Russian Motives Behind Helping Italy’s Coronavirus Response: A Multifaceted Approach
In the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Italy, the country has become the target of a number of foreign diplomatic and public relations operations. Following a phone call, on March 21, between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia has also stepped in to provide help. On March 23, around 15 Ilyushin cargo planes arrived in Italy “from Russia with love,” as they self-proclaimed. The aircraft carried medical equipment, military personnel headed by Major General Sergei Kikot, and a nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) laboratory for bacteriological-chemical disinfection. The Russian planes, which were welcomed by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, touched down at the military airport of Pratica di Mare, before heading to Bergamo (La Repubblica, March 22; Mil.ru, March 24). Pratica di Mare is a highly symbolic location for Putin’s Russia, being the base where the NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002, at a time when Russia was particularly weak on the international stage (Corriere della Sera, May 28, 2002).
Footage of Russian military vehicles moving along the roads of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member triggered significant debate in Italy about the actual intentions of this mission (Formiche.net, March 29). The Turin-based La Stampa, quoting sources from the Italian Ministry of Defense, said that “80 percent of the [Russian] aid was considered useless,” implying that the effort was primarily for public consumption and suggesting that the mission had intelligence goals (La Stampa, March 25). These allegations triggered several heated reactions out of Moscow.