Beware of Bad Samaritans

China and Russia are sending medical aid to Italy and other coronavirus-stricken countries, but their motives aren’t so altruistic.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a virtual meeting with regional officials.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a virtual meeting with regional officials near Moscow on March 30. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

Humanitarian disasters ordinarily provide brief respites of global cooperation. Human lives take on a rare starring role, and sometimes even geopolitical adversaries assist one another. After devastating earthquakes hit Iran in 2003 and 2012, even the United States pitched in to help. But during the coronavirus pandemic, the two most energetic Samaritans—Russia and China—are using their ostensible assistance for geopolitical gains.

Following a recent phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the Russian government sent Italy nine aircraft and more than 100 experts, along with medical supplies. Having initially received no help from fellow European Union member states, in desperation Italy—the fourth-largest contributor to the EU budget—had turned to Russia. (Germany, France, and Austria have since sent millions of face masks to Italy; the Czech Republic has sent a few thousand protective suits. Germany has flown several dozen Italian and French patients to German hospitals. Poland has sent twelve doctors.)

When the much-anticipated Russian delivery arrived, however, the Italians discovered that the vast majority of the supplies were useless for coronavirus treatment. It was like a plot out of Occupied, the hit Norwegian television series about a mysterious takeover of Norway.

“Of those Russian supplies, 80 percent were completely useless or of little use to Italy. In other words, the delivery was more like a pretext,” an Italian government official told the leading newspaper La Stampa. According to the official, the Russian delivery contained, for example, equipment for bacteriological disinfection and a field laboratory for chemical-biological sterilization—not the ventilators and personal protective equipment so desperately needed by the Italians.

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The two most energetic Samaritans—Russia and China—are using their ostensible assistance for geopolitical gains.

The Kremlin’s aid is indeed rather unusual. The medical experts were dispatched by the Russian defense ministry, not the health ministry, La Stampa reported. What’s more, many are senior biological, chemical, and nuclear officers in the medical branch of the Russian armed forces—hardly the front-line medics ordinarily dispatched to help fight a humanitarian crisis.

As of this writing, the Russian officers are based in the Bergamo area of Italy. According to a letter by Russia’s ambassador published in La Stampa, the Russian experts will initially sanitize overcrowded assisted living facilities there. Bergamo, the Italian city worst hit by the coronavirus, is located less than two hours from Vicenza, the site of a major U.S. military base. The officers are traveling “along NATO roads,” a Russian TV anchor noted. In his letter, the ambassador—who confirmed the officers’ biological, chemical, and nuclear expertise—pointed out that the Russians are risking their lives. He’s right: The Russian experts could succumb to the coronavirus on the Bergamo front line. To date, COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has claimed the lives of 51 Italian doctors. The presence of Russian military personnel in a NATO country, however, especially near a U.S. air base, raises fears that the Russians will use their stay to gather intelligence.

What makes the mission even more mind-boggling is the fact that Italy is one of the top troop contributors to current NATO out-of-area operations and has 166 soldiers stationed in Latvia as part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence, an effort to deter Russia. Around the same time as the Russian officers arrived in Italy, NATO jets intercepted a Russian military aircraft near NATO airspace. Italy, a founding member of NATO, is thus combating its worst post-World War II crisis with the aid of NATO’s main adversary. That raises further questions about the purpose of the Russians’ visit and whether it will influence Italian attitudes toward NATO. Referring to the Russian supplies, Conte has insisted it won’t: “It’s inconceivable that our geopolitical arrangement would be conditioned by this equipment,” he told the Italian Senate on March 26.

Meanwhile, China has dispatched medical supplies and a few medical staff, too. Chinese authorities made a big deal out a March 12 flight that carried—as announced by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio—31 tons of equipment, including 40 ventilators. Since the initial flight, the Chinese have sent a few more supplies, including 30 ventilators on March 25. But for Italy, where nearly 100,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 10,000 have been killed by it, that’s a drop in the bucket.

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Were the Chinese true friends of Italy, they would have sent tens of thousands of ventilators. What’s more, the Chinese supplies weren’t exactly a charitable gift. While some came from the Chinese Red Cross, the Italians had to buy others. To add insult to injury, around the same time that the first flight arrived, Chinese state media outlets began circulating a rumor that the COVID-19 outbreak had actually originated in Italy.

