Italian lawmakers probe Russian pandemic mission’s motives

Mar 24, 2022, 9:54 AM | Updated: 10:36 pm

ROME (AP) — An Italian Parliament committee that deals with intelligence matters summoned former Premier Giuseppe Conte on Thursday over growing concerns that a Russian military and medical team sent to help Italy early in the COVID-19 pandemic was really on a spying mission.

Conte was serving as Italy’s populist leader when the pandemic began in 2020 and overwhelmed the country’s health system, which was then desperate for masks, respirators and sanitizing material.

Proceedings of the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic are usually closed-door since they involve national security.

It wasn’t immediately known if Conte or lawmakers on the committee would brief journalists on the contents of the hearing, which was scheduled to start Thursday evening.

Ahead of the committee appearance, Conte said he had offered his availability to immediately appear before the lawmakers. “That is so no one has any scruples, perplexity, doubts” about his role while premier, the Italian agency LaPresse quoted him as saying.

Conte leads the populist 5-Star Movement, Parliament’s largest party.

The Russian mission involved some 100 army personnel and medical workers. It came under renewed scrutiny recently after a Russian foreign ministry official publicly threatened Italy’s defense minister, Lorenzo Guerini, if Italy pressed ahead with tough sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian ministry official simultaneously implied Italy was being ungrateful for the pandemic aid.

In March 2020, Russia offered to send Italy some 400 personnel and equipment. Guerini objected and succeeded in getting the Russian team reduced to about 100 members. An Italian general also successfully argued against Russia’s proposal to sanitize not just hospitals and nursing homes, as first agreed upon, but also Italian government offices, Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera has reported.

Recently, a member of a special Italian committee of health and civil protection experts which advises the government on the pandemic described the Russians’ attitude about the aid mission as aggressive.

At the time of the Russian mission, concerns arose in Italy that Russian soldiers were operating some 50 kilometers (35 miles) from a U.S. military base in northern Italy. Italy is a NATO member.

The Russians pushed to carry out a similar pandemic-aid mission in southern Italy, where the coronavirus outbreak was relatively mild at the time. Guerini, who opposed expanded the aid mission, essentially told the Russians, “Thank you, but no thank you,” Corriere reported on Thursday.

The Russian team left after a few weeks.

According to Italian news reports, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, contacted Guerini at the start of the pandemic to offer a shipment of masks, and Guerini said Italy would send a plane to Russia to retrieve them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin then called Conte, who later informed Guerini that Russia intended to send over hundreds of military and medical personnel, Italian media have reported.

The leadership of the 5-Star Movement, which is in the pandemic-unity coalition partner of Italy’s current premier, Mario Draghi, officially backs sanctions against Russia. But some 5-Star lawmakers have opposed military aid for Ukraine. Several present or former 5-Stars are openly pro-Putin and didn’t attend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to the Italian Parliament by video hookup earlier this week.

Conte himself recently expressed reservations about any boosting of Italian military spending, emphasizing the needs of citizens struggling with soaring energy costs and the economic fallout of the pandemic.

In Conte’s first government, a key ally was right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, who openly admired Putin and had close ties to Russia.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court has h...

Associated Press

Supreme Court decision on Trump’s election status could come Monday morning

A SCOTUS decision could come Monday in the case about whether Trump can be kicked off the ballot over his efforts to undo his 2020 defeat.

15 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley poses for a selfie after speakin...

Associated Press

Nikki Haley wins D.C. Republican primary, her first 2024 victory

Nikki Haley has won the Republican primary in the District of Columbia, notching her first victory of the 2024 campaign.

16 hours ago

An Apache group that has fought to protect land it considers sacred from a copper mining project in...

Associated Press

A US appeals court ruling could allow mine development in central Arizona on land sacred to Apaches

An Apache group that has fought to protect land from a copper mining project in central Arizona suffered a significant blow.

21 hours ago

On Friday, March 1, 2024, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said yogurt sold in the U.S. can ma...

Associated Press

Eating yogurt may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, FDA says

Eating at least two cups of yogurt a week might reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.

23 hours ago

Arizona will not approve new housing construction on the fast-growing edges of metro Phoenix that r...

Associated Press

Arizona Senate passes plan to manage rural groundwater, but final success is uncertain

A plan to manage rural groundwater passed the Arizona Senate amid concerns about the availability of sufficient water for future generations.

3 days ago

A woman pauses while shopping at a Kohl's store in Clifton, N.J., Jan. 26, 2024. On Thursday, Feb. ...

Associated Press

Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge picked up last month in sign of still-elevated prices

An inflation gauge favored by the Federal Reserve increased in January, the latest sign that the slowdown in U.S. consumer price increases is occurring unevenly from month to month.

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

Italian lawmakers probe Russian pandemic mission’s motives