Russiagate Comes to Italy

The populist League party may be joining the ranks of other entities and individuals who have been discredited for not aligning with NATO’s anti-Russian posture, writes Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus
in Milan
Special to Consortium News

A meeting with Russians, allegations of corruption, and a call for a leading politician to resign.  Russiagate has come to Italy.

A representative of the League — the right-wing anti-establishment party now part of the country’s governing coalition — is alleged to have floated a scheme for his party to receive 65 million euros ($73 million) in illegal financing, skimmed off the top of oil sales from Russia.

Gianluca Savoini, a long-time League member, was recorded during a conversation in the public lounge of Moscow’s Metropol Hotel on Oct. 18, 2018, talking to three still-unidentified Russians about how to channel money to his political party.

Prosecutors in Milan have opened an investigation, while Deputy Prime Minister and League leader Matteo Salvini has denied any knowledge of the alleged plot. 

The recording of Savoini’s conversation in Moscow was published by Buzzfeed in early July. The League and other nationalist parties in Europe, have long been subject to U.S. intelligence suspicions of getting help from Russia and Buzzfeed reporter Alberto Nardelli presents the Metropol recording as the “first hard evidence” of this. He writes that the conversation confirms suspicions that have been present for years of “Russia’s clandestine attempts to fund Europe’s nationalist movements.” (Nardelli admits that an earlier Austrian case involving a nationalist politician was “a sting,” but says the Savoini meeting “bears all the hallmarks of a real negotiation.”)


Nardelli assumes the Russian government was behind the operation — although no proof has been presented of this — and writes that “the real goal was to undermine liberal democracies and shape a new, nationalist Europe aligned with Moscow.” Nardelli presents Salvini, whom the unidentified Russians at the meeting call the “European Trump,” as under Putin’s thumb, representing a key asset for the Russian leader because of Salvini’s recent electoral victory. 

A weakness in the allegation of illicit financing, however, is that the scheme allegedly discussed would have involved sales from a Russian company (Rosneft or Lukoil) to the Italian state oil company ENI, to be processed through the Russian branch of the Italy’s largest bank, Intesa Sanpaolo and both Italian companies strongly deny any knowledge of the proposed scheme. Given their importance to the country’s economy and institutions, they represent interests that go far beyond the League’s control.

Fallout for the League

The investigation is proceeding rapidly, both in the courts and in the press, and is likely to focus on the close ties developed between League operators and Russian political and economic actors. Italian investigators are seeking anything that looks suspicious, even if plans weren’t implemented.

The allegations have caused considerable political fallout in Italy, putting Salvini – a firebrand who has become Italy’s most polarizing politician — on the defensive. The opposition Democratic Party (Pd) has called for his resignation. More importantly, the League’s coalition partner, the Five-Star Movement (M5S) — which took a drubbing in the May 26 European elections, while the League doubled its vote total and became the top party in Italy — now seems intent on exploiting Salvini’s moment of weakness to regain momentum.

The two parties have not reached a full-blown crisis. But the League appears to be getting backed into a corner and the risks of a fall are raised for Europe’s only populist government that has fully supplanted traditional ruling parties, based on its sharp criticism of EU policies on limiting social spending and public investment. 

Such a result would be welcomed by the Western liberal establishment in general, but could open the door for an even more aggressive form of populism in the future. Early indications are that even the latest scandal has not cut into the League’s support, which continues to grow in the polls.

Other Cases Brought to Mind  

The case follows that of former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who also challenged the mainstream view of Russia as an imminent threat to the West.

In 2017, before his right-wing party entered the government, Strache was filmed, while drinking heavily, promising public contracts to a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch in exchange for funding for his party. As Spiegel online, one of the German press outlets that published the video, reported: “The meeting was a trap.” The woman was not who she said she was, and the video ended up being used to bring about the fall of the Austrian government. Strache claims he was set up by a foreign intelligence service.

Heinz-Christian Strache in 2008. (Christian Jansky, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The film was published in May with the desired effect: Strache was forced to resign, putting pressure on rightwing political parties that have been critical of the EU’s decision to maintain sanctions on Russia, such as the League, the National Rally in France and Alternative for Germany.

Of course the prime example of discrediting by association with Moscow is Russiagate.

As former CIA analyst Larry C. Johnson has documented in detail, the numerous contacts between people around President Donald Trump and intermediaries offering damaging information on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or contacts for political or business operations in Russia, were initiated and promoted not by Trump’s side, but by individuals who in many cases have worked for the FBI, the CIA, or the British intelligence service MI-6.

Grounds for Skepticism

Read in light of that precedent, Buzzfeed’s coverage of Savoini’s conversation in Moscow gives grounds for skepticism.