China has sent supplies to other countries, too. The deliveries are, however, paltry for a government with massive manufacturing at its disposal and whose bungling of the initial outbreak led to the virus going global. A million face masks here, a few hundred thousand there, and a few doctors are not much for a country that accounted for 50 percent of global face mask production in 2019 and whose daily face mask production skyrocketed to an astounding 110 million in February. By contrast, Albania, a poor country with fewer than 3 million inhabitants, has sent the Italians 30 doctors and nurses.For China, the amount of aid needed doesn’t seem to matter: Beijing is using the deliveries as a public relations opportunity.

China’s assistance is also distinctly modest compared with the assistance Germany (which has more than 60,000 coronavirus infections itself) and other European countries are belatedly providing their worst-hit neighbors. But for China, the amount of aid needed doesn’t seem to matter: Beijing is using the deliveries as a public relations opportunity.

With great fanfare, face masks have been dispatched to Spain, France, Serbia, and the EU in a very public show of Chinese soft power. On March 20, the Czech Republic received Beijing’s deliveries on a Chinese military plane, an event widely covered by regime-friendly media. One day later, Chinese state television CGTN posted a YouTube video showing the loading of a train that will carry further medical equipment there.

Unsurprisingly, Sweden has received no assistance from China. Instead, one of the country’s hospitals had to secure philanthropic funding to buy Chinese medical gear. Sweden happens to be China’s European bête noire, the result of its support for the imprisoned Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, who became a Swedish citizen in the 1990s. But the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy have received face masks from Huawei, the telecommunications giant eager for more 5G contracts in Europe.

Though an airplane would reach the desperate Spaniards (some 85,000 coronavirus infections, more than 7,000 deaths) much faster, Beijing made sure that the Chinese supplies currently heading for Spain would travel by train along the Belt and Road route, a journey that takes 17 days.

The donated supplies are worth about $49,325, CGTN proudly reported. There was no such fanfare about Madrid’s decision to purchase some $473 million worth of medical supplies from Beijing, including coronavirus tests that turned out to be faulty, or the 1.3 million face masks the Dutch bought from China, half of which likewise turned out to be defective.

Spain and Italy are considered soft targets for Chinese influence within the EU. On the other hand, Serbia, though its infection rate is currently quite low, is a longtime candidate for EU membership whose allegiance China wants to secure. As for the donations to the Czech Republic, which is hardly a coronavirus hotbed, the country has become a recent target of Chinese influence-peddling efforts.

Compare Moscow’s and Beijing’s behavior with the assistance countries ordinarily provide during humanitarian disasters. When Japan was struck by an earthquake nine years ago, 50 countries immediately offered assistance. They included archrival China, which sent $4.5 million worth of aid. Indeed, during humanitarian disasters geopolitics is normally suspended and good Samaritanism takes over.

During Iran’s 2012 earthquake, the U.S. government lifted sanctions, allowing American organizations to send supplies. When Argentina’s San Juan submarine disappeared three years ago, the Royal Navy—the pillar of the British war effort against Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982—joined the search and rescue mission. The Royal Navy has also helped search for missing Russian subs including the Kursk, which claimed 118 submariners’ lives 20 years ago. And when the coronavirus broke out in China, the EU and the U.S. government swiftly donated many tons of medical supplies.

While China wants to both sell goods and pry countries away from EU and NATO solidarity, Russia’s efforts are of a murkier nature. Whatever the true nature of the Russian presence in Bergamo, Russia’s sending military officers in response to a health care emergency is clearly not an unselfish act; it’s a move that will damage NATO in the long run.

“In the moment of need, the person who helps you is a friend,” Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Manlio di Stefano told Italian radio on March 27, calling fears of the Russian and Chinese aid “idiocy.”

The biblical good Samaritan gives to strangers in need while expecting nothing in return. China and Russia have introduced a new category in humanitarian aid: the bad Samaritan. The Chinese and Russians may be offering a helping hand, but unlike in the Scriptures, they expect something in return.

True good Samaritans must prove to the needy—and to the world—that they still exist. NATO has begun using its Strategic Airlift Capability program to transport coronavirus supplies to member states. But that’s not enough to counter the bad Samaritans’ advance.

If a NATO member state lost even a few citizens in a military attack, the alliance would immediately respond with all its might. It would dispatch equipment, troops, and commanders from all its member states to the front lines. The coronavirus pandemic is clearly not the conventional attack NATO was set up to counter, but it is Italy’s most devastating crisis since NATO was founded. What’s needed is a Mission Good Samaritan—a massive NATO effort sending medical supplies and medics to the deadly front line in Bergamo and beyond. That would put the bad Samaritans in their place.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist for Foreign Policy  and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw