MOSCOW — The 15 Russian military planes that delivered much-needed medical equipment to Italy last week to deal with the coronavirus outbreak were branded with the slogan “From Russia With Love.”
And that sentiment was reciprocated.
Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini offered official thanks to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. Italian singer Pupo posted a video of himself performing a popular Soviet song, and signed off saying: “I love you Russia. Thank you.”
And fellow crooner Al Bano was quoted by a Russian news agency saying Italy would never forget Russia’s help.
In Russia, video of the country’s anthem playing in a quiet Italian neighborhood was quickly picked up by state TV.
“Italians are turning to us with words of thanks,” said one presenter.
While reports have emerged that some of the “grateful residents of Italy” were, in fact, from Russia, cheerleaders at home are seizing the opportunity to promote Russian diplomacy and international outreach.
That chorus grew louder following news that Russia sent masks and medical equipment to the hard-hit United States on April 1.
Russia is not alone in sending aid abroad. The United States, Germany, and France have also sent supplies despite dealing with their own domestic outbreaks. And China — where the outbreak originated — has sought to reverse the negative fallout by providing expertise and equipment to other countries, although the delivery of faulty equipment and questionable data has been criticized.
But for Russia, such missions prove a belabored point. Since its relations with the West soured amid the Ukraine crisis in 2014, and Moscow was placed under economic sanctions by much of the world, President Vladimir Putin’s government has lobbied for the world to see it as a force for good, with a crucial role to play in the international arena.
It has not been an easy sell.
Aid … But With Strings?
While a convoy of whitewashed military vehicles containing clothes and medicine that the Kremlin sent to eastern Ukraine in 2014 was shown on loop on state TV, others saw the purported humanitarian effort as a way of secretly supplying weapons to the Moscow-backed separatists fighting Kyiv’s forces.
And Russia’s military operation in Syria, launched in 2015 with the declared aim of driving out the Islamic State extremist group from the region, was presented by federal channels as a peace mission to liberate the war-ravaged Middle Eastern state. But while Russian soldiers were shown handing out food packages to Syrian children, critics accused Russia of bombing hospitals and targeting rebel forces fighting against Syria’s Kremlin-backed President Bashar al-Assad.
As the current coronavirus outbreak took root, murals in Moscow and beyond depicted Russia as an amiable bear surrounded by doves, and one Putin likeness was depicted carrying the globe on his shoulders.
In recent weeks, China — another country exporting medical aid — has also pushed positive propaganda about its contributions to that global campaign. In Italy, one newspaper found that several videos shared by Chinese officials and appearing to show Italians applauding and thanking the Chinese were doctored or staged.
For some, Russia’s latest missions have also led to questions.
The La Stampa newspaper on March 25 cited unnamed officials in Rome saying that 80 percent of Russia’s aid package was “totally useless.” Moscow was in an uproar about the claims, which were shared widely. “The aid given to Italy is selfless,” Russia’s ambassador to Italy Sergei Razov told the RIA news agency. “Not subject to a trade-off, a settling of bills or anything of the kind.”
Then there was that video of the Russian anthem being played on an Italian street. The video originated as a post to the Telegram messenger app by a Russian journalist working for the Daily Storm outlet. “Who would have thought that our Russian hymn will play on the streets of Italy?” wrote Alyona Sivkova on March 25, in a caption to the video.
The following day, after the video had been featured in various Russian reports as evidence of ordinary Italians’ gratitude to Russia, Sivkova posted an angry Telegram post alleging that Russian state media had “stolen” the video — which was recorded by the Italy-based mother of a Russian colleague — for their own purposes.
Ilya Shepelin, who leads a program debunking fake news on independent Russian TV channel Dozhd, told the BBC that Italians who have publicly praised Russia’s aid to their country are mostly people with close business ties to Russia.
“We’re not dealing here with a pure fabrication, but manipulation,” he said of the Russian TV reports. “Hybrid lies, or hybrid truth.”