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Bianca Canevari

MA in International Cooperation at ITIRI, Strasbourg

As Winston Churchill said in the mid-1940s as the end of World War II approached, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” At the time, the British Prime Minister was presumably referring to the Yalta conference and the resulting alliance between him, Stalin, and Roosevelt, the trio that would lead to the founding of the United Nations, thus generating opportunities within a crisis. Although the statement dates back more than 70 years, it continues to be relevant even today. In recent years the Kremlin has not hesitated to make a crisis fruitful, exploiting it to regain its position as a significant player on the global scene (i.e., Libya, Ukraine, Syria). And the global health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

On March 22, Italy began to receive the first Russian aid, following a telephone call between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A goodwill gesture labeled “From Russia with Love” in honor of one of the most successful films in the 007 sagas. Along with the mission and medical material, however, came a military contingent led by General Sergey Kikot, head of 104 health workers and other assistance personnel.

A few weeks after the end of the Russian mission (May 7), one wonders whether there will be any consequences on the international geopolitical scene. Nonetheless, when addressing Russia’s attempt to re-establish itself on the international stage, in Italy’s case, it appears erroneous to refer to the mission as of an attempt to penetrate new geopolitical spaces. Russian solidarity should rather be regarded as an effort to maintain a political status quo already considered favorable. […]

Italy has long stood as the founding country of the EU closest to the Kremlin, and bilateral relations seem to be facilitated by the presence of shared interests based on economic cooperation (CCIR) and the lack of historical political and social issues (Siddi). Relations are determined not only by commercial interests but also by the fruitful cultural and social exchanges between the two countries. […] Despite the consequences and the underlying motives behind this humanitarian mission remain hence difficult to be predicted, it is nevertheless interesting to stress that a link between the two countries already existed. And although Italy has been part of the western economic and military structure (EU and NATO founding member) since the first post-war period, positive dialogue with the Kremlin has continued and continues to evolve.


As Winston Churchill said in the mid-1940s as the end of World War II approached, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” At the time, the British Prime Minister was presumably referring to the Yalta conference and the resulting alliance between him, Stalin, and Roosevelt, the trio that would lead to the founding of the United Nations, thus generating opportunities within a crisis. Although the statement dates back more than 70 years, it continues to be relevant even today. In recent years the Kremlin has not hesitated to make a crisis fruitful, using it to regain its position as a significant player on the global scene (i.e., Libya, Ukraine, Syria). And the global health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

On March 22, Italy began to receive the first Russian aid, following a telephone call between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A goodwill gesture labeled “From Russia with Love” in honor of one of the most successful films in the 007 sagas. Along with the mission and medical material, however, came a military contingent led by General Sergey Kikot, head of 104 health workers and other assistance personnel.

Although welcomed with great appreciation, the reception of the Russian aid operation has raised several doubts concerning the authenticity of its objectives. In this regard, it is necessary to stress that until the beginning of April, Italy faced the crisis almost entirely on its own.

Initially, Europe and its member states revealed themselves to be reluctant to cooperate. Instead of showing solidarity towards their then most affected member state, the allied governments reacted through the closure of the borders, a move that resulted in the delay of the arrival and exchange of necessary medical equipment on European soil, thus worsening the Italian situation. The apology addressed to the peninsula by EU President Ursula Von Der Leyen is dated April 1 (“Ursula von der Leyen: Scusateci ora l’Europa è con voi”). In the letter addressed to the newspaper “La Repubblica”, the President apologized for the lack of promptness of help from the European community, calling Italy a source of inspiration in the fight against COVID-19 and stressing its importance as a member state of the European Union. Besides, in the letter, it is repeatedly stated that although the European response was initially delayed, Europe is now more united than ever in the fight against the virus. A battle that cannot be won if not together.

Faster in the solidarity response, conversely, proved to be third countries, including not only Russia, but also China, and Cuba. Pending a European response, and just when the number of casualties exceeded that of China, a series of aid from the communist giant arrived in Italy. Between 12 and 18 March, an equipe of medical experts landed in Rome and Milan along with supplies and technical support, including respirators, masks, and protective suits and dressings. Similarly, on March 26, Cuba sent a medical team consisting of 52 healthcare professionals.

While not much has been spoken about the other foreign aid, and although Italy was facing great difficulties and was in definite need of help, the arrival of the Russian contingent has caused quite a few perplexities. Questions were raised concerning the consequences of the Russian aid campaign to Italy. Did the Kremlin expect anything in return? What would be the cost to the Italian government of these disinterested contributions, and what the strategic motives behind the humanitarian mission? Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at Moscow Carnegie Center, in the article “Is the Kremlin using the crisis as an opportunity to score propaganda victories?”, pointed out how, for countries that would like to see the world order turned upside down, this pandemic presents an excellent opportunity.

