How disinformation really works: Activists linked to pro-NATO think tank smear Russian Covid-19 aid to Italy

By Bryan MacDonald

With over 11,000 deaths and more than 100,000 cases of Covid-19, Italy is currently a country which feels under siege. But this is no impediment to the think tank racket twisting an offer of support for its propaganda purposes.

Here's what happened. The weekend before last, Vladimir Putin called Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. During the conversation, Conte asked for help, in fighting coronavirus, according to the Kremlin readout which hasn't been contradicted by Italian officials.

Let's be clear from the outset, there was undoubtably a strong PR, as well as practical, element to Russia's assistance. However, there were also advantages to Rome from this approach, as the move may have helped to concentrate a few minds among its traditional allies.

Moscow sent teams of "doctors, protective gear and medical equipment" to the stricken country. The detail included 100 military virologists and epidemiologists, along with eight medical teams, according to Russian news outlets. Most importantly, it delivered 600 ventilators.

A significant amount given Italy apparently had only about 5,000 of the devices. Indeed, a few days after the Putin/Conte call, the New York Times was writing about Italy's "ventilator crisis."

There's usually nothing like a bit of Russian influence to jolt EU and NATO elites into action. As mentioned above, no doubt this was also part of Conte's reasoning. That said, it's also worth mentioning that some other Europeans states have tried to help the Italians. Germany and France, in particular, took patients and sent supplies, despite dealing with outbreaks of their own. Yet, many in Italy feel they haven't done enough.

Putin was also surely thinking ahead to a post-coronavirus crisis time when Italians will remember who stood by them in their hour of need. Especially given Italy is now the third most powerful country in a European Union which has Russia under sanctions.

Indeed as the Diplomatic Editor of BBC’s newsnight, Mark Urban, noted “Russia and China have sent help to Italy. You might argue it’s not huge in scale and given for political reasons. But when Italians remember this crisis and wonder what the US did for them at this hour of need…”

Urban is a vocal Russia critic and hardly a Kremlin patsy.

A few days after the aid landed, a campaign began on Twitter to discredit the Russian initiative. The first I saw of it was a tweet from Oliver Carroll, of London’s Independent newspaper, who presumably speaks Italian (I don’t, so I am relying on his translation).

“Some Italians are expressing unease about Putin's Covid-19 emergency aid,” he wrote. “Acc(ording) to La Stampa, 80 percent of supplies (are) “useless," (and) sources worry about high-ranking military officers now in (the) country. Russian soldiers (are) free to roam (in) Italy a few steps away from NATO,” the paper stated.

"La Stampa says China sent masks (and) ventilators; (but) Russia sent irrelevant equipment used for bacteriological and chemical outbreaks,” Carroll added. “(There is a) belief that Russia … (is) not helping us only for great goodness of its people... now beginning to circulate in broad sectors, military and political.”

The newspaper's report seemingly relied on the testimony of an anonymous source, who did not give their name. Thus, we have to take the author's word for it.