We have teamed up with the Italian daily La Stampa to dig into Russia’s activities in Northern Italy.
Ten days ago, Vladimir Putin sent 15 military planes full of supplies and medical personnel to Italy. It was followed by a massive propaganda campaign portraying Russian troops as coming to Italy’s rescue at the time when the EU or US could not or would not help. But people we’ve been speaking to are raising questions about Russia’s mission.
“It’s unimaginable that this would happen in a NATO country in any other circumstances,” says Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commanding officer of NATO's Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion
What we know so far:
122 officers from the Radiological Chemical and Biological Weapons Defense (RChBD) unit, one of the most secretive units of the Russian military, are now stationed in Bergamo.
Russia says they will send more aid, despite the rapidly growing cases at home (not unusual, as the US has also been sending aid around the world).
In Bergamo, Russians have decontaminated two nursing homes and are preparing to decontaminate a hospital.
The problem is that all of this information is coming from the Russian sources. Russians are in full control of the information about their activities in Bergamo and the wider narrative surrounding their presence in Italy.
The Italian media are using footage distributed by Russia Today’s video service Ruptly. No questions were allowed during a brief press-conference that Russian General in charge of the operation held in Bergamo and none of the officials we have spoken with have any information beyond what is already on Russian tv.
The big question. Or two:
It’s clear that Moscow (like Beijing) is using its humanitarian mission for propaganda purposes, but are they also using it for intelligence gathering? That’s the concern for two senior European diplomats, who wanted to remain unnamed, but said that they are worried “There will be a lot of activity going on on the ground in Russia,”
“That’s safe to assume,” says Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, not only because any intelligence service would do so” but also because there is a lot of overlap between RCBW troops and military intelligence, or GRU, in Russia.
“But right now the story is being lost in the noise and trauma of the crisis,” one of the diplomats said.
The second question is: Considering Russia’s track record (Salisbury comes to mind) and the double use of the humanitarian purposes, why did Italy, which has one of the best CBN capabilities in Europe, allow Russians in?
The answer seems to lie in a combination of chaotic crisis management effort, an historically softer stance towards Russia, and Russia’s successful cultivation of Italy’s current populist government.