Italy’s defence minister on Monday accused Russia’s Wagner mercenary group of fuelling irregular migration towards Europe as a way of hitting back at countries like his which support Ukraine.
“The exponential increase in the migratory phenomenon from African coasts is also, to a considerable extent, part of a clear strategy of hybrid warfare that the Wagner division… is implementing, using its significant weight in some African countries,” Guido Crosetto said in a press release.
“Just as the EU, NATO and the West have realised that cyber attacks were part of the global confrontation that the war in Ukraine opened up, they should now understand that the southern European front is also becoming more dangerous every day.”
He warned that “uncontrolled and continuous immigration… is becoming a way to hit the most exposed countries, above all Italy, and their geostrategic choices”.
The Wagner group have not commented on Italy’s claims.
More than 20,000 migrants have landed on Italy’s shores so far this year, compared to around 6,000 in the same period in 2022 and 2021, according to interior ministry figures.
Most set off from north Africa in overcrowded boats, and many lose their lives, with 30 migrants reported missing by Italy’s coastguard off Libya late Sunday.
Wagner, run by a businessman seen as close to President Vladimir Putin, is active in Ukraine but has also cultivated a growing footprint in Africa.
In recent years, it has established itself in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Crosetto’s comments were echoed by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who said Monday during a trip to Israel that Rome had concerns “because many immigrants arrive from areas controlled by the Wagner group”.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right government was elected in September elections partly on a promise to end mass migration.
Critics say her policy of treating migrant boats as a law enforcement issue, rather than a humanitarian one, contributed to a deadly shipwreck on February 26 in which more than 70 people died.
Italy, an EU and NATO member, is a strong supporter of Ukraine, sending aid and weapons to help it defend itself against Russia’s invasion.