Prior to discussing the underlying motives at the heart of the Russian aid campaign, it is of interest to observe how the same information has been presented by the two respective governments. While in Russia the press focused on the gratitude shown by the Italian people for the assistance received, in Italy, media appeared more critical, questioning the implications of the campaign.

More specifically, La Stampa, one of the longest-selling and oldest newspapers on the peninsula, expressed its doubts about the matter, in particular through the work of the journalist Jacopo Iacoboni. (“Nella Spedizione dei Russi in Italia, il generale che negò i gas in Siria”, “Militari di Mosca acquartierati nella foresteria dell’esercito italiano, i timori di un’“occupazione” russa in Italia” ). The correspondent voiced his perplexity over the quality of the aid received, pointing out that about 80% of the material was obsolete and not working. The usage of the Aventa-M fan model (at present, there are 150 fans of this type on Italian soil) has, in fact, been suspended in Russia after having caused the death of 6 people, between 9 and 12 of May, for catching fire. In addition, the journalist, given the large number of military presence in the contingent, expressed his fears for the security of the country’s sensitive data, depicting the aid more as a geopolitical move than as an act of solidarity.

The diatribe became more heated when Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashankov intervened, accusing the journalist of russophobia and spreading false information.

Tensions culminated in an appeal to Russian institutions from Rome by Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio and Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini to respect freedom of the press, including the right of criticism, defined as a fundamental value at the base of the country.

On the other hand, the Russian media decided to focus their attention on the appreciation expressed by the Italians. Alongside the news of the mission’s arrival on Italian soil, media reported flags displaying the message “Spasibo Bolshoe” (thank you very much) held by smiling Italians gazing at the camera from their balconies. “Thank you, Russia, we won’t forget” “Dear Merkel, thank you for abandoning us” these the recurrent headlines on the subject (Baltnews, RT, BBC Russia, Rya Novosty, VestyRu, TsarGrad). Among the most well-known personal expression of gratitude, it is worth mentioning the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s private message to Putin and a video posted by the Italian singer Pupo, in which the singer tries to pronounce a few words and sings in Russian.

From the Russian media, however, the Italian response to Russian aid seems to have found more support than what appears to have actually happened. According to EUvsDISINFO weekly report - “Coronavirus: BBC challenges pro-Kremlin reporting from Italy” - Italians have been portrayed replacing European flags with Russian ones, as proof though only an isolated video was found. Another recurring narrative denounced by the EU taskforce portrays Italian citizens engaged in playing the Russian anthem from their balconies during the lockdown. However, again, only one video to confirm the statement. The video was filmed outside the UGL Workers’ Union, a section of the extreme right-wing Italian political party Casapound.

Let us now turn to the controversies surrounding the interests behind the Russian aid contingent.

Amidst the most commonly discussed assumptions, one wonders whether, as a result of the disinterested aid, Russia does not expect something in return.

A common belief is that the Kremlin, having in Italy its closest ally within the European Union, could count on its help to put pressure on Brussels to review the question of sanctions, imposed following the illegal annexation of Crimea. A strategy that had already been employed in the preceding years with regard to Italy unsuccessfully (Following a unanimous vote held in December 2019, the European Council had extended the sanctions until July 31, 2020). As alleged evidence to this would seem to be the letter dated April 27 from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Russian Duma, Leonid Slutsky, forwarded to the Italian senators. The letter expressly asks for help on the issue of sanctions. In order to avoid misinterpretation, clarification was promptly provided by the President of the Foreign Commission of Palazzo Madama, the senator of the 5 Star Movement Vito Petrocelli, who stated: “The appeal of my Russian counterpart Leonid Slutsky did not concern at all the European sanctions against Moscow linked to the Ukrainian issue, but the international sanctions that prevent countries such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and others from adequately combating the spread of COVID-19, creating further risks of contagion for the entire planet.” The letter would, therefore, refer to the UN General Assembly decision, which rejected the Russian resolution presented on March 25, also signed, among other countries, by China, Iran, and Venezuela, to suspend the sanctions due to the current health emergency.

Although there was some controversy following the letter’s receipt, it seems, nonetheless, quite far-fetched for the Russian mission to Italy to be solely dictated by the possibility for the latter to provide help concerning the suspension of sanctions against the Kremlin.

