For years they traveled with ease from Italy to take part in the Russia-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Many boasted of their martial exploits on social media and in videos, often decked out in camouflage fatigues and brandishing weapons.
And for years, authorities in Italy largely turned a blind eye, failing to stop these mercenaries despite protests and complaints from officials and others in Kyiv.
On August 1, Italian police announced they had arrested three men accused of recruiting mercenaries to fight in eastern Ukraine. Three others are still being sought after prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Genoa accused the six of fighting in eastern Ukraine and recruiting others to the cause.
It was the first time that Italian authorities have charged anyone with fighting in eastern Ukraine, where more than 10,300 people have died since the conflict erupted in April 2014.
In a statement, Italian police said they searched the homes of another seven people as part of the investigation into the Italian-Ukrainian recruitment network. Some of the suspects allegedly had ties with the commander of a neo-Nazi paramilitary unit called Rusich, which operates in Ukraine's Donbas region.
Genoese prosecutors have also charged 15 others with being members of the recruitment ring.
Authorities in Genoa carried out the probes and arrests in tandem with ROS, the anti-organized-crime and antiterrorism branch of the carabinieri, Italy's paramilitary national police force.
Police in Genoa have been investigating far-right networks in the area since 2016, according to the Genova Today newspaper.
However, as UNIAN notes, the action comes months after a Ukrainian lawmaker submitted a list of 25 Italians believed to be fighting with the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Who Was Arrested?
Other than their names and nationalities, few details of those arrested or those being sought were released, and government officials have made few comments on the matter.
According to the La Repubblica newspaper, the people under arrest are Italian Antonio Cataldo, Albanian national Olszty Krutany, and Moldovan citizen Vladimir Verbitsky.
The carabinieri released a video on August 1 in connection with the arrests, including footage of Verbitsky, who took the nom de guerre "Parma" when he allegedly went to fight in eastern Ukraine in May 2015, joining the Rusich group.
He appeared to maintain a low profile at first, wearing a mask -- at least when in front of a camera -- as in this video.
Later, however, he seemed less worried about his identity getting out.
In a YouTube video posted by the separatists in Ukraine, Verbitsky is apparently shown firing artillery.
On camera, "Parma" says he is 21 and, although he grew up in Italy, where his parents moved to from Moldova, he considers himself "Russian."
Detainee Krutany is reportedly a veteran of the conflicts in Chechnya, the restive Russian region in North Caucasus. He was also an owner of a gym in Milan, and a fan of Russian martial arts, which allegedly gave him contacts to fighters in the Donbas, according to the Italian online news portal Ottopagine.it.
Cataldo, the third detainee, is allegedly a key fixer, having acted as an intermediary between the fighters on the ground in eastern Ukraine and those in Italy wishing to go there.
"Antonia Cataldo is a key figure in the probe by the Genoa law enforcement agencies into the recruiting of mercenaries who fought for pro-Russian forces in [eastern] Ukraine," explains Luciano Trapanese, the editor in chief of OttoPagine, in comments to Donbas Reality, the Donbas desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.
"He is considered an experienced mercenary, having fought in Libya, where he was captured by militants loyal to [Muammar] Qaddafi," Trapanese said. "He also took part in military training in Panama. He became well known after he was interviewed on Italian TV. He talked about his mercenary life in the Donbas and elsewhere. After that he became inspirational for those who wanted to travel from Italy to the Ukrainian regions to fight in the ranks of the pro-Putin troops."
The three Italians who have so far evaded arrest are reported to be Andrea Palmeri, Gabriele Carugati, and Massimiliano Cavalleri.
Cavalleri, known by his alias "Spartak," was regularly spotted in videos posted by the separatists. He was also photographed with Aleksandr Zacharchenko, a top leader in the separatist-controlled area of Ukraine's Donetsk region.
Cavalleri posted a picture of himself on Facebook, grimly holding up a "passport" of the so-called "People's Republic of Donetsk," while an Italian flag hung in the background.
Like Cavalleri, Palmeri is believed to currently be in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.
A former leader of the far-right hooligan group Bulldog Lucca, Palmeri has appeared on Italian TV boasting about his martial exploits in eastern Ukraine.
In February 2014, he traveled to Ukraine to evade home arrest for an assault conviction. Palmeri claimed in an AFP interview in April 2018 that he was the first Italian to join the Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Palmeri said he had made the decision to go to the Donbas after watching news reports on Russian TV that described Ukrainian authorities as neo-Nazis and broadcast reports -- which are untrue -- that Russian-speakers were being exterminated in Ukraine.
Last year, Donbas Reality tried to arrange an interview with Palmeri via social media, but he refused to speak with journalists, ending one of his missives murkily: "We'll see you in [the western Ukrainian city of] Lviv."
After the arrests in Italy, Palmeri went on Facebook to post a series of photos featuring himself doing various goodwill work in separatist-controlled areas of the Luhansk region -- distributing onions, potatoes, and cabbages – with a caption reading: "Yes, I am a terrorist, I admit it."
Carugati is the son of a politician from the far-right League party – one of two parties in Italy's ruling coalition government.
His mother, Silvana Marin, has publicly praised her son's choice to fight in Ukraine.
A year ago Carugati boasted to Donbas Reality about how easy it was for him to slip across the border and get back to Italy.
"I have already gone home, had a rest. Now I live in Donetsk," Carugati told RFE/RL.
Ties Between Mercenaries And Politicians?
As Carugati's case suggests, the mercenaries fighting in Ukraine appear to have at least some support among Italy's ruling elite. And that should come as no surprise.
The right-wing League as well as Italy's other ruling party, the 5-Star Movement, are far from being hostile toward the Kremlin.
Like other Kremlin-leaning, antiestablishment, and far-right parties in Europe, the 5-Star Movement and the League party have been courted heavily by Moscow, as have other European populist leaders sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin and eager to embrace Russia as a counterweight to the European Union, according to Globalsecurity.org.
"This [League] party has signed a cooperation agreement with the ruling party of Russia, with United Russia. [League leader Matteo] Salvini has called on numerous occasions for the lifting of sanctions against Russia," said Taras Semenyuk, an analyst at KyivStratPro.
Russia has been slapped with sanctions for its actions in Ukraine, including the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
Salvini recently found himself in diplomatic hot water for more controversial statements and actions.
Salvini reportedly visited Crimea earlier this year and stated that Russia's annexation was legitimate. For that, Ukraine summoned the Italian ambassador in Kyiv on July 20.
However, as the latest arrests by Italian authorities suggest, the Italian government is far from united on its policy toward Ukraine.
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