Buzzfeed has been listed as a media target for reports and studies by  the “Integrity Initiative,” a British government-funded network of spies, journalists and think-tanks in the United Kingdom that has targeted politicians and other public figures who are alleged to be too pro-Russian.

Section of Integrity Initiative “handbook” published by the Anonymous hactivist group in November 2018 about the group’s media strategy where Buzzfeed is named.

At the end of 2018, British Member of Parliament Chris Williamson responded to revelations about the Integrity Initiative’s media-influence activities by demanding answers about government funding for the group’s targeting of Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, another politician who often goes against the neoconservative and neoliberal mainstream, this time on the left.

Buzzfeed also has a blemished history with other Russian-meddling allegations. In January, Buzzfeed reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier authored the bombshell article, “President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project.” Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s spokesman promptly called the report “not accurate,” but not before it had been picked up by many large media outlets.

Scandal Hits at Delicate Time

The Italian Russiagate comes at a delicate time. The League has long stated its intention to fight for the removal of sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, and in the past has even called for recognizing the 2014 referendum by which Crimea joined Russia, a move considered unacceptable by NATO countries.

From my own contacts in Italy, I know that these positions have, in recent years, worried U.S. diplomats who saw that Salvini’s party was on the rise and were wary of his pro-Russia stance. In response, they did their best to cultivate a relationship with League leaders, with the aim of cooling the party’s attitude towards Moscow in the event it made its way into government, as happened.

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, on left, with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, in D.C., June 17, 2019. (State Department/Michael Gross)

The strategy seems to have worked, for the most part: now that the League is one of the two parties governing the country, it has stopped talking about Crimea, and has not blocked continued EU sanctions on Russia. In June, the European Council, which includes the Italian prime minister, extended the sanctions for another year.

The League has also taken public steps to reassure the United States of its loyalty to the Atlantic Alliance, after concerns were raised about Italy’s position when it became the first G-7 country to formally join the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative in March. After that, Salvini and Chief of Staff Giancarlo Giorgetti moved quickly to dampen fears in Washington about Italy distancing itself from Washington.

On the other hand, a state visit to Italy by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the beginning of July showed that Italian institutions are still eager to maintain good relations with Russia.

The Italians hope to leverage Trump’s desire for a shift towards Russia, while still swearing their allegiance to whatever other line comes out of Washington.

After Salvini’s June 17 meeting with Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in Washington, the Italian press reported that the Americans want to see more in terms of alignment not only on Russia, but also on Venezuela, Iran, and China.

Paolo Mastrolilli of the daily La Stampa wrote (in Italian) that Pompeo played the hard cop in the meetings, and intends to wait to see if Salvini will keep his promises to stay in line with the State Department before further advancing relations. Mastrolilli also reported that Pompeo is worried by reports that the League may have received help from the Kremlin.

Andrew Spannaus is a journalist and political analyst based in Milan, and the elected chairman of the Milan Foreign Press Association. His latest book is “Original Sins. Globalization, Populism, and the Six Contradictions Facing the European Union,” published in May 2019.

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26 comments for “Russiagate Comes to Italy

  1. Malek al Kuffar
    August 7, 2019 at 18:09

    It is immaterial whether ot not the Ibiza affair was a trap or not. On that occasion Hans Christian Strache was filmed spontaneously laying plans to politically control Austria’s largest newspaper through a buyout and thus clearly signalled that he was ready to betray the most sacred principles of parliamentary democracy. Spannaus’ defense of both the Austrian and the Italian right-wing populists against charges of collusion with Russia is based on technical quibble. Salvini’s tight alliance with Viktor Orbán, a notorious Putin ally, is far better evidence than any airport recordings that the Lega is in Putin’s pocket.

  2. Jeff Harrison
    August 7, 2019 at 11:07

    On Reuters this AM. Jens Stolenburg said that NATO needed to address the rising power of China and how it may challenge members of the North Atlantic security body.

    Seriously?!? What the hell does China have to do with the North Atlantic? I think it’s long past due to call out NATO for what it really is: America’s mercenary army provided by the vassal states of Europe.

  3. Anonymous
    August 7, 2019 at 09:23

    There seems to be a fair amount of alt-right trolling in this comment section, blaming the left for all russophobia when conservatives were the loudest voice during the cold war and often still smear liberals as “socialists” and “communists”. This has happened infrequently before – I wonder if there are calls to troll on /pol/ or something…

  4. August 6, 2019 at 12:38

    “Patriotism, the last refuge of scoundrels.” I believe that quote from one of the Founding Fathers is correct.

