The Italian-Russian espionage case of Navy officer Walter Biot was the most important event of the week. The story triggered the enthusiastic reaction of Italian media and politicians and even the treasure hunt (which took place strictly through social media) of the military secrets stolen by the Navy captain in force at the Third Department of the Defense Staff, the one that deals with strategic planning.
As explained clearly by our former ambassador to Moscow Sergio Romano, the episode would not be anything exceptional, much less anything unusual. Espionage belongs in all respects to the continuity of the political and diplomatic relationship between countries, as well as the practice of expelling one or more officials in force at the embassies involved in a possible crisis.
The relevance of the story is all in the context in which it unfolds. The arrest came at a time of renewed tension between the United States and Russia-China, triggered by the election of Joe Biden at the White House. It also reaffirms the centrality of Italy in the competition between the great powers. A fact that had already emerged at the time of the signing by the Conte I government of the memorandum on the new silk routes with Beijing. And that we had guilty underestimated.
All this helps to put into perspective the reason why the Draghi government has chosen to magnify the incident so much. The intent was to signal Italy’s newfound loyalty to the US administration at the juncture in which Biden wants to reunite its European allies to counter Chinese expansionism and Russian adventurism.
Although not at the forefront, Italy remains under Washington’s scrutiny due to its historical affinities with the Russians, its recent flirts with the Chinese and objective factors such as being a military outpost armed with US nuclear warheads. Our country is also fatally attracted to Germany, whose guarantee will be decisive for receiving the Recovery Fund money we literally need to survive.
Despite the relative lack of interest in the Italian media system, it should be remembered that last Friday the German Constitutional Court temporarily blocked the ratification of the Recovery Fund while waiting to understand if the European Union can legally contract debt. A decision of exceptional importance that unmasks the common opinion of “European” funds for the post-pandemic recovery and confirms the fact that Germany represents our truly last guarantee in the eyes of the markets.
The point is that showing ourselves too close to the Germans at this juncture can put us in a bad light in the eyes of the US superpower. With Trump replaced, relations between Washington and Berlin remain very tense even under the Biden presidency, since the Americans barely tolerate initiatives such as the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and the investment agreements recently signed by Berlin and Beijing through the European Union.
The arrest of Commander Biot and the expulsion of two Russian diplomats then became necessary to signal Italy’s adherence to the United States’ agenda on dossier that remains relevant. Just like that of relations with Russia, which from our point of view is by far the most harmless of all. Moscow knows the dynamics of events like this very well and has a strong historical and cultural affinity with Italy.
The Kremlin in fact hastened to minimize, acknowledging it with ostentatiously moderate tones and hoping that Russian-Italian relations will continue preserving their positive and constructive character. Moreover, given its strategic position, Italy will always be at the center of the foreign intelligence activities of non-NATO countries that want to count for something. Just like Russia, especially when the Kremlin is trying to consolidate its military presence in Cyrenaica and throughout the whole central-eastern Mediterranean.