Russian COVID-19 aid to Italy: PR stunt or covert operation?

A group of soldiers coming from Russia "decontaminate" the soil at a care home in Orzinuovi, near Brescia, northern Italy, during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic emergency, 22 April 2020. [Filippo Venezia/EPA/EFE]

Russia’s aid operation to Italy over the Covid-19 crisis was named “From Russia with Love”, after the James Bond movie. Ironically, what was assumed to be a public relations stunt looks more like espionage, according to sources quoted by EURACTIV Bulgaria.

The Russian army on 22 March began flying medical help to Italy to help it battle the coronavirus after receiving an order from President Vladimir Putin, a goodwill gesture that Moscow labelled “From Russia with Love”.

'From Russia with Love': Putin sends aid to Italy to fight virus

The Russian army on Sunday (22 March) began flying medical help to Italy to help it battle the new coronavirus after receiving an order from President Vladimir Putin, a goodwill gesture that Moscow labelled “From Russia with Love”.

As the operation ended on Thursday (7 May), the correspondent of EURACTIV Bulgaria in Rome Antoinette Nikolova reported that according to two defence experts with whom she spoke, the interest of the Russians strangely focused on an area close to the airbase of Ghedi near Brescia, where US nuclear bombs are believed to be located.

Reportedly when Putin proposed the aid to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Russia took the Italian agreement as a blank check and rushed to deliver the aid its own way, without consulting the host country.

The aid sent by Russia consisted of military doctors, experts in biological, chemical and radioactive threats. A Russian technique for the study of pathogens in soil and surfaces and their decontamination was sent. All this was useless, say Italian experts quoted by various media in the Apennines. The Russians did not send equipment that could detect the presence of COVID-19.

Then the Russians set to work to decontaminate the soil in Italy, but on March 18 the Italian Ministry of Health clarified that there was no scientific reason to believe that the soil was a source of infection. Thus, it turned out that the Russian “Kamaz” trucks, brought to Italy for disinfection of the soil, weren’t needed. The Italian sanitary authorities even said that the disinfection carried out by the Russians contains corrosive substances and acid and is harmful to the soil.

After more than a month in Italy, the Russian military had decontaminated 114 buildings with a total area of 1.1 million square meters of interior space. More than 400,000 square meters of streets in dozens of places in Lombardy have been disinfected.

It was the choice of sites disinfected by the Russian military for biological, chemical and radioactive hazard that led to the sudden cessation of their support mission by the Italian government. “From Russia with Love” was aborted prematurely.

NATO experts have found that the Russians have chosen sites for clearing near extremely “sensitive” strategic bases for nuclear weapons of the Atlantic forces, two defence experts told Euractiv.

Russian military experts have chosen to clear terrain and structures in close proximity to US and NATO bases. They directed their services and Kamaz trucks to sanitary facilities, where there were outbreaks of infection, but were also in close proximity to one of the key military bases in the country – Ghedi – which reportedly hosts 150 US nuclear warheads.

Thus Rome decided not to continue the mission and Russian troops withdrew on Thursday, as Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on Interfax. Before leaving, Russian military experts and medics gave a farewell party in Bergamo. Reportedly the Russian military had “completed their task”, whatever this means.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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