    Hope what ever it is that is causing you to froth ot the mouth clears up soon. Just a little advice. Falling out of bed on your head can cause the symptoms you are displaying, so it might be a good idea to raise the safety rails on your crib when you go to bed at night.

  5. August 6, 2019 at 12:30

    Patriotism. The last refuge of scoundrels.

    Hope you get over whatever it is thats causing you to froth from the mouth. Falling on your head as you get out of bed in the morning can cause the symptoms you are displaying.

  6. roberto
    August 6, 2019 at 07:54

    The same vomit from the US russophobia.

  7. Theo
    August 6, 2019 at 06:40

    Once again an interesting article.Thank you.

  8. August 5, 2019 at 13:30

    Evidently Left/Democratic Politicians, and their Network of Socialists, Globalists, anti-Nationalists, anti-Patriots, etc., world wide, all use the same smear tactics that they have adopted in order to fraudulently malign Leaders who love their Countries and are opposed to endangering the Sovereignty, and the people of their Countries, by allowing the “dictates” and “mandates” of UN/&EU Socialist Globalists to overrule their own laws, and have their hands in the governing their Countries. As well as, those Patriot Leaders not agreeing with, or allowing, intra-state, big Government, Socialistic Leftist/Democratic Politicians to break their Countries from the inside out by putting EU/UN mandates ahead of the safety of their Countries and people, and compromising their Country’s Sovereignty by bowing down to UN/EU Globalist Agendas and mandates. The Left in America HATE President Trump, because he is not from the typical mold of bought Politicians, he genuinely loves America & it’s people, he has brought America out of the failing state it was in when Obama left office, and he is very transparent, he shares everything that is legally allowable with the American people, including the truth about Leftist Politicians, Main Stream Media, and their lies . Leftist Politicians try to say that he inherited the great economy, that America is in now, from Obama, but they are lying. Obama threw America into the worse recession since the 20’s. The only reason that there was ANY improvement, was because the Republicans took power for the last 2 years of Obama’s term and began to fix it. They also HATE Trump because Hillary lost to him, which caused their Socialistic Globalist agenda to come to a halt, they could not continue to break America, it’s values, identity, foundation, etc., until they would transform it into a globalist, Socialist Government owned Welfare State. Their vindictiveness and HATRED toward him is so great that they began digging into his past to pull out anything they could use against him. But Trump repented, apologized for his past, and dedicated his life to GOD, his family, and to restoring America, and, We the People, who elected him, forgave him. Since then he has worked hard, lived up to his promise and put America first. But Leftist Politicians, in their
    extreme vindictive hatred for him, dishonestly and maliciously, connived together with RUSSIAN, British, and other Foreign operatives, to devise a plan, which called for them to commit crimes against America, and setting President Trump up to be charged with a crime he didn’t commit. By surreptitiously CREATING and using a fraudulent document filled with FALSE Accusations of Russian Collusion, and then obstruction of the investigation of that False Charge, in order to unseat him from the Presidency. Trump KNEW he didn’t do what they were accusing him of, so of course, he must have been shocked, maybe confused, but he also KNEW that he was being FRAMED for a crime he didn’t commit by his own fellow American Politicians. So he asked questions and sought answers. He wanted to defend himself & protect those around him, because he knew that if those Politicians would do this terrible thing, they could do anything. What made it worse was the continuing stream of lies which they & MSM’S were repeating day in and day out. There is much more, but the point is, that it is only more proof that something is going on worldwide within the Democratic/Leftist machine, and they know, that we know, so they have created even more division and hatred within their constituency’s against Patriot Politicians, and citizens, by spreading false accusations. Patriots around the World must stay informed, connected, and pray for one another. Peace to you.

    • Anonymous
      August 5, 2019 at 16:59

      Blame the left for everything. Never mind the random capital words and lack of organization…you’re a joke.

    • Robert
      August 6, 2019 at 10:18

      Your analysis is largely correct, except that the Russians didn’t participate in Russiagate. The attempted frame-up of Trump by US and foreign intelligence agencies was directed at both getting rid of Trump and framing Russia for election meddling. The fabricated “intelligence”, with compliant MSM promotion, was successful at convincing not only Democrats, but many Republicans, that Russia interfered in the US election and Trump was guilty of colluding with them.

    • ML
      August 6, 2019 at 12:02

      There are no “leftist politicians” in our Congress- center-left maybe some of them, but true leftists, no. You should gather yourself and your thoughts and stop bleating about the terms “left” and “leftist” because the fact is, you don’t understand these terms, nor do most Americans. CNN is not left. The Clintons are not leftists. Obama was not a left-wing politician, etc, ad nauseum. I love my country, but I don’t love my government in its current form or in previous embodiments either. That doesn’t make people who feel the way I do, “unpatriotic.” Get a grip, TG.

