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How Russia is influencing the EU and NATO during the pandemic

While the Kremlin has concentrated on the crisis unfolding in Western Europe, serious problems loom at home as the pandemic spreads further into the Russian heartland.

April 9, 2020 - Maksym Skrypchenko - Articles and Commentary

Ilyushin Il-76 Russian transport plane. Photo: Rob Schleiffert (cc) wikimedia.org

While Italy continues to record the largest number of deaths during the COVID-19 crisis, Russian President Putin has sent nine Il-76 military airplanes to Rome, carrying more than 100 specialists, some medical equipment (including truck-based units for disinfection) and testing devices. The planes and trucks bore giant stickers showing heart-shaped Russian and Italian flags with the slogan “From Russia with Love” in both languages. Russian media claimed it to be an act of goodwill free from any political pretext. At the same time, Italy’s daily La Stampa reported that 80 per cent of the Russian supplies are not useful to the country’s health services.

It is worth saying that this entire mission is the work of the Russian Ministry of Defence. Even the ‘specialists’ are Russian military officers whose expertise is decontamination. This was one of the reasons why the airplanes had to change their route to avoid the airspace of some northeastern European countries – Moscow would need to ask permission to fly over them.

Last month, when COVID-19 began spreading rapidly in Italy, the country appealed for help via the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. “We asked for supplies of medical equipment, and the European Commission forwarded the appeal to the member states. But it didn’t work”, Italy’s permanent representative to the EU, Maurizio Massari, stated in an interview with Foreign Policy. After the outbreak in Italy, EU or NATO members were not able to send immediate help.

Putin sent nine airplanes within 24 hours of his phone conversation with Prime Minister Conte. At that moment, Rome had not received any substantial help from the EU or NATO members. First of all, EU governments decided to close their national borders. Secondly, all European states are still suffering from a dramatic shortage of masks and medical equipment to fight the pandemic. Face masks, being the cheapest protection items to be bought in large numbers, are today a scarce product and it is very difficult to buy enough for a whole country’s population. As a result, it is increasingly hard to export such masks to other countries. Some EU countries are expecting a situation similar to Italy in the coming weeks and they subsequently do not feel comfortable sending masks to Rome. This logic also applies to ventilators, medicinal drugs and protective suits.

Even so, after Russian planes had landed in Italy, some EU members decided to send millions of face masks and thousands of protective suits (Germany, France, Austria and the Czech Republic). Some countries, like Poland and Germany, sent experienced doctors and also agreed to fly some critical patients to their hospitals. NATO is also now using aircraft to transport patients and medical supplies. No matter how useless or politically motivated it was, Russian aid attracted much attention among the media as one of the first states to lend Italy a helping hand.

Russian flags on the trucks driving around Italy could affect Rome’s attitude towards the EU and NATO, which were not able to allocate resources at the same time as Moscow. Polish doctors do not wear a specific uniform with national symbols like Russian military officers. NATO placed trucks at Italian disposal without any alliance symbols. A resident of Bergamo, the city worst hit by the coronavirus, would not be able to differentiate between Italian military trucks and those provided by NATO. At the same time, Russian vehicles, which are not typical for the region, do possess many distinctive flags and symbols.

The nature of this ‘military operation’ is also unprecedented for Moscow – Russian specialists are gaining access to Italy’s health and military system, which is part of a larger NATO structure. One of the largest and most important US military bases in Italy is located just two hours from the Bergamo area. Russian state media continue to report that the country’s soldiers have been travelling “in the very heart of Europe along NATO roads”. It is clear that Putin will demand that the operation continues regardless of any internal developments. After all, the Kremlin’s prestige is at stake.

Italy is a NATO member which has 166 soldiers based in Latvia as part of NATO’s ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’, which is ultimately an effort to deter Russia. A few days after Moscow sent its specialists to Italy, NATO jets intercepted a Russian military aircraft in the Baltic Sea close to Latvia.

An EU internal document seen by Reuters accused Russian media of deploying a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West in order to worsen the impact of the coronavirus. Of course, Moscow denied any such plan. While not mentioning Russia by name, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on his blog that the EU needed to be more aware of “a struggle for influence through spinning and the politics of generosity”.

