Vladimir Putin knows a thing or two about a crisis, having caused a number of them during his two decades in power in Russia. And with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading, Russia’s president is observing the adage that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. While the world’s attention is focused on halting the spread of the disease, the Kremlin is using the pandemic as part of its “political warfare” against the West. This is a toxic cocktail of propaganda, influence-peddling, disinformation, cyber-attacks, subversion, economic pressure, military saber-rattling, and everything else short of actually military conflict.
It could also be viewed as a form of displacement activity, since Russia has a formidable COVID-19 crisis of its own. While the Kremlin acted decisively in the early stages of pandemic, shutting down its 2,600-mile or so border with China on January 30, its overall response has been weak. Putin has backed into the shadows, leaving the Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin to lead the response. Beyond that, the Kremlin’s response has mostly focused on harassing and defenestrating doctors who dared to speak the truth about the scale of the pandemic. Over recent weeks, three Russian doctors have mysteriously fallen out of windows after complaining about aspects of the Kremlin’s response to the pandemic.
To anybody who has been paying attention to Russia’s behavior over recent years, none of this should come as a surprise. Russia has sought to take advantage of various crises—often of its own creation—at the expense of global stability. It has honed its efforts through the annexation of Crimea, invasion of eastern Ukraine, destruction of MH17, interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and attempted murder of Sergei Skripal. COVID-19 is no different. Now, as before, Russia is seeking to subvert the rules-based international order.
On March 22, with the European Union dithering in its response to COVID-19, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte accepted an offer from Putin for Russian humanitarian aid. Emblazoned with the logo “From Russia with Love,” the aid was delivered by IL-76 military transportation planes over the course of the following days. It was accompanied by a deployment of 122 military medical personnel, including doctors and nurses, as well as mobile units for the containment of bacteriological threats and soil decontamination.
Russia’s actions generated immense publicity in Italy and elsewhere, with oft-repeated television footage showing a Russian military convoy speeding along empty autostradas. Italians posted pictures of themselves embracing the Russian flag on social media. Italy’s Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini officially thanked Russia for its help; so too did former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, albeit unofficially. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, used the opportunity to emphasize that Russia was acting altruistically: “In the fight against coronavirus, international interaction is very important,” he said.
It soon became apparent, however, that all was not what it seemed. On March 25, Jacobo Iacobini of La Stampa disclosed that 80 percent of the Russian aid was “useless.” The Italian government, for example, was at a loss to explain how equipment for soil decontamination would halt the spread of COVID-19. Officers from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, were rumored to be part of the deployment, which was led by General Sergey Kikot. Kikot has played a leading role in Russia’s operations in Syria, and the optics of him moving freely in a founding member of NATO hammered home the idea that Italy had been abandoned by the West in its hour of need.
In response to La Stampa’s reporting, Russian defense ministry official General Igor Konashenkov took to the Ministry’s official Facebook page and wrote that “he who digs the grave crashes into it.” This would seem to confirm, rather than refute, the alleged motives behind the aid. In early April, meanwhile, La Repubblica reported that Russian citizens in Italy were offering Italians up to 200 Euros ($218) to film themselves thanking Russia for its aid and to post these videos on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. One such video—of an Italian man taking down an EU flag and replacing it with a Russian tricolor and a sign saying “Thank you Putin”—has played frequently on Russian TV.
As Russia’s aid to Italy suggests, the Kremlin’s coronavirus diplomacy operates at several different levels. Its dealings with the United States are no different, and the role played by VEB, a state development bank, is a case in point.
VEB is a tool of Russian foreign policy, and has several walk-on parts in the Mueller report. The bank was placed on the OFAC and EU sanctions lists following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and overcoming those sanctions and/or forestalling new ones—particularly by orchestrating personal appeals to President Trump—is an overarching priority for VEB, as it is for the Kremlin. Whether sanctions were discussed in Jared Kushner’s meeting with VEB’s then-chairman Sergei Gorkov in December 2016 is not known. What is known is that VEB maintains three U.S. lobbyists, according to Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) filings. All three—White & Case, Geopolitical Solutions, and Former Rep. John Sweeney (R-New York)—specifically state that they are only concerned with new sanctions rather than rolling back existing sanctions.
Putin called for a moratorium on sanctions in late March, during a videoconference with the G20, saying it was a matter of “life and death.” After this was ignored, Russia drafted a UN General Assembly resolution that called for an end to “unilateral coercive measures undertaken without the mandate of the Security Council.” An alternative resolution, emphasizing international solidarity in countering coronavirus, was adopted instead.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that VEB’s former subsidiary fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), took advantage of the opportunity to undermine sanctions presented by Donald Trump’s accepting of aid from Putin to fight COVID-19. RDIF is on an OFAC “restricted lending list,” meaning it is not as heavily sanctioned as its parent. Half of the aid that Russia flew directly to New York on April 1 was paid for by RDIF, according to RDIF itself. After initially saying that medical aid was excluded from the sanctions regime, the State Department stated that all of the cost was covered by the United States, meaning that the shipment was transactional rather than humanitarian in nature. In any event, one party is lying.
Subsequently ABC News reported that the US had indeed paid $660,000 for the shipment that “included thousands of pieces of equipment not typically used by hospitals, including chemical warfare-style gas masks and household cleaning gloves, according to a government record of the shipment.” As ABC News notes, “the details and price tag of the shipment, which have not been previously reported, challenge public descriptions by the Kremlin and President Donald Trump and raise questions about whether the shipment served primarily as a public relations coup for Russia, known by U.S. intelligence for waging disinformation campaigns.”
The An-24 cargo plane which delivered the aid was also carrying ventilators purchased by the U.S. government. These were manufactured by Kret, a subsidiary of the Russian defense technology company Rostec. OFAC said in a statement to the Financial Times, “the humanitarian deliveries received from the Russian government appear non-sanctionable under Russia/Ukraine related sanctions authorities administered by Ofac.” It transpires that the ventilators were not useable owing to a “voltage-related issue.”
The United States and Italy are not the only countries to benefit from the Kremlin’s largesse. In early April, Reuters reported that the Kremlin was sending 11 aid flights to Serbia, and subsequently that three planeloads would be sent to Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, an autonomous Serb region. The former is a candidate country for eventual EU accession that has courted Moscow (and Beijing) in recent years, while the latter is one of the main ways that the Kremlin attempts to influence Bosnia’s domestic politics and thus its international trajectory. Under the pretext of counter-terrorism, Russia is rumored to have helped Srpska build a paramilitary force.
Russia’s aid diplomacy has not just focussed on the Transatlantic, either. On April 21, the Russian foreign ministry said that a number of “unidentified” African states had requested aid—and that these requests would be considered.
Over recent years, Russia has steadily expanded its influence across Africa by increasing arms sales, signing security agreements, and quietly deploying mercenaries and political advisers to several countries, including the Central African Republic. The continent thus provides fertile ground for Russia to continue extending its influence during the crisis. Africa is littered with grandiose but ultimately unfulfilled Russian schemes, from Rosatom’s South African nuclear energy program to the Trans-Sahara gas pipeline, which usually serve the Kremlin’s geopolitical objectives while contributing little or nothing to local partners.
The appearance of RDIF and Kret in connection to Russia’s aid shipment to the United States gives the impression of the Kremlin trolling the White House, at the very least. And as in the case of Italy, it has put officials in an awkward position, since they could scarcely have declined such aid, even if its aims are clearly manipulative. Trump appeared sanguine: “I’m not concerned about Russian propaganda. [Putin] offered a lot of high quality stuff that I accepted. That may save a lot of lives. I’ll take it every day.”
Exactly how the commercial and non-commercial elements of the transaction were decided is difficult to know. However the aid shipment was arranged, VEB moved promptly to exploit it with the U.S. government. FARA disclosures have made public an email exchange from April 8, 2020—a week after the aid flight reached New York—in which Grace Fenstermaker of Geopolitical Solutions writes to Jett Thomason in the State Department’s Office of Economic Analysis:
“Separately, once you’re back from paternity leave, VEB would be interested in setting up a follow up VC with you and some of your colleagues to discuss a few of the initiatives they are working on in the new era of coronavirus. Let me know if you’d be keen to do this and we’ll coordinate.”
This is the last email to be disclosed, so we do not know Thomason’s response to this invitation. However, his own requests to VEB focused on potential harm to U.S. security and interests, including whether VEB takes an interest in the military sector; engagement with other sanctioned entities; the Belt and Road initiative; and the case of the jailed U.S. investment banker Michael Calvey.
What seems clear is that, under the pretext of helping the world combat coronavirus, the Kremlin hopes to frame a new narrative about itself as a responsible international actor. It hopes that, as a result of Russia’s international grandstanding, it will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with enhanced authority and an unjustifiably restored reputation. Here’s hoping those hopes are dashed.