LONDON — A close aide to Italy’s hard-right de facto leader has links to mercenaries fighting alongside pro-Russian and neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine, according to court documents seen by BuzzFeed News that will increase concerns about the Italian government’s relationship with Moscow.
The documents say that Gianluca Savoini has had contact with one of 10 people Italian prosecutors have accused of recruiting and supporting far-right mercenaries in Donbass, a region in Eastern Ukraine.
As previously reported by BuzzFeed News, Savoini is a longtime aide to Matteo Salvini — who in June became Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister — and accompanied him on an official government visit to Moscow in July in an unclear capacity.
European diplomats have already expressed concern about the relationship between Italy’s new government — a coalition between the nationalist Lega party, which Salvini leads, and the populist antiestablishment Five Star Movement — and Russia.
Russian-backed militias have occupied Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region since 2014, in a war with Ukraine that has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people, and which followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The conflict is still ongoing, and Donbass is home to two separatist republics, neither of which are recognized internationally.
According to the court documents, Savoini, 54, has been in contact with a 25-year-old Italian man called Orazio Maria Gnerre, who is now under investigation as one of 10 people — nine men and one woman — accused by prosecutors.
The court papers also mention the pro-Kremlin cultural organization Savoini presides over, Lombardy-Russia, stating that one of its members participated in a gathering of nationalist political parties in St. Petersburg in March 2015, along with Gnerre and another individual under investigation as part of the same case.
Present at the meeting, which the court documents claim was organized by Russia’s nationalist Rodina party with the support of the Kremlin, were military commanders from separatist paramilitary units in eastern Ukraine, and what Italian prosecutors describe as “numerous European neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and homophobic militants.”
A criminal investigation involving Gnerre, originally started in the Italian region of Liguria five years ago, eventually led prosecutors in Genoa to gather evidence on the movement, activities, relationships, and motivations of more than a dozen people.
Members of that group now stand accused of a mix of charges, ranging from recruiting, training, and funding foreign mercenaries in Eastern Ukraine, to fighting alongside pro-Russia and nationalist extremists in the region.
Last month, a court issued arrest warrants for six people accused of training mercenaries and being unauthorized fighters in Eastern Ukraine, and it is investigating four others, including Gnerre, for recruiting and supporting mercenaries in the region.
Neither Savoini nor the Lombardy-Russia association have been charged, and they are not believed to be currently under investigation. A judiciary source who spoke about the case on condition of anonymity described the organization as “marginal” in the context of the specific investigation that led prosecutors in Genoa to seek criminal charges against 10 people last month.
But the fact that court documents name Savoini at all raises new questions about the nature of his relationship with Salvini, who is working to reshape the European Union in his nationalist bent and has repeatedly called for dropping sanctions against Russia.
In an initial phone call with BuzzFeed News, Savoini explained he had been in contact with Gnerre two years ago when they discussed a book about the ultra-nationalist Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin that Gnerre was working on.
“I followed the final phase of the publication of that volume, but it ended there,” Savoini wrote in a follow-up email, explaining he’d known Dugin for more than 20 years.
“I haven’t seen him [Gnerre] since,” he added.
Research into Lombardy-Russia’s Facebook page carried out by BuzzFeed News has also established that it promoted the same kind of pro-Kremlin propaganda, and took part in similar events across Italy, as individuals and groups named in the court documents.
In an email, Savoini wrote that “self-determination is one of the key principles in a democracy,” and claimed the West had “double standards.”
“Kosovo battling against Serbia for independence is OK to Western powers, but Crimea, where not even a rubber bullet was fired, isn’t recognised,” he wrote. He said the pro-democracy Maidan revolution in Kiev in 2014 was “fomented” by foreign powers and not in the interests of the Ukrainian people.
A source with knowledge of the case claimed that additional investigative materials provided to Italian authorities by foreign counterparts highlighted the organization as a matter of interest. The source said they were unauthorized to provide specific details.
