Russia faces backlash in Italy over 'useless' coronavirus aid

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Much of the Russian aid that has arrived in Italy to combat the spread of coronavirus is “useless”, according to senior politicians in Rome, who have dismissed it as a pretext for a photo opportunity.

As Russian outlets and pro-Kremlin social media accounts praised the decision to send supplies in Italy’s time of need, unnamed officials in the capital were questioning the motives behind the delivery.

Military vehicles flying Russian flags carried the aid on its 600km journey from an Italian airbase south of Rome to Lombardy, the region worst affected in the world by Covid-19. Footage of the convoy was shared on social media along with images of Russian military doctors dressed in fatigues poring over maps with their Italian counterparts.

However, the expedition has been interpreted in the Italian media as a public relations stunt that was essentially accepted as a favour by the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, to Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin.

“Of the Russian equipment, 80 per cent is completely useless or of little use to Italy,” senior political sources told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. “In conclusion, it is little more than an excuse.”

The aid, emblazoned with stickers stating “From Russia with love”, has been compared unfavourably with that which has arrived in Italy from China. Beijing sent much-needed masks and ventilators along with doctors who had battled the coronavirus in Wuhan, but Russia seems to have mostly sent supplies for countering chemical or biological warfare, including a field laboratory for chemical-bacterial sterilisation.

The Russian experts, who accompanied the aid, are specialists in biological and chemical weapons, led by General Serget Kikot, the mission’s head and an authority on anthrax.

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In all, as many as nine IL-76 transport aircraft carrying the aid landed in Italy as part of the deal struck by Mr Conte and Mr Putin on March 21. The arrangements were finalised by the Italian and Russian defence ministers.

Quoted in his country’s media, Russia’s Ambassador to Italy, Sergei Razov, was scathing of the criticisms. “Such assertions are the product of a perverse mind,” Mr Razov said. “A selfless desire to help a friendly people in trouble is seen as insidious.”

Francesco Galietti, the chief executive of the political risk consultancy Policy Sonar in Rome, told The National that there was nothing surprising about Russia’s decision to help Italy, even if the extent of its PR effort was “very conspicuous”.

Mr Galietti explained that Russian influence had been at play in Italy since the Cold War. Moscow, he said, was simply countering China’s moves in the country. “Russia is just defending its home turf,” he said. “Russia is competing against China on this.

They're both non-democratic. They're both competing for clout in Italy.

“This whole crisis is exposing trends that have been under way for far too long,” he added. “Yes we are a member of the EU, yes we are a member of Nato, yes we are a member of the G7, but I think this government is flirting with China.”

A year ago, long before the global crisis posed by the coronavirus, Italy became the first G7 nation to join China’s Silk Road project, signing deals totalling €2.5 billion with Beijing.

Now, in 2020, as Italy has overtaken China as the nation worst hit by the coronavirus, Chinese specialist doctors and medical equipment have arrived ready to help tackle the sharp spike in the number of people infected with the disease that has overwhelmed medical facilities.

The doctors bring with them first-hand experience of dealing with the Covid-19, having previously helped to tackle the original outbreak in China’s Hubei province which killed more than 3,000 people.

Huawei, the telecom giant, is among several Chinese companies that have donated supplies, such as masks and other protective equipment, to countries in Europe. Even before the pandemic, Huawei was on a charm offensive, lobbying European nations to allow its involvement in the roll-out of 5G networks.

As the European Union struggles to mount a coherent response to the rampant spread of coronavirus and the United States looks to blame other nations for its own outbreak, China appears to be making significant soft-power gains.

Updated: March 26, 2020 09:27 PM

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