarily supposed to sterilize hospitals and nursing homes. The Russians also brought face masks, coronavirus tests, and lung ventilators. A column of military vehicles rolled off cargo planes.

Italian intelligence kept an eye on the mission

Until then, the daily La Stampa questioned the actual purpose of the expedition, because the medical staff consisted of only 28 doctors and four nurses. There were also a few scholars, all of whom belonged to the military. Now, the newspaper writes, “Russian secret agents were also there.”

Immediately after landing, the Russian general Sergei Kikut announced that he had obtained permission from the highest authorities to move freely throughout Italy. However, General Luciano Portolano, then head of the Italian Operations Command, replied that he was now on Italian soil and “here I define what is permitted and what is not.” Defense Minister Guerini, who remains in office today, sent the Russians to Bergamo – with an Italian military escort they shouldn’t lose sight of for a moment.

When the Russians then wanted to move to Piedmont and the Apulia region in southern Italy in early May, Guerini declared the mission over. The question arose: why go to Puglia? Like the whole of southern Italy, the region was only slightly affected by the first wave of the epidemic. The largest military airport in Italy is located in Apulia. On May 7, the Russians returned to their homeland.

While the Italian military and intelligence agencies were keeping a close eye on the mission, the public wasn’t really interested. Help also came from Cuba and China. Perhaps the whole task would have been forgotten long ago if the Kremlin had not dug it up again.

Can Conte be blackmailed?

The Kremlin has targeted Italy several times since the Russian attack on Ukraine. In the eyes of the Kremlin, Italy is a soft wing of Europe due to many people who understand Putin in domestic politics. First, it was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who threatened Italy with irreversible consequences if Rome supported European sanctions against Russia. This was followed days later by a direct attack on the Minister of Defense. Alexei Paramonov, responsible for European affairs at the Russian Foreign Ministry and consul in Milan from 2008 to 2013, accused Guerini of ingratitude in connection with the aid operation “from Russia with love.” Paramonov also threatened to reveal the details. It looked as if Conte could be blackmailed.

Therefore, the entire message is now checked again. New details leak out almost every day. For example, the Russians brought with them only 521,800 face masks, 30 lung ventilators, many of which did not work, 10,000 rapid tests, 100,000 standard tests, two test analyzers and 1,000 protective suits. In addition, this aid operation cost Italy three million euros, because the Kremlin demanded reimbursement for jet fuel. This request was first denied and then approved, why is not clear yet.

A week ago, Giuseppe Conte voluntarily testified before the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (COPASIR) and reiterated that “the purpose of this mission was exclusively medical”, both the Ministry of Defense and the secret services took care of this.

A member of COPASIR said that thanks to close monitoring, there were no problems, but this does not mean that the Russian mission could not have had other goals. It is doubtful whether this thriller crime thriller between Moscow and Rome can be explained in all its details. Italian media frequently discuss questionable links between politicians and Russia. So far this has had no effect.

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