Although Putin says that there is no need to declare a state of emergency due to Moscow’s level of preparation for the pandemic, many Russian media reports have stated that the situation inside Russia is deteriorating and is only being made worse by deliberate government misinformation. According to official statistics, there are some 10,000 persons infected in Russia. However, independent media reports believe that there has been an ARVI and pneumonia outbreak in many large cities, as well as in the regions in close proximity to Russia-China border. Moscow does not have enough kits to test even those living in the capital. Many people with pneumonia, as “Lenta” reports, can’t find out if they have been infected with COVID-19 because there are no test kits. Russian “Vostok-media” has provided stories of people in the Russian Far East, close to China, which claim that a strange flu is making many elderly people sick.

It is clear that the Kremlin is scared of any potential societal panic due to the economic crisis already affecting Russia. Sanctions over Ukraine and the collapse of crude oil prices have already defanged the Russian economy. Due to this, the coronavirus crisis may become a ‘black swan event’ for the country. Despite this, Putin knows that the situation is critical and that he needs to mobilise all available resources. So why did he decide to send experienced Russian experts, ventilators, masks and even trucks to Italy when his own local authorities should be using them?

On March 18th, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of Russia, called for a global lifting of sanctions, except those imposed by the United Nations, due to the spread of coronavirus and the ongoing situation in the oil market. Of course, Russia’s own sanctions resulting from its actions in Ukraine were not imposed by the UN, but rather the European Union and America.

A year ago, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stated that his government was trying to lift EU sanctions against Russia. The belief that Italy should respond to a hypothetical Russian attack on a NATO ally has become less common over time, decreasing from 40 per cent in 2015 to just 25 per cent in 2019 according to the Pew Research Center. The European Parliament has also reported a downward trend regarding the EU, with just 44 per cent of Italians surveyed stating that they would vote to remain a member. This is the lowest rate of support for EU membership among all 27 states.

It is also important to note that China was also one of the first states to help Italy. Certainly, it is still the biggest exporter of medical aid to affected countries whilst it simultaneously attempts to sell even more equipment. However, Beijing is still blamed for the coronavirus outbreak so its help is useful, at the very least, in restoring the bilateral status quo. Beijing has sold medical equipment to many countries which are now returning it due to its lack of quality.

Sweden’s experience with China provides a clear example of the underlying politics often present in Beijing’s gift giving. It did not receive any medical aid from China even after it requested help. Elisabeth Braw believes that this is because of Swedish support for the imprisoned Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, who was blamed for “illegally providing intelligence overseas”.

On April 2nd, Donald Trump stated that a Russian airplane full of medical stuff was preparing to land at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport in the late afternoon. Trump expressed gratitude for 60 tons of ventilators, masks, respirators and other items. While Russian media were reporting about another successful Kremlin’s aid mission, one of the US officials told Reuters that Washington had to pay for that airplane. However, he admitted that the price was below market value. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Washington had only paid half the cost. Putin failed to present it as a gift but Trump anyway extended thanks for any help.

Overall, it is very important for state leaders to see the difference between real aid efforts and those tied to political interest. It is critical to remember that sanctions are ultimately imposed to exert pressure on dictatorial governments rather than people. Moscow waged war against Georgia in 2008. A year later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a “reset” button which was to symbolise a new era of relation between the Kremlin and the West. In 2014, Russia occupied Crimea and Donbas and established separatist republics. The EU and other countries imposed sanctions on Russia for violating Ukrainian territorial integrity. This war is not over, soldiers and civilians die every day and sanctions are increasing every year. Consequently, there is only one condition for the sanctions to be lifted – Russia should abandon Ukraine and restore the borders as they were before the conflict. Otherwise, it would only legitimise the actions of others who violate international law.

Maksym Skrypchenko is a cofounder of Ukrainian Translatlantic Platform and a Deputy Director of Security Initiative Center residing in Kyiv. His main areas of expertise are conflictology, Eastern Europe, Ukraine-EU and Ukraine-NATO relations.

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