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In 2018, representatives of Italy’s far-right Liga party traveled to Moscow in search of financing from Kremlin-connected sources. Their meeting, held at the historical Metropol Hotel near Red Square, was reported in 2019, along with details of a proposal to launder $65 million in support for the Italian party through an oil trading scheme. What was not known at the time, however, was the professional affiliation of one of the participants on the Russian side. After a months-long investigation, The Insider can now reveal that at least one of the Russian representatives was an officer of the FSB’s Fifth Service, which has a mandate to disrupt democracies abroad.

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Content
  • The Boys From the Fifth

  • “The Third Rome”

  • The Fascist International

  • Dugin's FSB Protege

  • The Orthodox Oligarch

This is a joint investigation with Domani.

Andrey Kharchenko, a Russian intelligence operative, was behind a scandalous attempt to give Italy’s far-right Lega party $65 million as part of an unrealized oil deal, The Insider can reveal based on a new investigation. The deal was negotiated at a posh hotel in Moscow in October 2018, and the discussions were secretly recorded. On the Italian side was Gianluca Savoini, the right-hand man to Italy’s current Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the populist Lega party (then known as Lega Nord, or Northern League). While the other participants of the meeting, both Italian and Russian, have been identified, Kharchenko’s role as a spy has never before been disclosed. That biographical detail may yet reopen a closed Italian investigation into international corruption.

The Boys From the Fifth

And Kharchenko isn’t just any spy.

He is an officer attached to the foreign intelligence arm of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, a military unit known as the Fifth Service. This is the same espionage apparatus that attempted to politically destabilize Ukraine both during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution that unseated pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and in the lead-up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Moreover, as The Insider recently reported, the Fifth Service has recruited and handled at least two well-placed political assets in Europe: Tatjana Ždanoka, an embattled Latvian MEP now under investigation by the European Parliament, and Vladimir Sergienko, a now-former aide to reactionary German parliamentarian Eugen Schmidt, whose employment was “suspended” following The Insider’s revelations about his work for Russian intelligence.

Born in Azerbaijan in 1980, Kharchenko’s affiliation with FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency and a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, was established through a recent leak of Russian social security data, which The Insider examined. Of relevance was his insurance policies, which clearly indicated who his employers have been over the past two decades: all of them were all military units associated with the FSB. From 2004 to 2008, for instance, Kharchenko was insured by Unit 33965, which corresponds to the FSB Academy in Moscow, the training center for all officers in the service. Subsequently, he was insured by Unit 10282, the FSB center in the city of Tver, located just under 200 kilometers north of the Russian capital. And since 2011, Kharchenko has been insured by Unit 26047, the technical designation of the Fifth Service.

Comparison of Kharchenko's voice in a conversation with The Insider and in a conversation at the Metropol

Kharchenko is currently attached to Igor Levitin, a presidential assistant to Putin and a fellow member of the Fifth Service himself, additional evidence from leaked Russian databases confirm. The Insider has identified Kharchenko by Levitin’s side on two recent trips to the Middle East: in Tehran with Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber in January 2023, and in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani this past November.

FSB officer Andrey Kharchenko (far left) at a meeting between fellow FSB officer Igor Levitin and Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, January 2023.
FSB officer Andrey Kharchenko (far left) at a meeting between fellow FSB officer Igor Levitin and Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, January 2023.
Kharchenko (far left) and the rest of the Russian delegation, including Levitin, meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, November 2023.
Kharchenko (far left) and the rest of the Russian delegation, including Levitin, meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, November 2023.

“The Third Rome”

Kharchenko’s best-known effort to inject Kremlin cash into the political system of an EU and NATO member-state occurred on October 18, 2018 at the Metropol Hotel in central Moscow. Between cups of espresso, jokes about sending Italians to “gulags” for “mental rehabilitation,” and talk of extramarital trysts, a deal was ultimately reached. Via an intermediary, three million metric tons of oil would be sold by an unspecified Russian energy company to an Italian counterpart, Eni, at a price of only $1.5 billion — a discount of $65 million given the market rate at the time. The lion’s share of that discount (minus the inevitable kickback to the Russians, of course) would be directed into the coffers of Lega, which in March 2018 had become the second largest party in the Italian Parliament, controlling 125 seats (a figure that fell to 59 after the 2022 election).

