When last Sunday night 9 Russian air planes arrived with medical equipment and personnel, many in Italy felt gratitude for the help delivered in one of the most difficult moments in recent Italian history. Some, however, including La Stampa journalist Jacopo Iacoboni, saw in the delivery coming from Russia, that included Russian military virologists and epidemiologists, a reason for deep concern.

“There are Russian military men rather than help”, wrote the Italian journalist Iacoboni, in an article published on Tuesday, referring to “high-placed political sources. “80% of the delivery is useless, is only a pretext”, goes on the article, noting that now “Russian soldiers could move ‘undisturbed’ in Italy”.

In another article that appeared on the same day, titled “Moscow soldiers headquartered in the lodgins of the Italian army, fears of a Russian ‘occupation’ in Italy”, the journalist argued: “The belief that Russia, in the emergency for the Coronavirus, is not helping us only for the great goodness of its people and for the traditional friendship that binds the two countries, is now beginning to circulate in broad sectors, military and political, of the Italian administration and government”.

Mr Iacoboni quoted another Italian military source who recalled the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “But this is unrelated to the current case, although it is an evocative memory”, noted the author.

The story received international resonance, and provoked a reaction from the Russian ambassador to Italy as well, Sergey Razov, who wrote a letter to the newspaper La Stampa. “As for the message that arises from the reasoning of the author and that is that the sending of Russian soldiers (by the way, free of charge) would aim to cause some damage to the relations between Italy and NATO partners, we offer readers the opportunity to judge for themselves who and how they come to the aid of the Italian people in difficult times. In Russia there is a saying: ‘In times of need you see who is a real friend’ ”, said the Russian Ambassador.

“And then, the parallel drawn by the journalist between the arrival in Italy of Russian specialists and the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan in 1979, allow me to say this, is simply out of place and, as they say, ‘it is neither in heaven nor on earth’ ”

The letter by the Russian diplomat was duly published on the website of the Italian newspaper, including a reply from the author of the articles. “I am not saying anything, I just report what high-level political sources said to La Stampa. They said it”, wrote Mr Iacoboni, who added piqued: “I overlook Your evaluations of ‘insidious’ Russian ulterior motives that I would see: they are precisely Your evaluations, the readers will judge. Finally I reassure you, there is no doubt that La Stampa will continue to adhere to the ‘fundamental principle of journalism on the impartiality and objectivity of information’, as there is no doubt that in Italy and in La Stampa we will continue not to let anyone say what a journalist ‘should’ do or not.”

But the question remains: if Mr Iacoboni did not necessarily believe in the veracity of the insinuations of his “high-placed political sources” then why did he have to write two articles based on their statements? Moreover, the articles do not appear to question the subjective assessments quoted in the piece in any sort of way. Yes, there is the remark that the parallel with the Soviet invasion looks “distant” but if the author really believed this idea to be so outlandish and absurd, why did he have to include it in his “impartial and objective” pieces, call it “evocative” and note that the idea came from “people with a certain degree of historical culture”?

This looks a rather nervous attempt at excusing oneself, in particular when the journalist repeats, with a sentence that smacks of the very typical arrogance that so often characterizes media employees, that in Italy nobody call tell the press what to write. This does not mean that the press has the right to publish anything, including subtle insinuations and sensationalist materials, and expect to have the natural right to be above all sort of criticism.

Mr Iacoboni has worked with the Atlantic Council, the American think tank that promotes Transatlantic cooperation and American leadership in the world, and was one of the authors of the report “The Kremlin Trojan Horses. Russian Influence in Greece, Italy and Spain”, published by the organization in 2017. In light of this it is little wonder that the presence of 100 Russian military doctors worried Mr Jacoboni more than the presence of 13,000 American soldiers in Italy, stationed in 59 bases all over the Italian soil.

Meanwhile, the President of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, declared: “Like the poet Dante used to say ‘Do not care about them, but look and pass by’. These are political diatribes that I am not taking up at the moment, I say thank you to the Russian friends who sent the doctors. There are always jackals that want to speculate on these things”.

Stefano Di Lorenzo