ROME — Italy’s interior minister and vice premier, Matteo Salvini, went off the grid for 12 hours during an official state visit to Moscow last October. Tales of Russian prostitutes seemed to explain the time lapse for the single statesman. But a new exposé by the Italian newsmagazine L'Espresso suggests that his time may have been spent doing something far more sinister: he may have been making backroom deals with Russian operatives ahead of European Parliamentary elections.
The investigation, which the magazine says was conducted over several months, comes to the conclusion that Russian president Vladimir Putin is selling 3 million tons of diesel fuel via a Russian company to an Italian state company, Eni, that Salvini as interior minister can help manage.
L'Espresso names the first Russian company involved as Avangard Oil & Gas, which has a curiously opaque façade, and is housed on Novinsky Boulevard in Moscow next to major firms like ExxonMobil, Repsol, Shell, Glencore amd Samsung.
The Russian profits, according to L'Espresso, would then be funneled back to Italy to fund Salvini's Lega [League] party to help it engage in the dark art of manipulative online persuasion ahead of European elections in May.
The elections are key for Salvini, who has steered his once-eurosceptic Northern League party to become the Euro-friendly Lega. His hope is that if he and other like-minded political parties across Europe can infiltrate the European Union structure and control it from the inside, they can do any number of things, including lifting Russian sanctions.
“Secret meetings, travel, email, handshakes and millionaires’ contracts,” L'Espresso says, are the hallmarks of this scheme. “On one side of the table one of Salvini’s loyalists, on the other precious intermediaries of the Putin establishment. In the middle: fuel.”
The objective, the investigative team states, is "to secretly support the Salvini party.
The reporting in the exposé is part of a book due out next week called The League's Black Book which outlines the money trail linked to the seizure of more than $50 million from the League last July, public funds allegedly embezzled by the party's elder statesman, Umberto Bossi. It follows a series of allegations and suspicious business dealings with Russia that would surely intrigue U.S. President Donald Trump, who Salvini admires.
Salvini's key tie to Russia is his former spokesman, Gianluca Savoini, who is not present in the current Italian government, but who remains a trusted ally of the leader. Savoini, who is married to a Russian woman named Irina, is listed as president of the Russia-Lombardy Association based in the north of Italy and frequently tweets from Moscow, even referring to a shot he took of Red Square as the “third Rome,” and often praising Putin and his United Russia party. In a profile last March, Italian Vanity Fair referred to Savoini as Salvini's “sherpa,” who “doesn't speak a word of Russian but who is fluent in the language of politics.”
The L'Espresso exposé refers to “dozens of trips to Moscow, the Crimea and the Donbass” by Savoini, and, they claim, “he has conducted the negotiation for Russian financing from the beginning.”
Savoini is an associate of Aleksey Komov, a name often associated with Putin-connected Russian oligarch Konstanin Malofeev, who happens to have a religious media propaganda TV station in the same Novinsky Boulevard building as Avangard Oil & Gas.
Komov, who L'Espresso says works for Malofeev at his massive St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, is also tied to U.S. President Trump's former campaign chairman Steve Bannon through the Catholic group Dignitatis Humanae, which is building a university for alt-right politicians in an 800-year-old monastery outside of Rome. Komov is the Russian ambassador of the World Congress of Families, which fights abortion and same sex unions on whatever platform it can.
L'Espresso claims that the troika behind all of the dirty dealing is Komov, Savoini and Aleksandr Dugin, a political influencer who has Putin's ear and who was appointed as an honorary president of the Russia-Piedmont association, a sister organization to Savioni's Russia-Lombardy association, which gives him easy access to Italy. Dugin has, coincidentally, also been working for Malofeev's foundation with Komov, according to L'Espresso.
Dugin and Savoini were photographed in Rome on the Via del Babuino in September, where they allegedly put the finishing touches on the plan for Salvini's Oct. 17, 2018 visit to Moscow. The main event there was a 5:00 p.m. conference organized at the Lotte Hotel. Savoini was sitting front row center. After the conference, Salvini and Savoini apparently disappeared through a side door and were not heard from until the next morning. The Italian press traveling with him were baffled until it was leaked that the single Salvini had plans of an intimate nature.
But L'Espresso says those rumors came from the Salvini camp, and instead the interior minister was meeting “in secret with a prominent character of the Kremlin: Deputy Premier Dmitry Kozak, delegate for energy affairs, a man in the close circle of Putin.”
The next morning, Salvini was back and Savoini was photographed by L'Espresso reporters at a meeting with Russian oil executives at Moscow's posh Metropol Hotel where he was overheard promising Salvini's commitment to the diesel deal. “The new Europe must be close to Russia. We no longer have to depend on enlightened decisions in Brussels or the U.S.,” L'Espresso says Savoini told the Russians through a translator.
“We want to change Europe together with our allies like Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Mrs. Le Pen in France, Orbán in Hungary, Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden.”
All of these leaders happen to be part of Steve Bannon's new ‘Movement‘ coalition of right-wing leaders hoping to take Europe by storm in elections in May.
At the hotel meeting, L'Espresso journalists, who snapped and published photos of the meeting, say the four talked about the Russian oil company Rosneft rather than Avangard, which was shuttered when the investigative reporters went back to check before publishing their exposé. Rosneft is also in the Novinsky Boulevard high rise, they say.
“The Russians propose three million tons of diesel to be delivered in six months or a year,” Savoini allegedly told the group, according to L'Espresso. “The Italian lawyer says that there is no problem: he ensures that Eni has the ability to buy even more if necessary.”
Savoini reportedly then told the Russians, “The plan made by our political guys is simple. Given the four percent discount, they pay €250,000 a month, for a year. So they can support a campaign,” he says. “This is only a political issue, we want to finance the election campaign, and this is good for both parties.”
L'Espresso reports that the rest of the meeting dealt with the type of diesel order, whether it could also include airplane fuel, where and how it would be delivered. “The Russians suggested Banca Intesa Russia and the Italians reassured them it was a good choice because in the board of directors there is already ‘one of our men, Mascetti,’” referring to Andrea Mascetti, a League member who sits on that bank's board.
Salvini’s spokesman Matteo Pandini has not officially commented on behalf of the minister. Instead he says Salvini will respond “in due time.”
The exposé ends with a caveat, and perhaps an important one. “On October 18, 2018, we finished this journalistic investigation,” they write, explaining they were sure Savoini and the Russians would soon be on to them. “We do not know how the deal ended, whether the agreement was signed and under what terms.”
If it is true, it would mean that Salvini’s Lega would be financed for the European parliamentary elections by a Russian state-owned company. “In short,” the L'Espresso authors write, “The main Italian government force is supported by Putin, the number one enemy of the E.U.”