By Arthur Evans
The pandemic, which has no parallel in living memory and which has been fought against—with variable success—by the entire humanity, has pushed into the background usual international antagonisms, the race among the powerful for control of the future—both in the real world and cyberspace. Indeed, the never-ending news stories about Syria, confidential reports, North Korea, special operations, Ukraine, hybrid wars and Iran, so familiar to audiences in Europe and beyond, no longer add daily spice to the global brew of information. No one cares about convoluted geopolitics any longer. They even virtually stopped accusing the Kremlin of attempts to undermine ‘democratic institutions’ all over the world using an army of invisible cyber trolls. Naturally, there are certain institutions that occasionally issue shallow tirades about Putin discrediting the mechanisms of ‘European unity’, but those often take the form of ‘phantom pains’ and look less and less convincing. It may even happen that the plunge in U.S. crude prices to below zero will be blamed on him, too. Although it would be logical to assume that the manipulation of oil prices in the stock market was meant exactly to hit Putin as a response to his success in fighting the coronavirus—not only in Russia but in Europe as well.
If you want proof, look at those unusual and unexpected steps Russia has taken at the height of the epidemic in Europe. Since March 22, Russia has sent 15 planeloads of medical aid and military virologists and the Defense Ministry’s epidemiologists to Italy, a NATO ally. Its military transport planes delivered eight brigades of military medics, disinfection and diagnostic equipment to help the country battle the virus.
That list is far from exhaustive. In his statement, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio cited a detailed list of Russia’s aid: ‘It includes 330,000 face masks, 1,000 protective suits, two units for carrying out a thousand tests, 10,000 rapid testing kits, 100,000 regular testing kits, a testing laboratory, three units for surface disinfection, three disinfection stations for larger areas, and numerous lung ventilators.’ Most importantly, those shipments to Italy contained lung ventilators, so essential in this new pandemic—and so scarce now in the country’s hospitals. According to the Italian Defense Ministry, in late March, Russian military medics delivered 100 ventilators to the country. However, in a time of pandemic, that proved to be not enough and later, in April, the Russian Defense Ministry sent an additional (fifteenth) planeload, delivering 30 more ventilators. In total, Russia provided 130 ventilators to Italian hospitals. In this context, Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out that Russian ventilators are equipped with pressure sensors purchased from Italy, which demonstrates the two countries’ unity in fighting the pandemic.
At the time when Russia was sending humanitarian aid, Italy was in a truly catastrophic situation. Having the biggest number of infections and the highest death toll, the country grappled with problems in treatment arrangements, overburdened health infrastructure, and limited medical resources. Rome had to deal with this disastrous situation alone when the expected help from its closest neighbors came in the form of border closures. Worse yet, some of the countries that are bound to Italy by the spirit of European solidarity, such as Romania and the Czech Republic, seized tens and hundreds of thousands face masks and respirators which China had sent to the hardest-hit Italian regions. The European Commission has already conveyed its ‘heartfelt apology,’ but it doesn’t change the obvious truth—it was a message to each EU country, as the old dictum goes, ‘cura te ipsum’—heal thyself.
Then suddenly, Russia—represented by President Putin—provides aid to the affected population in Italy, without expecting anything in return.
As a matter of fact, Russian experts went to Bergamo, one of the towns worst hit by the outbreak, where they soon proved to be effective team workers and started achieving good results. It may sound like another piece of Kremlin propaganda, which makes it very hard to believe that all the above is a documented historical fact.
Let us not dwell on why, faced with a crisis, the united Europe tuned out to be lacking unity. It is far more interesting to understand Putin’s motives. On the one hand, it is clear that such aid could be an effective PR trick to improve Russia’s image in Europe, which has been badly damaged in recent years by the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and the ‘interference’ in U.S. and European elections. On the other hand, the Kremlin may have assumed that by sending aid it would get the EU to lift sanctions which have been hurting the Russian economy. If that was the case, Putin would prove to be a very naive and inexperienced politician: this gesture alone would not be enough to use it as ‘soft power’ or make the Italian leadership change its long-adopted position. In the meantime, soon after Russia sent its humanitarian mission, Trump signed a memorandum, pledging to provide assistance to Italy—not to uphold the high ideals of transatlantic solidarity but rather to, quote, ‘demonstrate United States leadership in the face of Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns.’ At the same time, Putin’s decision met criticism from the liberal opposition at home: those masks, ventilators and doctors are needed in Russia, which is also facing the risk—though not as grave as Italy—of the coronavirus spreading across its vast territory. So, the political advantage of real, not virtual, compassion and solidarity is not clear.
Notwithstanding, the Russian president took a step further and provided assistance to yet another European country—Serbia. The two nations are bound together not only by their Slavic origins and Orthodox faith but also by the long history of relations. At the same time, Belgrade has long been seeking EU membership; besides, the country’s policymakers are known to contemplate joining NATO.
So, it is only natural that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic first turned to Brussels, but he got nothing but a polite response followed by the EU’s ban on the export of medical equipment: the virus was spreading so rapidly in Italy, France, Spain and Germany that the European Commission imposed a moratorium on delivering medical equipment abroad. Once again, help came from China and then from Russia, which sent 11 specialized IL-76 planes to an air base near Belgrade. They delivered almost 100 experts, special trucks for disinfecting roads and critical infrastructure facilities, and a large supply of protective gear and medical equipment. According to Serbian tabloid Srpski Telegraf, Belgrade received 100 ventilators, protective gear, 5,000 coronavirus test kits, three million disposable masks, half a million FFP2 respirators, 20,000 FFP3 respirators, three million disposable gloves, 150,000 single-use coveralls, 150,000 disposable head coverings, 150,000 pairs of shoe-covers, 150,000 disposable gowns, 50,000 face-shields, 1,000 pairs of rubber boots, six tons of alcohol-based liquid hand sanitizer, 50 tons of disinfectant for public transportation vehicles and public spaces (chlorine powder), 100 spraying devices and related gear, and 500 non-contact thermometers. Each of the seven million people living in Serbia will be able to see with their own eyes the contribution Russia has made to defeating the pandemic, without any ‘demonstration of leadership.’
Here is a simple conclusion. No one in Europe is going to change its attitude towards Russia or Putin personally with a wave of a magic wand. Authoritarian, unpredictable and unfathomable, this country still gives much reason for concern and mistrust. But, when it comes to hundreds—maybe even thousands—of saved lives, there is nothing wrong in simply saying ‘spasibo.
So, while our policymakers try to master Russian pronunciation, let us ask ourselves: Could it be that, to put it in the words of Ursula von der Leyen, the heart of European solidarity is beating—speaking geopolitically—somewhat further to the east than has been commonly believed.
Much the same point was made by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said in his official statement: ‘It is offensive to the Italian government to think that the aid we have received from China, Russia or other countries might influence Italy’s geopolitical stance. It is a big insult to me and also to Vladimir Putin.’ At a time of severe crisis, the ideas of European solidarity ring hollow. While Italy’s traditional partners announce their intention to provide aid, Russia simply does so, asking nothing in return. Noteworthy is that the Italian leadership see in it absolutely nothing but good intentions motivated by the traditional values of humanism…