Lombardy-Russia also shared a sympathetic news story about of one of the alleged mercenaries on its Facebook page.
The court documents name a second individual who is not under investigation, a Russian national called Irina Osipova, who had a professional working relationship with both Salvini and Savoini while at the same time being aware of the presence of Italians fighting in eastern Ukraine — and, based on her social media activity, supportive of their actions.
Osipova is also cited among the participants of the St. Petersburg gathering of nationalist parties which Gnerre attended. (Facebook photos she posted show her at the event in the company of the commander and deputy commander of the “Rusich” battalion operating in the Donbass, which is described in the court papers as a neo-Nazi organization.)
Savoini told BuzzFeed News on the phone that Osipova acted as Salvini’s interpreter at a press conference in Moscow in October 2014. He said that was the only time he could remember her being in Moscow with Salvini.
Osipova shared a photo of herself and Salvini in Moscow’s Red Square in October 2014. However, Salvini also tagged Osipova in a Facebook post from Moscow in December that year. Osipova also shared in December a second photo with Salvini and Savoini in the Russian capital.
According to reports in Italian media, Salvini visited Moscow three times between October 2014 and February 2015.
Salvini did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Asked about his relationship with Osipova, Savoini said he cut ties with her shortly after the St. Petersburg event because he claimed she’d invited the then-secretary of Lombardy-Russia to the meeting without Savoini’s knowledge. Before that she had participated in a number of Lombardy-Russia and Lega events, appreciating the party’s stand against sanctions on Russia, said Savoini.
“We don’t have any more direct contacts with her as an organisation since 2015,” Savoini later wrote in an email.
“I have never authorised anyone from Lombardy-Russia to represent the organisation in Russia at any event that isn’t directly organised by the government party, United Russia,” he said in the same message.
The investigation that culminated in last month’s court order has its origins in checks carried out into neo-Nazi graffiti that appeared on walls in Liguria in October 2013.
During the course of those inquiries, investigators determined the presence of a number of far-right groups operating in the region, and, a year later, came across Gnerre and his political activism, which included a humanitarian association raising funds and supplies for the Donbass region in Ukraine, where war between the Ukrainian military and separatists, supported by Russia, had broken out that spring.
In the summer of 2016, Ukrainian authorities shared with Italy’s foreign ministry information relating to entities and individuals allegedly supporting “subversive” activities in Ukraine, as well as a list of some two dozen Italians said to be fighters in the country, according to a source familiar with the information that was shared. Several people now under investigation in Genoa were on that list, the source claimed.
A criminal investigation led by the anti–organized crime branch of Italy’s military police began that same year.
The examination of phone records and intercepted calls, online and physical surveillance, intelligence, and interviews with subjects of interest allowed investigators to expand on Gnerre’s and other suspects’ networks and discover more people in their orbit.
Among the most significant discoveries were alleged contacts between Gnerre and an Albanian-born former Russian military parachutist named Olsi Krutani, who, according to the court papers, allegedly used a gym in Milan to spread propaganda, and Russian martial arts courses to recruit and train potential mercenaries. Prosecutors believe Krutani acted as an intermediary between recruiters and potential fighters in eastern Ukraine.
The documents also assert Gnerre’s travels to Donetsk — which is the largest city in Donbass and still occupied by Russian-backed separatists — in June 2014, where they claim he met with the breakaway region’s political and paramilitary leadership.
Gnerre told BuzzFeed News in a Facebook message last week that he could not discuss the details of the case. But he said his political positions were clear, denied any wrongdoing, and professed his innocence. He dismissed the significance of his links to Savoini, saying Lega’s politics were different to his.
