What is behind Russia’s sending of coronavirus aid to Italy and the West? Influence or solidarity?

First published in April 2020.

On the 28 December 1908, a devastating earthquake almost levelled the Italian city of Messina, resulting in the death of no less than 75,000 inhabitants.

Several foreign navies (Russian, British, German, French…) participated in relief efforts. A Russian naval detachment passing by the Mediterranean Sea was among the first to arrive and to start rescue operations as its commander Rear-Admiral Vladimir Litvinov did not even wait for instructions from St Petersburg (Russia’s imperial capital back then), in order to save as many lives as possible.

More than a century later (22 March 2020), following a phone conversation with Italian Prime minister Conte, President Putin ordered the Russian army to assist Italy in its battle against Covid-19 virus (Novel Coronavirus). IL-76 military transport planes landed in Italy carrying around one hundred military virologists and epidemiologists, special disinfection vehicles, and other medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. The Russian specialists quickly headed to Bergamo; an epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak. Their equipment was stamped with logos reading “From Russia with Love”.

Why is Russia helping other nations suffering from the Covid-19 outbreak?

For the time being, the outbreak still hasn’t hit Russia hard compared to the United States and several Western European nations and therefore the capacities Moscow has at its disposal can serve to help other nations and therefore why not to use them?

Coronavirus: What does ‘from Russia with love’ really mean? / BBC News

Reciprocity in assistance might also come later-on, if and when Russia would need their help back. For instance, at the start of the outbreak in China, Russia was among the first countries to provide masks and other sanitary equipment to help its southern neighbor. Once Beijing managed to control the outbreak within its territories it redirected its resources to help other nations and did not hesitate to pay back the favor, by sending millions of masks to Moscow.

Secondly, from a geopolitical perspective, assisting other countries will no doubt help Moscow to further spread its influence by using soft power instruments. For example, by helping Italy, Russia will project a positive image, while equally discrediting the EU which failed to assist a suffering member state.

Russia “intervened” elsewhere as well and most notably in Serbia and the United States. For instance, it scored another “humanitarian-diplomatic” victory, when it also came to the rescue of Serbia – a close Historical ally – greatly deceived by the European Union as well.

Finally, despite years of sanctions and the reluctancy and opposition of some American officials, Moscow did not even hesitate to send a plane load of medical equipment to the United States, its fiercest global rival.

Some Western media and officials accused Russia of assisting Italy and the United States as part of its propaganda war and the Italian newspaper La Stampa went as far as assuming that members of the Russian mission staff were intelligence officers.

Yes, Russia rushed to help other nations and by doing so its role as a global power gained further recognition, but does that have to be necessarily bad? It resulted in saving human lives.

From Russia with love? Why the Kremlin’s coronavirus aid to the West is controversial. / CNBC

Since the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1918, which caused the death of 17 to 50 million human beings, the world hasn’t experienced a comparable viral outbreak threat. Collective efforts of the international community are certainly a must.

It is true that since 2014 Russia and the West have been at odds in a way that haven’t been witnessed since the Cold War days. Slashing sanctions at each other, exchanging threats and increasing military capabilities marked relations between the former cold war enemies. However, at such a critical moment whereby no nation can alone defeat this viral evil which so far took the lives of more than 116,000 souls it is the only option for all rivals. Coronavirus is a common enemy and this is the right time to unite efforts to confront it.

According to former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “not even the U.S. can in a purely national effort overcome the virus. The necessities of the moment must ultimately be coupled with a global collaborative vision and program.”

At times of difficulties, solidarity is needed more than ever between nations. The Messina 1908 tragedy and the heroic role of the Russian navy saving thousands of Italians wasn’t forgotten by the city of Messina which in 2012 erected a monument honoring the memory of the Russian sailors.

Following the efforts of the Russian navy in 1908, Russian Tsar Nikolai II told Rear-Admiral Litvinov “You, admiral, with your sailors, in a few days did more than my diplomats during all my reign…”

Russians came to the rescue of Italy in 1908 out of a humanitarian purpose as rear-admiral Litvinov did not lose time waiting for instructions as he was certain that the Tsar would undoubtedly approve his decision. In 2020, operation “From Russia with love” is meant as a new message of solidarity and aims to renew friendship between Russia and the West. Russia made the first step… Now, it is time for others to make positive steps too.🔷

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. - Disinfection of the newly opened military hospital in the Serbian city of Nis by Russian specialists of NBC protection troops. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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