The Metropol meeting was not a one-off. As Stefano Vergine and Giovanni Tizian, The Insider’s investigative partners in this exclusive, report for the Rome-based newspaper Domani, the negotiations over the oil deal “consisted of 40 meetings, held mainly between April 2018 and February 2019,” the month Vergine and Tizian, then writing for L’Espresso, first revealed the existence of the Metropol meeting.

Pierfrancesco Majorino, a former Italian MEP from the center-left Democratic Party and currently a councilor in the Lombardy Region, told The Insider, “We are faced with an affair of unprecedented gravity. Salvini's clique, led by Savoini, a character awarded with seats of his own in the Lombardy Region, played with fire by [having] dangerous relationships with those who do not cherish democratic values. I think, aside from the judicial implications, on a strictly political level we need to go back and look inside at what happened at the Metropol.”

Apart from Savoini, the close aid to Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, two other Italians attended the October 2018 meeting in the Russian capital: Gianluca Meranda, a consultant; and Francesco Vannucci, a banking expert. As Savoini explained it at the Metropol meeting, a Rome-Moscow partnership, underwritten by oil money, would be a relationship based on mutual interest. “A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty,” he told the assembled, rattling off other like-minded populist movements, including Austria’s Freedom Party, France’s National Front, and Germany’s AfD, the party infiltrated by the recently unmasked Fifth Service agent Vladimir Sergienko. “We really want to begin to have a great alliance with these parties that are pro-Russia, but not pro-Russia for Russia but for our countries.” In a playful dispute over which nation should have the honor of picking up the bar bill, Savoini bolstered the Italins’ case by asserting that “Moscow is the third Rome,” a reference to a medieval conceit whereby Russia inherited the mantle of previous Christian imperial cities, Rome and Constantinople.

When rumors of the meeting began circling in the Italian media, Salvini and Savoini refused to answer questions about it, dismissing the thought of Lega representatives sitting down for coffee with potential Kremlin agents in the dining room of a swanky hotel just off Red Square as “fantasies” and “the plot of a fiction.” Except the whole thing had been secretly recorded, and when the very real proof of the meeting subsequently leaked to the American news site BuzzFeed, it created an international scandal.

Italian prosecutors opened an investigation, but they closed it last summer, explaining to the investigating judge that they had not found any proof of the proposed oil transaction ever having taken place, nor of Eni entering into any agreement with a Russian oil company. Furthermore, in order for an instance of international corruption to qualify as a crime under Italian law, the recipient of the bribe or illicit payoff in question has to be shown to be a public official, and the sum in question had to exceed €100,000 — a number that is significantly lower than $65 million. (The Italian statute has since been changed in order to make the acceptance of any foreign donation by a political party illegal.)

After the investigation was dismissed, Savoini crowed, blaming the whole thing on the “machination of the globalist power bases.” Salvini, meanwhile, said: “Now we are waiting for the apologies of many, and we are preparing complaints for many.”

Sabrina Pignedoli, a current MEP from Italy’s populist Five Star Movement, which from 2018-2021 was part of a ruling coalition that included the Lega party, expressed outrage at the decision. “What were members of the Russian intelligence services doing at the Metropol Hotel with the [Lega] members? Was the judge who dismissed the case aware of this?”

At the time the Italian prosecutors’ investigation was closed, Kharchenko’s position in the Russian state security apparatus was not known. And while a Kremlin spy may not be terribly “public” about his role, an FSB operative certainly qualifies as a government official.

As Yale historian Timothy Snyder told The Insider, “The more you know about the Russian secret services and about international fascism, the more you realize that each serves the other.”

Salvini’s “Sherpa”

Matteo Salvini, a 50 year-old right-wing nationalist from Milan, has spent decades railing against Muslim migrants and EU bureaucratic overreach while at the same time actively advocating for closer ties between Italy and Russia. On one well-publicized occasion in 2014, a smiling Salvini was photographed on Moscow’s Red Square wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Putin decked out in military regalia. In 2019, Salvini dubbed Putin “the best statesman on earth,” and has remained critical of Western sanctions on Russia even after the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In the first month of the full-scale war, Salvini made the mistake of visiting Przemysl, a Polish city near the Ukrainian border and a waystation both for Western arms moving into Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict. At a joint press conference, Wojciech Bakun, the mayor of Przemysl, held up a picture of Salvini’s Red Square adventure and invited the Italian tourist to visit a nearby Ukrainian refugee center “to see what your friend Putin has done.”

