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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Russian "Hybrid War"? Italy Says Wagner Group Is Using Migrant Trafficking To Divide The West

The Italian Defense minister has blamed an uptick in illegal immigrant arrivals in Italy on the Russian mercenary group, which has a strong presence in Africa, with the risk that it could divide the Western alliance. Wagner chief Prigozhin is having none of it.

photo of protesters lying down on the street in Rome

Protesters in Rome against the government's immigration policy

Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press via ZUMA
Federico Capurso

ROME — The political debate over immigration in Italy was reignited a few weeks ago after a shipwreck 200 meters off the Calabrian coast that killed 80 people, including 33 children. Since the beginning of 2023, more than 20,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea, a figure three times higher than for the same period last year.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's right-wing government has put forward multiple explanations for the increase in human trafficking, which now includes the possibility that the Russian mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, is responsible.

Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said this week that arrivals of migrants who cross over from North Africa to Italy could be “also, to no small extent, part of a hybrid war strategy of the Wagner division, which uses its significant weight in some African countries.” Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani also shared Italy's suspicion Tuesday that Wagner is provoking a new wave of immigration toward Europe.

Moscow's foothold in Africa

The Wagner Group is a private company in the service of the Russian government, composed of ex-military, ex-police and ex-security officers, which is currently fighting in various fronts of the war in Ukraine, particularly in the siege of Bakhmut.

However, Wagner is not only fighting in Ukraine. In recent years, its mercenaries have fought several wars where Russia had an interest in intervening, in African and Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Mali, Central African Republic and Syria.

For many years now, it has provided security and protection to local African governments. Even Libya's military leader, Colonel Khalifa Haftar, has long given Russian mercenaries hospitality and does not seem to want to dispose of them, despite recent pressure from the CIA.

 A “fanciful” theory

The danger of a hybrid war that uses uncontrolled immigration as a weapon had already been raised several months ago by the Italian center-left Democratic Party and the Parliamentary Committee on the Security of the Republic. At that time, however, many on the right snickered, calling it a “fanciful” theory.

There is a risk of cracking the Atlantic Alliance.

Today, on the other hand, the short-term prospect of some 680,000 migrants ready to leave for Italian shores — as the Italian intelligence claims — frightens the government and everything suddenly gets more serious.

Crosetto (who was not among those who doubted the theory) is now calling for “the European Union, NATO and the West” to pay more attention to the “Southern European front,” because “uncontrolled and continuous immigration, added to the economic and social crisis, becomes a way to hit Italy and its clear-cut choices,” such as helping the Ukrainian resistance.

And if Italy is left alone, Crosetto warns, “there is a risk of cracking the Atlantic Alliance.”

photo of Prigozhin in army fatigues

A screenshot of Prigohzin with Wagner troops near Bakhmut

Konkord Company Press Service/TASS via ZUMA

Prigozhin's response

Responding directly to the Defense Minister is the head of the Wagner militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who first called Crosetto an “assh*le and d*ckhead,” then tries to refute him: “He should look less in other directions and take care of his own problems, which he probably failed to solve.”

“We are not aware of what is happening with the migration crisis,” Prigozhin said. “We are not dealing with it, we have a lot of our own problems to deal with.”

The government does not give any weight to the distance taken by the head of Wagner, and while the right-wing coalition partners in Meloni's government squabble over who should be in charge of controlling migration flows, the decrees promulgated so far only appear to make the situation worse.

In the near future, a little help could come from the European Union, which is currently deciding on two types of immediately operational measures concerning the strategy for managing European borders for the next five years and on the deportation of illegal migrants, using the new Schengen Information System.

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