In this regard, it is of interest to remark that during its most critical moments (WWII, Cold War), Italy has always sided against Russia. On the contrary, the most probable scenario seems to be the Kremlin’s aim to gain credit with Rome in those areas of friction where bilateral relations prevail, i.e., the energy market and the Libyan question.

Italy is the fourth Russian trade outlet after the Netherlands, China, and Germany, and the fifth source of imports. In this regard, the Italo-Russian Chamber of Commerce (CCIR), founded in 1964, is very operative, bringing together the main Italian companies operating in Russia and vice versa. Russia is also the leading supplier of energy in Italy: from the latter, it purchases oil for about 15% of imports and gas for 30% of total imports. Italy acts, therefore, as the natural bridge between Russia and the European Union. This role, among other things, is witnessed by the massive Italian presence at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, which, in addition to the political presence, sees the participation of all the most significant Italian companies and their chain of small and medium enterprises. Not to mention the investments of the two major Italian banks, Intesa Sanpaolo and Unicredit. Italy and Russia live in a relationship of economic symbiosis, as evidenced by the ever-increasing commercial exchange (EUROSTAT).

Simultaneously, the ongoing instability in Libya presents several challenges for Italy. Among the broad spectrum of interests in ending the Libyan crisis, in addition to energy and security issues, the issue of migration is undoubtedly the most urgent. Indeed, the migratory flow on the Italian coast risks having a significant impact on public opinion and political developments in the country. In this regard, Russia, which is also involved in the country, would thus play a key role in the negotiations to end the conflict.

In addition to whether the bill would have been presented to Italy once the aid had ended, further concern relates to security. Due to the presence of a large military convoy, the motive behind army personnel deployment and not just medical staff was questioned. Widespread speculation was that Moscow, accessing various hospitals’ databases, was engaged in a data-mining mission. Now, that would seem more like a scenario worthy of the Cold War era. What seems more reasonable, especially given that, at the time, Russia was still one of the countries less affected by the virus, is that, in the Kremlin’s perspective, the Italian situation presented itself as an excellent opportunity to gather useful information about COVID-19 and its possible mutations.

Thus, Italy would have represented both a study opportunity to train and test the capabilities of Russian departments specializing in chemical, radiological and biological defense, as well as a chance to examine the data stored in the national health system, collecting all the information needed, in order to gain a better understanding of the virus. To suggest the hypothesis, the fact that Russian convoys, consisting among others of an entire department highly specialized in bacteriological containment operations, were located in Bergamo, Lombardy, the most affected area in Italy.

Even though some have regarded the Russian aid campaign with fear and criticism, including Josep Borrell head of the European Union’s foreign and defense policy, who warned against Chinese and Russian propaganda, the Italian government has been clear about the matter. To reiterate the Italian position and avoid further ambiguity, the foreign minister Luigi di Maio in a recent interview for the newspaper “Il Corriere Della Sera” reported that there was no new geopolitical scenario. In what he described to be a matter of “realpolitik,” he stated, “There is only one country that needs help and the other countries that are giving it.”

A few weeks after the end of the Russian mission (May 7), one wonders whether there will be any consequences on the international geopolitical scene. Nonetheless, when addressing Russia’s attempt to re-establish itself on the international stage, in Italy’s case, it appears erroneous to refer to the mission as of an attempt to penetrate new geopolitical spaces. Russian solidarity should rather be regarded as an effort to maintain a political status quo already considered favorable. From the friendship of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with Vladimir Putin, to Enrico Letta, the only EU leader at the inauguration of the Olympic Games in Sochi, to Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing party “The League”, who openly criticized the European Council for the renewal of sanctions against Russia, to an intense series of agreements and protocols of economic, political and cultural cooperation, Italo-Russian relations appear well-established.

Italy has long stood as the founding country of the EU closest to the Kremlin, and bilateral relations seem to be facilitated by the presence of shared interests based on economic cooperation (CCIR) and the lack of historical political and social issues (Siddi). Relations are determined not only by commercial interests but also by the fruitful cultural and social exchanges between the two countries. Italian institutes of culture are very operative in the Federation, as well as the Dante Alighieri Societies, particularly active in the teaching of the Italian language, along with various cultural and tourist exchange initiatives. Despite the consequences and the underlying motives behind this humanitarian mission remain hence difficult to be predicted, it is nevertheless interesting to stress that a link between the two countries already existed. And although Italy has been part of the western economic and military structure (EU and NATO founding member) since the first post-war period, positive dialogue with the Kremlin has continued and continues to evolve.

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