Undeterred, Salvini planned to visit Moscow on a “peace mission” in May 2022. However, that trip was canceled after it was revealed that the Russian embassy in Italy had paid for the Aeroflot tickets Salvini and his delegation were set to travel on.

Matteo Salvini, the current deputy Prime Minister of Italy, in Moscow, 2014.
Matteo Salvini, the current deputy Prime Minister of Italy, in Moscow, 2014.

Savoini's ties to Moscow have also been scrutinized, including by The Insider and its investigative partners, Bellingcat and Buzzfeed. The Lega party member, commonly known in Italy as “Salvini’s sherpa to Russia,” made 14 trips to the country in 2018 alone — many of them involving a stay of less than 24 hours. He visited Russian-occupied Crimea on two separate occasions, in 2014 and 2016. In 2017, Savoini helped broker a partnership agreement between Lega and United Russia, the Putin-aligned party that maintained its supermajority in the Russian Duma in 2021 thanks to notable irregularities in that September’s elections. Savoini also serves as the president of the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, an outfit whose express mission is to reflect and amplify Putin’s professed ultraconservative worldview.

In October 2018, while Savoini was conniving with an FSB officer at the Metropol, his boss was elsewhere in Moscow. On this occasion, Salvini and Savoini had traveled to Russia together. According to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, they dined at the aptly named Ruski restaurant on October 17, one day before the Metropol meeting. The Lega leaders were joined by Savoini’s business partner, a fellow Italian named Claudio D’Amico, who previously served as the head of the party’s foreign office. Before the dinner, Salvini had met two influential Russians. The first was Vladimir Pligin, a former State Duma deputy and head of its Constitutional Law Committee, who was sanctioned by the EU in 2014 for certifying the takeover of Crimea. The second was Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak. Salvini met both simultaneously at Pligin’s Moscow office the following day, although the event was never registered in the Italian’s official itinerary.

Pligin and Kozak were both referred to at the Metropol gathering, the first by name, the other simply alluded to by Kharchenko as “Mister Deputy Prime Minister.” Both were described as needing to be involved in the technical details and financial structure of any finalized Italian-Russian oil scheme.

Savoini, meanwhile, was photographed on October 17 with Aleksandr Dugin, Russia’s foremost fascist philosopher and a proponent of Eurasianism, an updated twentieth century ethos premised on Eastern Orthodoxy and traditional values that frames Russia in stark civilizationist terms as a world-empire-in-the-remaking — with its depraved, existential opponent cast as a liberal democratic Europe and “the Atlantic,” embodied by the United States.

Savoini and Dugin have known each other for years.

The Fascist International

Dugin’s father was a lieutenant colonel in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. His late daughter and intellectual heir, Darya, who was just beginning to make a name for herself on the Kremlin-controlled talk show circuit, was blown up in a Ukrainian-orchestrated car bombing in Moscow in August 2022, no doubt owing to their filial advocacy of the genocidal destruction and colonization of Ukraine. In 2016, Savoini emailed Darya Dugina, inviting her father to take part in a “a great meeting of Lega with Marine Le Pen,” the head of France’s National Front, Austrian far-right Freedom Party chairperson Heinz-Christian Strache, “and other parties of the European group in Milan.” The invitation carried another enticement: the chance to partake in a “private lunch” with Salvini.

Dugin has said that Ukraine is a “bastard state” that should be “wiped off the face of the earth,” and that it is necessary to “kill, kill and kill” Ukrainians. His Eurasian Youth Union, fielding far-right activists from all across Europe, had even set up paramilitary training camps and organized demonstrations advocating Russia’s takeover of Donbas as early as 2005, a year after Kyiv’s pro-democratic Orange Revolution swept Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency for the first time. (Yanukovych, running in 2004 as the hand-picked successor to term-limited Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, was initially declared the winner of the election before a protest movement demanding a recount succeeded in forcing a run-off, which Yanukovych lost 52-44).

The FSB’s Fifth Service, originally founded in the 1990s, was reconstituted following that convulsive event in Russia’s “near abroad,” which coincided with other “color revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). In its new incarnation, the spy agency was to act as the “gendarme of the post-Soviet region,” according to Andrei Soldatov, a London-based Russian journalist and author specializing in the Kremlin’s security services.