On Aug. 1, three arrests were carried out in the cities of Milan, Avellino, and Parma, according to reports in Italian media. They include a former Italian soldier, a Moldovan man who used the alias “Parma” — where he resided — and Krutani. The three other suspects remain at large, most probably in Eastern Ukraine, based on their recent Facebook posts. Among them are an Italian ex-soldier who fought in Bosnia in the 2000s, as well as Gabriele Carugati, the son of a Lega politician called Silvana Marin. In a news article about Italian fighters in Eastern Ukraine, shared by Lombardy-Russia on Facebook in December 2014, the Lega politician, who is the secretary of a local party branch, was quoted as saying how proud she was then of her son’s involvement in Ukraine.
Savoini told BuzzFeed News that he had never met Carugati, and was not in a position to judge other people’s personal choices.
Marin declined to provide a comment for this story.
The court papers also suggest there is evidence of an ongoing recruitment drive, allegedly linked to Gnerre, to attract mercenaries to fight in the conflict in Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian separatists.
As part of the investigation, prosecutors are looking into the accounts and operations of the humanitarian association “Coordinamento Solidale per il Donbass” allegedly once operated by Gnerre and others to raise funds and supplies for the Donbass region.
Research by BuzzFeed News into content posted on the Lombardy-Russia Facebook page found that Savoini’s organization has participated in events with the same humanitarian association, and promoted its fundraising efforts and events on its Facebook page.
Savoini told BuzzFeed News that there were “zero links” between his organization and the Donbass humanitarian association other than that members of the two organizations had spoken at a few events together.
In an email, he added that he didn’t recognize the term “fundraising.” He said, “If anything, we tried to help children who are victims in armed conflict in those areas through a public collection: It’s simply called charity for the most helpless.”
Savoini isn’t the only individual with ties to Salvini to be named in the court papers.
In the documents, prosecutors describe Osipova, the Russian national, as collaborating, at the time of the gathering of nationalist parties in St. Petersburg in 2014, on an alliance between a small Italian fascist party called CasaPound and Salvini’s Lega. (Lega’s past partnership with CasaPound has been widely reported by Italian media.)
Osipova heads up an organization, “RIM – Russian Italian Youth,” which aims to foster a community among young Russians living in Italy and Italian youth with sympathetic views toward Russia. According to media reports, she is the daughter of the director of the Rossotrudnichestvo mission in Rome, the Russian center for science and culture. In 2016, Osipova was a candidate in local elections in Rome with the far-right Brothers of Italy. The party was in coalition with Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in the general election held in March this year.
Osipova has not been charged and is not believed to be under investigation.
She did not respond to attempts to contact her via Facebook, LinkedIn, and email.
In addition to the 2015 St. Petersburg event, she is cited elsewhere in the court papers as a contact of Andrea Palmeri, one of the three men who remain at large. In a Facebook post dated May 6, 2015, promoting a fundraiser, Osipova wrote that she was “in direct contact” with Palmeri. She has also posted photos of Italians fighting alongside nationalist extremist units in Eastern Ukraine.
Osipova’s Facebook activity reveals that she was aware of the presence of Palmeri and other Italians operating in Eastern Ukraine around the same time she accompanied Salvini to Moscow. And the court papers make reference to an interview Osipova carried out with Palmeri that she published on her organization’s website on Oct. 9, 2014.
Unlike most other alleged mercenaries, who traveled from Italy via plane to Moscow, then on to the Russian city of Rostov before crossing the border into Eastern Ukraine by bus, Palmeri drove to the Donbass region in 2014 in his blue BMW in order to evade surveillance, investigators claim.
Palmeri — who is the former leader of “Bulldog 1998,” a group of hardcore militant fans of the Lucchese soccer club — is seen by prosecutors as central to the group identified by the Genoa investigation. According to evidence and witness statements presented in the court documents, he allegedly received payments to fight with pro-Russia paramilitary units, and actively enticed, recruited, and trained others to join him.
He has denied the accusations in a series of Facebook posts and claims to be in the region for humanitarian reasons.
A recent post on the Lombardy-Russia Facebook page invited followers to an event in Verona to remember Alexander Zakharchenko, the president of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic killed in a bomb attack last month.
