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"Operation 88": How Are Mercenaries in Donbas Connected With Italian Leadership?
10 August, 2018

On the night of August 1, Italian police arrested three people and declared another three wanted. They are accused of recruiting and financing mercenaries for pro-Russian forces in the Donbas.

The investigation, which has been ongoing since 2013, has been called "Operation 88" – a reference to the the fascist greeting "Heil Hitler!". This was the greeting suspects exchanged in telephone conversations. Most detainees are involved in the ultra right Italian forces. In particular, they are associated with the League party – previously known as Lega Nord – which currently hold seats in the Italian government.

Italian mercenaries and militants of the so-called "Luhansk People’s Republic" in Lugansk, 2015 Photo: Facebook

Paid in Pennies

So far six arrest warrants have been issued, three people have been detained, and there are three others in hiding – presumably in occupied Donbas. Another seven suspects have had their houses searched. This is how Italian police are hunting for members of a criminal group involved in recruiting mercenaries to fight with Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas. Some of the 15 suspects personally participated in active combat against Ukrainian troops.

Mercenaries, unlike contract soldiers, are outlawed in Italy. They face 4 to 15 years in prison.

And Italian police have no doubt that these people were mercenaries. From intercepted telephone conversations, it is evident that the suspects received money for their work and even complained they were underpaid. During the interview, the figure they cited was 400 euros per month, but the Italian press writes that mercenaries who work on the frontline earn up to 50,000 euros. However, who pays for their services remains unclear.

Following the Hot Trail on Social Media

In 2013, Genoa Police were monitoring phone conversations as part of an investigation into skinhead youths. This led them to the head of a neo-Nazi organization, which was looking to pay people to fight on the side of Russia-backed forces in the Donbas.

Ukrainian diplomats helped identify suspects. According to Italian media, two years ago, the Ukrainian embassy handed over a list with the names of 30 Italian mercenaries in the Donbas to local law enforcement agencies.

"Since 2016, the embassy has been transmitting information on Italian citizens fighting on the side of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to relevant authorities,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to Italy Yevhen Perelygin told Hromadske. “We hope that the investigation will be productive."

Journalists who looked into Italian mercenaries in the Donbas during the past two years also helped the investigation. According to Italian publication L'Espresso, the investigation proceeded thanks to the testimony of an informer – a friend of one of the detainees. He went to fight in the Donbas for Russia-backed separatists and recounted details of his experience to the NATO and Italian prosecutors.

The mercenaries themselves made little effort in hiding their participation in the conflict. One of the wanted, Andrea Palmeri, nicknamed “Generalisimus”, freely gave interviews and published photos from occupied Luhansk on Facebook.

His last post was dated August 1. Palmeri posted a photo in which he was distributing goods to residents of the occupied territories, with the caption "yes, I am a terrorist, I admit  it.” In Italy, he was convicted for murder. He is now hiding from the police.

Andrea Palmeri, nicknamed "Generalissimo", is wanted in Italy and internationally, Luhansk, August 1, 2018 Photo:  Andrea Palmeri

Who Are These People?

Palmeri openly calls himself a fascist and sports a swastika tattoo on his shoulder. The prosecutors suspect that he is the main liaison between the Italian mercenaries and the Putin commanders in the Donbas. However, it’s not only the ultra-right who fight for the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR.) One of the suspects has extreme left views. Mercenaries tend to be united by the Eurasian ideology of Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin and the idea of a "great Russia," which opposes the "fallen" West.

Andrea Palmeri in Donbas, 2014  Photo: Andrea Palmeri

In addition to Palmeri, at least two other mercenaries are hiding in the Donbas. They are Gabriele Carugati, son of the former head of the Northern League’s local branch in the Lombardy region and Massimiliano Cavalleri, another resident of the region.

"Before I arrived here, in the LPR, I was in the DPR, in Donetsk. I fought for the airport for five months. There was shooting every day there, from rifles, artillery, tanks... from everything,” Cavalleri said in an interview published by Italian press in 2016.

Italian police also managed to arrest professional serviceman Antonio Cataldo in Italy. He fought in Libya, participated in military exercises in Russia and Kazakhstan, and was a sniper for the so-called LPR in Ukraine.

Professional Italian military sniper fighting on the side of the so-called "LPR", Antonio Cataldo (left) in Luhansk, 2015 Photo: Facebook

Another detainee is Albanian Olsi Krutani, a veteran of Chechnya. In Milan, he owned a gym, where he trained and recruited mercenaries for Donbas separatists. The third person arrested was Moldovan Vladimir Verbitchii, who was training to be paratrooper in Italy before going to Donbas.

The list of suspects also includes an Italian woman called Romana Mengaziol, who owns an agency that officially provides security services "in international criminal and terrorist contexts."

In case materials, one other woman is mentioned – Russian Irina Osipova. It is believed she could be the key to solving this case. Osipova is close to the ultra-right circles that support Putin, the head of the organization Russian-Italian Youth (RIM) and an ex-candidate in Rome’s local elections.

She is the daughter of Oleg Osipov, who heads the Italian representation of the Rossotrudnichestvo organization. The organization receives generous funding from the Kremlin and, according to political analyst Anton Shekhovtsov, works to spread Russian influence to policies of European countries.

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Relationship with Politicians

It is namely Osipova who is tangled in threads that lead to the political leaders of Russia and Italy. Amid the holiday pictures, her Facebook page features photographs of leaders of Italian right-wing forces. In 2015, Osipova took part in a conference of European neo-fascists in St. Petersburg. Luca Bertoni, a representative of the Lombardy-Russia association represented Italy at the conference that year. Bertoni is close to Matteo Salvini, who at the time was the leader of the League and is now Italy’s Minister of Internal Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister.

When they returned from the conference, participants spoke of how they were received by "the Russian oligarch and Putin's friend, who finances the movements of nationalists and anti-globalists in Europe."

Osipova accompanied Salvina on at least one trip to Moscow. According to L'Espresso, that’s when his party was able to arrange for Kremlin funding. Salvini is known to have an agreement with the United Russia party, opposes sanctions against Russia and does not recognize the annexation of the Crimea.

Irina Osipova  Photo: Facebook

The case file on the mercenaries discusses how Lombardy-Russia is closely associated with the League. Its head, Gianluca Savoini, accompanied Salvini on a July visit to Moscow.

According to Andrea Castagna, an expert on European affairs of the Wilfried Martens Center in Brussels, there is a connection between Lombardy-Russia association and the mercenaries. Whether the association was involved in the recruited mercenaries for the so-called LPR and DPR, remains an open question. However, in the "Operation 88" materials, there is evidence of contact between the association and the network of recruiters. And this shows that representatives of the current Italian government, in particular, Salvini, may be involved in the "mercenaries case."

/By Olga Tokariuk

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov