Veiled threats and WhatsApp bribes accompany Russia’s aid to Italy

We don’t just follow stories, we follow up. On April 2, Coda Story’s Natalia Antelava took a look inside the influence operation behind Russia’s recent coronavirus aid package to Italy. The piece was published in collaboration with La Stampa newspaper, where journalist Jacopo Iacoboni had been covering the issue. 

That evening, Iacoboni received an extraordinary threat from Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson General Igor Konashenkov, who wrote a Facebook post accusing La Stampa and Iacoboni of “fueling Russian cold war fake news” and signed off his statement with a phrase in Latin: Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam – “he who digs the pit falls into it.” 

Iacoboni was at home in Italy’s northern city of Turin when he read the Facebook post. “I started to realize how aggressive and threatening that statement was,” he said.

Italy’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to Konashenkov’s outburst with a statement of their own. After thanking Russia for their help, they countered: “In being grateful for this concrete demonstration of support, one cannot, at the same time, not blame the inappropriate tone of certain expressions used by the spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Defense towards some articles of the Italian press.”

The statement also revealed a disparity between the Russian and Italian accounting of the aid package: while the Italians said they had received 150 ventilators, the Russian ambassador said they had sent 600. 

Italy’s Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte was quick to respond when asked by a BBC journalist last week if the Russian aid package came with any conditions. 

“The mere insinuation offends me deeply,” Conte said. “It’s an offence to the Italian government… and also to Vladimir Putin, who would never dream of using this as leverage.”

A report by Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, published on Sunday, described how a mysterious chain message circulating on Italian WhatsApp groups was calling on Italians to “say something good about Russian humanitarian aid.” The message instructed users to post on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram “for videos they pay 200 euros, for text they give less.” La Repubblica was unable to find out the origins of the message, and was told by the Russian Embassy in Rome that it was a “fraudulent provocation.” The embassy told the newspaper: “It is clear that Russia does not need recognition of this form.”

During a press briefing on Thursday, when asked about the potential security risk of Russian military presence in Italy, NATO General Tod Wolters said: “It is of concern.  I pay very close attention to Russian malign influence.”

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