Lombardy-Russia’s Facebook page also contains evidence of visits by its members to occupied territories in Eastern Ukraine, and an array of posts supportive of the breakaway regions’ cause.
Savoini claimed in an email that a trip to the region wasn’t political. The vice president of Lombardy-Russia had simply accompanied a delegation of entrepreneurs invited by authorities in Donetsk to explore commercial opportunities there.
Lombardy-Russia members also attended the inauguration of a representation of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic set up in the Italian city of Turin in 2016. The similarly unrecognized Lugansk People’s Republic opened similar offices in Messina, Sicily, earlier this year.
On its about page, Lombardy-Russia, which was founded in 2014, says that its aim is to reflect President Putin’s worldview based on identity, sovereignty, and tradition. It sees part of this mission as informational. The organization claims to have a partnership with the Russian state media outlet Sputnik and consistently pushes pro-Kremlin propaganda, on anything from the downing of Flight MH17 to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, which it described as a “false flag” operation.
Lombardy-Russia is also focused on building political and commercial ties between Italy and Russia. Its activities have included several political and trade missions to Russia, as well as to annexed Crimea, with Salvini attending at least one of the trips to the latter.
Savoini said he went to Crimea in October 2014 with Salvini at the invitation of the president of the Republic of Crimea, “to understand the real situation in the peninsula” following the March 2014 referendum. (After being annexed by Russia in March 2014, a vote — which has not been recognized by the international community — was held in Crimea on whether to join Russia.)
Under Ukrainian law, entering Crimea through Russia — bypassing official Ukrainian entry points — is an administrative offense punishable by a fine and, in some cases, leads to a three-year entry ban to Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities have put several European politicians on an entry ban list.
BuzzFeed News reported in July that Savoini participated in official meetings between senior Italian and Russian government ministers in Moscow in a role that to this day remains unclear.
In Moscow, Savoini sat in on a meeting between Salvini and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Kolokoltsev. He also attended a meeting Salvini had with members of Russia’s national security council.
Italy’s Interior Ministry told BuzzFeed News at the time that Savoini wasn’t on the internal list of the ministry’s delegation for the Moscow trip, but was possibly an “external collaborator” to the minister. The ministry, however, did not respond to questions about the capacity in which Savoini was in Moscow or whether he had the necessary security clearance to attend the meetings.
Asked in what capacity he attended the meetings, Savoini told BuzzFeed News in an email at the time that he was part of Salvini’s delegation as a “member of the minister’s staff.”
Savoini said that he’d been a member of Salvini’s Lega party since 1991 and had always been a part of Salvini’s staff even before the now–interior minister entered government. (Savoini is Salvini’s former spokesperson.)
He also explained that he’d helped organize all of Salvini’s trips to Moscow and had taken part in past meetings with Putin in 2014, as well as with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other senior Russian officials. (Pictures of Putin are frequently posted on Lombardy-Russia’s Facebook page, including repeated postings of the same photo of Savoini meeting the Russian president in Moscow in 2014.)
This week Savoini clarified in a phone call that he was not a member of the ministerial team, but part of Salvini’s “personal staff” and inner circle. He also revealed that he would be participating in Salvini’s next trip to Moscow.
In July, European diplomatic sources told BuzzFeed News they are concerned about the new Italian government’s relationship with Moscow.
The sources claimed, in particular, an overlap between Italy's two governing parties, Lega and the Five Star Movement, and what a diplomat called Russia’s “information warfare”; the partnership agreement between Lega and Putin’s United Russia, which includes a clause about information-sharing on issues relevant to bilateral and international relations; and ongoing “personal relationships” and contacts between party members and Russian officials.
Photos shared on Facebook by a Russian reporter show Salvini, Savoini, and Osipova all attending Russia Day celebrations at the Russian ambassador’s residence in Rome in June this year, although they are not photographed together.