Russia Scores Pandemic Propaganda Triumph With Medical Delivery to U.S.

Along with China, the Kremlin is looking to gain a geopolitical edge on the West by rushing medical supplies to countries hit hard by the coronavirus.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Helsinki.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive at a joint press conference after their summit in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

As top American officials bash the Russian government for spreading disinformation on the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump is accepting a supply of medical equipment from Moscow. 

Russia is set to deliver a planeload of personal protective equipment and supplies to the United States on Wednesday following a phone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, a senior administration official told Foreign Policy. “We will put into immediate use any needed items that are [Food and Drug Administration] approved. Likewise, the United States is sending equipment and supplies to many other countries and will continue to do more as we are able,” the official said. The official did not elaborate on what specific supplies were included in the delivery.

Trump himself welcomed the move as his administration works to scale up the amount of medical supplies being delivered to overburdened U.S. hospitals across the country, which face a dire shortage of medical supplies. “Russia sent us a very, very large planeload of things, medical equipment, which was very nice,” Trump said during a press conference on Monday—though the shipment had not yet been sent at that point.

But the delivery also represents a major optics win for Moscow as the worldwide delivery of medical supplies from competing powers takes on an increasingly geopolitical edge. The United States appears to have shed its traditional role of world leader in a global crisis, critics say, instead redirecting its focus on domestic needs. “We’re all talking about it as a trolling operation but in a large part that’s because the U.S. is flat on its back,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. The State Department has gone as far as to issue a directive to its diplomats in countries that receive U.S. foreign aid to now ask them for help.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

“This is a PR coup for the Russians,” said Alina Polyakova, the head of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank. “The United States has always had the reputation of being the global responsible first responder in moments of crisis and now … you have a situation where an authoritarian state like Russia is providing humanitarian assistance to the most powerful country in the world.” 

Despite strained relations, Russia and the United States have still been able to successfully put their differences aside and cooperate on shared areas of interest such as arms control and counterterrorism in the past. Putin was the first world leader to call U.S. President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to offer assistance. “Normally we would be supportive of an administration working with Russia where interests overlap,” said Kendall-Taylor, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s the lack of U.S. leadership that makes this gesture from Russia seem more threatening than it would be in other times.” 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian news agency Interfax that Trump “gratefully accepted” the aid during his call with Putin on Monday, and he added that there was an understanding that the United States would reciprocate if necessary. “It is important to note that when offering assistance to U.S. colleagues … [Putin] assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” Peskov said. 

Russia, China, and other U.S. adversaries have seized on the global pandemic to push out false narratives that undercut the West and showcase their own clout by delivering medical supplies abroad, even as they fight the virus at home. 

“We have seen it not only from Iran and Russia but from China and others as well trying to tell a narrative,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in a phone briefing on Thursday. “The narratives are different, but each of them has the same component, which is to avoid responsibility and try and place confusion in the world, confusion about where the virus began but also confusion about how countries are responding to it and which countries are actually providing assistance throughout the world.”

Russia and China may even be learning from each other in their response to the crisis, said Kendall-Taylor. “China is learning Russia’s disinformation tactics, and I think Russia has seen how China is using this to portray itself as a global leader,” she said. Disinformation experts say Chinese propaganda, which has typically sought to control the narrative, has changed and is now mirroring Russian disinformation—not trying to control the narrative but aiming sow confusion and flood the internet with conflicting narratives on the origins of the new coronavirus.

China, seeking to refurbish its image after botching the initial response to the pandemic that likely originated in its Hubei province, has sent medical supplies and doctors to some of the countries hit hardest by the virus, including Italy and Iran. While many in Washington dismissed the deliveries as a thinly veiled propaganda exercise, they have also quietly raised alarm bells within the U.S. government of how China is showcasing its global influence in the next phase of the coronavirus response. 

As Russia’s own infection rate has risen sharply, Moscow has also sent military planeloads of equipment and some 100 troops to Italy to help combat the country’s coronavirus spread, which has led to over 13,000 deaths there so far, the Wall Street Journal reports. Last week, Italian newspaper La Stampa quoted high-level political sources in Italy who said that 80 percent of the supplies sent by Russia were “useless” and accused Moscow of pursuing a public-relations exercise.

The aid comes as Moscow is directing disinformation campaigns across Eastern Europe aimed at undermining NATO and trans-Atlantic relations. In a newly released report, the European Union’s diplomatic service has tracked over 150 cases of “pro-Kremlin disinformation” since late January, when the coronavirus initially began spreading beyond China’s borders.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer