by Matthew Bugeja
The world may have come to a grinding halt, but Russia has found a way to make headlines in the last week or so. It may have been buried under an avalanche of headlines related to COVID19, but Russia has been busy in recent days by dispatching aid to various countries, which have included Italy, Serbia, and surprisingly, the United States.
For those who have a sense of the spread of the coronavirus, and the reaction of various countries to it, you would understand that a number of nations have been scrambling to obtain personal protection equipment for their healthcare workers, in addition to ventilators and preparing hospital beds. COVID19 has spread at a rate which has caught most countries by surprise. Russia has taken the opportunity to send out planeloads of medical supplies and other equipment to several countries.
Some observers will put it down to Russian magnanimity, the more skeptical amongst us will attribute it to Russia seeking to bolster its soft power abroad in strategic countries. Italy has long had a close relationship with Russia, and has been one of the EU members seeking to tone down European sanctions against Moscow. Serbia is in the middle of a tug of war between the EU & Russia, with both sides seeking to plant the flag of influence in the Balkan nation. The US relationship with Russia has been complicated in recent years, but the images of Russian cargo planes bringing medical supplies to the hard-hit state of New York represented a big propaganda victory for Vladimir Putin at home – even if Russian media did not seek to overplay it, given that COVID19 cases have increased four-fold in the last week or so.
Can Russia afford to be so generous? The short answer is sort of, but not really. At the point in which it decided to ship out these supplies, its cases hovered around the 1,000 mark. At the time of writing, Russia has around 4,700 cases of the coronavirus. There has long been criticism amongst the Russian medical community that the country was not doing nearly enough testing. Quite simply, if you don’t test for it, you won’t find cases, which helps to keep the case number low. But the reality is that if you don’t prevent the virus from spreading early on, you will face an avalanche of cases once you finally commence a reasonable amount of testing, as countries such as Italy and Spain have learned to their dismay.
Russia’s gesture was generous, although it would be short sighted to think there is not some sort of strings attached. If it ends up being overwhelmed by the coronavirus, which is what some medical professionals fear in Moscow and St Petersburg, Putin will face a backlash at home at a time of a global economic downturn unlike anything the world has seen for close to a century. He will have to hope that his gamble will pay off.