The dispatch of specialised medical supplies (like ventilators for assisted pulmonary respiration) and personnel from Russia to cope with the crisis and the containment of the spread of Coronavirus in Italy has predictably caused much controversy.
Its impact on public opinion, albeit fleeting as opinions are, has been measured by the SWG polls (25-27th of March 2020): Russia was second (32% of the interviewed persons considered this country as a friend of Italy), after China (52%) and before the USA (17%). A Pew Research Center poll (published the 1st of January 2020) showed that the Italian public was confident in the US President only by 32%, while another dated spring 2019 showed support to the USA by 62% and to China by 37%. It is the first time that the USA are not in top position.
The supplies, much appreciated by the government and by the population, have been on the contrary commented in the opposite way by some press and some analysts and specialists in international relations. The crudest commentaries considered already suspect the very fact that Moscow sent them, considering the assistance coming from other countries a selfless gesture.
More sophisticated analyses underlined that, apart from some medical assistance coming from the Americas (Cuba and the USA), a fight for influence was underway between China with its “medical mask diplomacy” and Russia.
The second aspect drawing criticism was that most assistance personnel was medical, prompting unlikely stories about GRU (Russian military intelligence) spies running all over Italy.
The fact is that the Italian government had evidently approved the arrival of this contingent and officially invited it. Moreover at any time Russian soldiers were escorted by officials from the staff of the Ministry of Defence, gendarmerie Carabinieri members, other law enforcement agencies and possibly security services.
As is known, bacteriological and epidemiological skills are present in both the civil and military sectors, but only the militaries have the logistics and ability to intervene in a third country with the speed that requires an emergency.
The official political message from the Kremlin is that a friend in need is friend indeed. Bilateral friendship between Russia and Italy dates back since the Cold War’s relationships with Soviet Union and it has been considerably strengthened since 2001, when Italy had some role in NATO-Russia Pratica di Mare cooperation agreement (20th of May 2002).
The other message is that, in a world context where each country is facing a global threat, it would be advisable to overcome the old divisive patterns between blocks and concentrate efforts to achieve beneficial results for all countries.
On the other hand Italy as NATO country has enforced some of the most stringent sanctions after the invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea and it continues to keep a common approach of dialogue and deterrence with the allies.