As soon as Vladimir Putin got off the phone with the desperate Italian prime minister, Russian aid was being loaded onto military planes, headed for the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.
The consignment was given a high-profile reception by Giuseppe Conte’s government, with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio there to see the reinforcements land at a military airport south of Rome on Sunday night. As well as protective masks and coats, ventilators, swabs and testing equipment, there were doctors and disinfection teams on board, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.
With Italy’s economy collapsing and its hospitals buckling under an avalanche of new cases, the European Central Bank dramatically ramped up its bond-buying program last week and the European Union is considering unleashing its 410 billion-euro ($440 billion) bailout fund to help keep the country afloat. Yet the bloc has left itself vulnerable to a PR coup from Russia and China in a critical member state.
EU leaders have stirred up resentment in Italy by restricting exports of critical medical supplies as they prepare their own health-care systems for an onslaught of infections.
That opened the door for Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. The Russian supplies were dispatched bearing a sticker with a heart and the words “From Russia with Love,” news wire Ansa reported.
“This is all about perception,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “This medical help from Russia is nothing compared to the 750 billion euros of assets the ECB is going to buy. But it’s very hard to convey the importance of that to the public.”
Putin’s opportunistic diplomacy follows a long courtship of officials in Rome, who’ve been among the strongest advocates of a rapprochement with Moscow within the EU and NATO.
Yet the humanitarian cargo is only one side of Putin’s double game when it comes to Europe and its health-care crisis. According to an internal EU report, Russia is also responsible for an organized campaign spreading disinformation about the coronavirus with the intention of undermining confidence in western leaders.
For any geopolitical rivals seeking to undermine EU unity, Italy is a weak link, since many of its voters blame the euro for decades of economic malaise and are inclined to back populist and euroskeptic parties.
Russia was linked to the euroskeptic League last year following a report that an ally of its leader, Matteo Salvini, had solicited illegal funding on a trip to Moscow. Salvini has denied wrongdoing.
On Saturday, once foreign and defense ministers had wrapped up negotiations, Putin opted to call Conte personally to tell him that the aid was on its way, according to an Italian official who asked not to be named discussing confidential matters. The call was also a mark of the good personal relations between the two leaders, the official said.
“It’s good foreign-policy PR, showing Russia as a force for good,” said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. “Like China’s Xi Jinping, Putin can now say his regime is on the side of good and is effective because one person can make decisions quickly without having to pay attention to the opinion of the population.”
He’ll have a chance for payback when the EU has to review its sanctions on Russia over eastern Ukraine, where government forces are fighting Russian-backed rebels. In the past, Italy has criticized the sanctions but has not moved against their renewal.
Europe’s resolve though has stiffened over the past week, with the ECB stepping up to the plate and governments accepting a barrage of fiscal stimulus that would have been unthinkable a few days earlier. That may provide a powerful disincentive if Conte looks to deepen his embrace of Russia.
Italy’s priority is to resolve the virus emergency, said another Italian official, who welcomed the more recent readiness of European bodies to help Italy and other countries cope with the pandemic, especially the ECB’s emergency bond-buying program which has helped stem the rise in Italian borrowing costs.
But he also said that Italy won’t forget how other states behaved during the crisis. Foreign Minister Di Maio himself has said Italy will remember who helped it through the virus emergency, with China among the most generous with doctors and medical equipment.
Russia has pledged to send eight brigades of virus specialists — about 100 people in total — and disinfection trucks, as well as medical equipment, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry. Many on the team had experience in past Russian aid missions to Africa for the Ebola virus and other epidemic relief. The Kremlin said the request for help came from the Italian side.
The Kremlin began restricting travel relatively early and has reported 367 cases of Covid-19, with no deaths blamed on the virus. While schools and some businesses have been closed, the government hasn’t announced a broad lockdown.
The medical aid “will give us a chance in relations with Italy to hint gently about the need to repay the favor and block the extension of EU sanctions in June,” said Frolov. “It’s also important to point out the aid is going along military lines, which shows how helpless NATO is.”