Scrutinising the “prank call” incident. Italy is reacting to Wednesday’s news: the Prime Minister’s Office in Palazzo Chigi explained how the Russian comic duo Vovan & Lexus – famous for such stunts – managed to get on the phone with PM Giorgia Meloni. The details, which have emerged over the past hours, suggest it was less fo a prank call and more of a hybrid war operation against Italy, which Kremlin operators seek to punish for walking away from its historical closeness to Russia over the past years.
The (threat) actors… Far from being a pair of young good-timers, the comic duo (whose real names are Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov) are tools of Kremlin propaganda. They always denied the accusations of working on behalf of or with the support of Russian intelligence, but what they said in a 2016 Guardian interview offers a good window into their thought process: “We wouldn’t prank Putin. We don’t want to harm our country. We don’t want unrest here; we don’t want to do anything that would help the enemies of Russia.”
- In another interview around that time, with Meduza, the duo demonstrated a certain awareness of their role in the dynamics of the Russian State and its foreign projection.
… and the sophistication of the operation. In all likelihood, they first approached Palazzo Chigi’s staff with an email, pretending to be from the African Union’s Commission offices and attaching a number to call, reports iI Messaggero. Usually, at this stage, it’s up to the staff of Ambassador Francesco Talò, a highly experienced and influential diplomat who has been instrumental in PM Meloni’s foreign policy reach since she came into power, to handle matters.
- The timing was perfectly well-calibrated, too. The phone call took place on September 18, right before the UN General Assembly (19-21 September), i.e. when the Italian PM was in New York, having a flurry of meetings with African officials – a core priority for her foreign policy. All this likely contributed to lowering the Italian staffers’ guard.
Managing the response. In looking for a scapegoat, many across the media and the political world are indicating Ambassador Talò as the right target for public ridicule. But as our sister website argues, hanging him out to dry would actually be a victory for Russia’s effort to undermine the Italian State. Misconstruing the incident by underestimating why it happened is part of the reason why some members of the opposition and mediatic personas have pilloried him and Palazzo Chigi staffers more generally instead of reacting to what bears all the marks of a sophisticated act of hybrid war.
Watch out, says Lorenzo Guerini. The head of Parliament’s Intelligence Committee, former Defence Minister and leading member of the biggest opposition force, the Democratic Party, on Wednesday, called to exert “the utmost attention” and explicitly mentioned the “malicious activities”, highlighting the national security dimension of the incident. He also got in touch with Undersecretary Alfredo Mantovano, who exerts oversight over the national security services, about what happened.