ROME – Italy ordered two Russian Embassy officials expelled Wednesday and arrested an Italian Navy captain on spying charges after police caught the officer allegedly giving classified documents to one of the Russians in exchange for money.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told a joint session of the Italian Parliament's foreign relations committees that the documentation concerned NATO information and that the incident was a “hostile act of extreme gravity."
“It is not just our security at risk, but that of the entire NATO (alliance), and we cannot accept this," he told lawmakers.
The Foreign Ministry said it summoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Razov to protest the “grave incident" after a sting operation on the outskirts of Rome allegedly caught the Italian and one of the Russians in a “clandestine operation” to exchange the documents for cash late Tuesday.
Italy’s Carabinieri paramilitary police said the Italian frigate captain had been arrested. The Russian observed with him, a member of the Russian armed forces stationed at the Russian Embassy in Italy, was initially detained but not immediately placed under arrest given his diplomatic status.
He was ordered expelled along with another Russian Embassy official allegedly involved, Di Maio told lawmakers. Di Maio didn't provide details about the suspected role of the second Russian.
The Russian Embassy in Rome confirmed the detention of a diplomat who belonged to the military attache’s office but wouldn’t comment on the incident.
“In any case, we hope that it wouldn’t affect bilateral ties,” it said in a statement.
Italy’s special operations forces in Rome staged the sting “during a clandestine operation between the two, surprising them red-handed immediately after the handing over of classified documents by the Italian official in exchange for a sum of money,” said the Carabinieri statement.
The Carabinieri said both were accused of “serious crimes concerning espionage and state security.”
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was unaware of details of the incident, but noted that “we hope that the quite positive and constructive character of the Russian-Italian relations will be preserved.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry voiced regret about the diplomats’ expulsion in a terse statement carried by Russian news agencies. It added that its “possible steps in connection with the situation that doesn’t conform with the level of bilateral ties will be announced later.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab conveyed support for Italy in a tweet.
“The UK stands in solidarity with Italy and its actions today, exposing and taking action against Russia’s malign and destabilizing activity that is designed to undermine our @NATO ally," he said, retweeting a Di Maio tweet announcing the expulsions.
AP reporter Vladimir Isachenkov contributed from Moscow.