Straight out of a movie. Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera is “the protagonist of the most clamorous intelligence operation” carried out by Russia in Italy and unearthed by a ten-month investigation by the investigative site Bellingcat, the Italian daily Repubblica, the German weekly Der Spiegel and The Insider.
- Ms Adela – whose real name is Olga Kolobova – became a Neapolitan socialite. Over the years, she managed to infiltrate the personnel of the local NATO base, home of the US 6th Fleet.
From Russia with documents. The main trace linking her to Moscow’s secret services is the Russian passport she used to enter Italy, which belongs to the same special series used by the operatives at the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
- The investigation, as the authors explain, didn’t manage to reconstruct what information the spy managed to obtain, nor whether she was able to sow computer viruses in the phones and computers of her friends.
- She did, however, come into contact with key figures in NATO and the US Navy: no Russian agent had ever managed to penetrate the Atlantic Alliance summit so deeply.
But this is not a solitary case. Italy has long been a crossroads of spies, and the discovery of Maria Adela’s covert operation is just the latest in a long series. Here are some recent episodes.
Cash for secrets. In March 2021, when Moscow was moving thousands of combat-ready soldiers on the Ukrainian border, Italian Navy officer Walter Biot was arrested for handing NATO secrets to a Russian diplomat in exchange for € 5,000.
- He is currently defending himself in two different court cases and faces a double life sentence.
Industrial intel. Alexander Korshunov, a Russian tycoon trained in the SVR (the Russian foreign intelligence service), stands accused of industrial espionage against Avio Aero (GE Aviation) with the complicity of former Italian executive Maurizio Paolo Bianchi.
- Mr Korshunov was arrested near Naples in 2019 on an FBI warrant but was returned to Russia in 2020 due to former Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede.
French dispatch. A French lieutenant colonel (whose identity has remained under wraps) was stationed at the NATO base in Naples. He was taken in the summer of 2020 by the DGSI, the French internal intelligence and counterintelligence agency, during his last days of holiday before returning to Italy, where he was liaising with the GRU officer who had recruited him.
Mass expulsions. Finally, on April 5, Mario Draghi’s government announced the expulsion of 30 Russian diplomats, citing reasons of national security. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio explained the measure was taken “in agreement with other European and Atlantic partners” in the context of the “crisis situation” that followed “the unjustified aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation.”
- It is estimated that one-third of the Russian representation in Italy is composed of operatives from all three major Russian agencies, GRU (military intelligence), SVR (espionage) and FSB (counter-espionage).
The role of the Embassy. All these episodes occurred during Sergey Razov’s tenure as Russian ambassador to Italy. And it is not the first time Russian diplomats have been accused of espionage under his mandates.
- On January 20, 2000, Mr Razov was the Kremlin’s ambassador to Warsaw. He was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry and notified of the expulsion of nine members of the Russian diplomatic staff, accused of being involved in “active espionage operations” against the host country.
- It was the first expulsion of Russian diplomats since 1993 by Poland, which was allied with the Soviet Union (the Warsaw Pact need only be mentioned). And it took place less than a year after Poland entered NATO.
Tune change. After the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Embassy in Rome had to face the difficulty of telling Moscow about a different Italy, where Mario Draghi’s government had chosen the line of pro-European and Atlanticist intransigence.
- Ambassador Razov was displeased, and his anger seeped into his aggressive statements that did not reflect his spirit (as people who know him have said). His men, meanwhile, continued to work.
The League connection. The most sensational case was that of Oleg Kostyukov, embassy official and son of Russian military intelligence director Igor Kostyukov. The diplomat, stationed in Italy since 2019, is the man who bought the plane tickets for Matteo Salvini’s mission to Moscow, which he had to cancel after news of the trip was made public.
Disinfo operations. Then there is Daria Pushkova, whose activities were reported by the daily Domani. She is a journalist and daughter of Aleksej Puskov, a member of the United Russia party, where she heads the information committee. In Italy, she works as director of the embassy’s science and culture centre; she’s often been a guest on the Italian media to present Russia’s point of view.
Not sailing away. Finally, one must recall the Scheherazade, the fabulous 140-metre yacht in a Carrara shipyard. It is now seized by Italy’s financial authorities, who suspect the real owner is President Vladimir Putin.
- As reported by Repubblica, during the investigation, the Guardia di Finanza carried out a surprise blitz on board the yacht and identified the crew: the names were all those of GRU officials known to Italian intelligence. The next morning, when they returned on board, the financiers only found a couple of sailors with British passports. The others had already vanished into thin air.