    • August 6, 2019 at 12:29

      Patriotism. The last refuge of scoundrels.

      Hope you get over whatever it is thats causing you to froth from the mouth. Falling on your head as you get out of bed in the morning can cause the symptoms you are displaying.

    • August 6, 2019 at 12:35

      “Patriotism, the last refuge of scoundrels.” I believe that quote from one of the Founding Fathers is correct.

      Hope what ever it is that is causing you to froth ot the mouth clears up soon. Just a little advice. Falling out of bed on your head can cause the symptoms you are displaying, so it might be a good idea to raise the safety rails on your crib when you go to bed at night.

  9. Joe Wallace
    August 5, 2019 at 13:21

    mike k:

    You, too?

  10. Stephen Potopa
    August 5, 2019 at 12:51

    Here is Chris Hedges on the Integrity Initiative:

    • Jim other
      August 6, 2019 at 10:58

      Thanks for the link! Interesting

  11. Guy
    August 5, 2019 at 12:21

    What all this boils down to is that the deep state / liberals / atlanticists just can’t stand to have good relations with Russia , so it is all out propagandized war to prevent this from happening.

    • Seamus Padraig
      August 5, 2019 at 17:45

      Executive Summary right there!

    • jim glover
      August 6, 2019 at 02:04

      That’s the truth.

  12. Robert
    August 5, 2019 at 11:01

    Integrity Initiative (II) is international in scope, and has demonstrated its success in fabricating evidence and media influence to destroy any politician who opposes Russia-baiting or replacing national government power with corporate globalism. It will be interesting if the current US investigations on the origins of Russiagate find II links to attempts to frame Trump for Russia collusion. The fake “intelligence” and media influence needed to convince Democrats and most Republicans that Russia interfered in the US election is dangerous to the full political spectrum.

    • August 6, 2019 at 17:01

      How do Democrats fake a Trump Jr Trump tower meeting? Jeff Sessions meeting with Kislyak? Manafort giving a Russian spy polling Data? Michael Flynn holding secret meetimgs with Kislyak? Explain to me genius how a Democrat made those people take those meetings.

      Explain how the Democrats made Donald Trump go bankrupt so he had to borrow laundered money from the Russians. Please explain. This is more about you treasonous Republicans making excuses for treason than about any Democrat.

      Tell Trump show his tax returns. I guess the Libs also made Trump say” Russia, if your listening”. Yep those darn libs. Or what about Helsinki… You Republican trash forgot about that one.

  13. Robert
    August 5, 2019 at 10:20

    “The “Integrity Initiative,” a British government-funded network of spies, journalists and think-tanks in the United Kingdom,” is supported by international intelligence agencies, and their demonstrated ability to fabricate propaganda to influence or destroy any politician who opposes the subservience of national governments to corporate globalism, and the NATO anti-Russia media line is a threat to people everywhere. Some of these same players failed when they tried to frame Trump for Russia collusion, but the massive media power of their efforts was strong enough to convince Democrats and many Republicans of the myth that Russia really did interfere in the US election. While under these fabricated attacks, Trump’s ability to fulfill his promise to negotiate with rather than threaten Russia was not only neutralized, but completely reversed. While the “Integrity Initiative” poses a threat to all sides of the political spectrum, it appears that the only legal steps being taken to stop this perversion of democracy are the investigations initiated into the beginnings of Russiagate by Trump. It remains to be seen whether the “Integrity Initiative” was complicit in this.

    • Guy
      August 5, 2019 at 12:27

      I was about to voice a very similar comment and I was still writing while I had pressed post already .Oh well , you said it much better than I would have said it anyway .
      I* have to laugh at these nice sounding names they use for these subversive organization .”Integrity Initiative ” LOL.I suppose for the non critical mind ,it sounds like an organization your mother would have supported.LOL

      • David G Horsman
        August 5, 2019 at 18:07

        Integrity… that’s newspeak for fascist right?

        Orwell certainly nailed the naming conventions thing did he not?

        Sincerely, the Department of Lies.

  14. Jeff Harrison
    August 5, 2019 at 10:11

    Receiving help from Russia is somehow bad whilst receiving help from the United States is somehow good? American imperialism on display.

  15. Noahway
    August 5, 2019 at 08:35

    Obviously a CIA effort to interfere in Italy’s government. Why blame the Russians? Because it worked so very well in the US. Which is why after two years of investigations Trump is still president.

Comments are closed.