By 2014, the vanguard of the Russian military and security forces that spearheaded the annexation of Crimea and Putin’s dirty war in Donbas was largely made up of Dugin’s ideological followers. They include Aleksandr Borodai, the self-appointed prime minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a Russian-backed occupation regime that has ruled in eastern Ukraine for going on a decade, and Olga Kulygina, a suspected GRU officer who has been active in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Borodai and Kulygina appeared alongside Dugin during Russia’s constitutional crisis in 1993, when government forces led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin cracked down on an unlikely ideological alliance of ultra-nationalist and Communist putschists at the Ostankino television and radio center in Moscow. The crisis culminated in the Russian army’s shelling of the White House, a Russian government building that, at the time, served as the meeting place of the country’s parliament.

Dugin's FSB Protege

There is another telling Dugin connection to the Metropol meeting: Andrei Kharchenko.

In 2019, when Kharchenko’s presence at the meeting was first publicized by The Insider, Bellingcat and Buzzfeed, the FSB operative’s connection to the bearded ideologue also came to light. Although Kharchenko’s name never appeared on the website of Dugin’s International Eurasian Union — and, likely owing to his real job as an FSB officer, his name was completely absent from any Russian tax database during the relevant years of employment — after his outing at the Metropol meeting, Kharchenko described himself in Russian media as the “Near-East Director” of Dugin’s organization. He also admitted to studying under Dugin, who advised Kharchenko in his pursuit of a PhD in philosophy. (The resulting 137-page dissertation was about the moral and geopolitical dangers posed by heedless migration and cellphone selfies.)

Kharchenko (right) accompanying Dugin on a trip
Kharchenko (right) accompanying Dugin on a trip

Dugin and Kharchenko were also travel companions, as The Insider has reported. They visited occupied Crimea together in November 2016 along with a delegation of similarly ideologically oriented Turks. That same month Kharchenko tagged along on a separate trip with Dugin and Leonid Slutsky, then the deputy chairman of the Committee on International Affairs of Russia’s State Duma. The three went to Ankara, where they liaised with Turkish proponents of Eurasianism. Dugin was even photographed standing outside a meeting held by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the Turkish parliament. Right next to Dugin in the picture is Binali Yıldırım, Turkey’s Prime Minister at the time.

The Orthodox Oligarch

Dugin’s global activities are largely underwritten by Konstanin Malofeev, a deeply religious billionaire, sometimes referred to as the “Orthodox oligarch.” He has been sanctioned by the U.S. and EU for his financing of pro-Russian militants in Ukraine and for facilitating the occupation of Crimea. Malofeev’s Tsargard group of media companies has been instrumental in promulgating Dugin’s worldview, along with “the revival of the greatness of the Russian Empire.”

An investigation published by New Lines Magazine and other outlets in 2022 examined the role that eager European collaborators — including Salvini’s Liga — were poised to play in that Russian imperial revival. The investigation, based on leaked documents from the computer of Mikhail Yakushev, a close associate of Malofeev who joined his boss on the U.S. Treasury’s sanctions list in April 2022. Yakushev’s records show that Salvini met with Malofeev in November 2018, one month after the Metropol meeting, at the Lotte Hotel in Moscow. In a Word document he emailed to himself, Yakushev stressed the need “to prevent the Western press from catching wind of the meeting” and alluded to the earlier conference between Savoini and Kharchenko as having “drastically deteriorated” the prospects for any possible Lega-Russian collaboration. “Now we cannot continue to have contact with [Salvini],” Yakushev wrote, adding that Savoini was firmly “under the watchful eye of the local [Italian] security services” due to the Metropol affair.

Yakushev also outlined a proposal to hold a meeting of the minds at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg in the Fall of 2019. The invitation list was to be culled from the leadership ranks of the Identity and Democracy faction of the European Parliament, a newly formed bloc of far-right parties. No such event ever took place.

And yet, one of Savoini’s own emails, contained in the tranche of digital documents examined by New Lines, did indicate that in January 2019 the Italian had arranged for a group of German Bundestag deputies from AfD to travel to Moscow “Mr. K will wait for you and Mr. Bjorn Hoecke in his office in Moscow at the end of January if you can,” one email read. “On the same day I will introduce you to Andrey Klimov, the chief of Foreign Relations of United Russia party and we will be hosted in the central office of the Party. Meeting with Mr. K will be private of course.”

“Mr. K” referred here to Konstantin Malofeev.

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