Friends in need or tacticians?

In time when fighting coronavirus is a priority for the majority of countries, two superpowers are entering the stage, representing themselves as saviors and the only powers capable of fighting out the current problem.

Soon after the crisis started intensifying, China and Russia launched the narratives that the EU is down on its knees or that the virus was created by the USA and this way they are striving to gain a position of winning countries in the situation which is clearly showing that there is no winner until each country eradicates this disease.

Spreading of these narratives and disinformation started after Italy (the world coronavirus hotspot in that period) has received the aid from Beijing and Moscow. While the Brussels administration (quite slowly and without particular success) was preparing the response to this new crisis, China and Russia have already had their answer – at least, through their media. Instead of the unique planetary battle, the battle to discredit the EU has started.

Justified criticism of majority due to the fact that China has retained the information and has reacted slowly to COVID-19 which contributed to the spreading of the virus, represented one of the most serious threats to Chinese leadership in last decades, as it was stated in the British Guardian. Therefore, it is not surprising that China presented itself as the leader and main benefactor for preservation of public health while the epidemic was spreading all around the world.

Therefore, after sending the aid to Italy, it was reported that the Italian citizens are applauding to express their gratefulness, even that they intonated the Chinese anthem. This version was posted by a spokeswoman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying on her Twitter profile, quoted by state media later. In fact, as the Italian fact-checking sites concluded, the citizens of Rome applauded to their health workers and the instrumental of the Chinse anthem was inserted later in the montage.

Along with sending the aid to Italy, Russia led a disinformation campaign on March 23 when Sputnik published the tweet (now deleted ) of the Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov that Poland allegedly blocked the access of Russian humanitarian aid to Italy through its airspace.

On the other hand, Italian media La Stampa published that even 80% of aid that Russia directed to Italy was useless or not particularly useful so those are just excuses to spread the influence. It is written in the text (with reference to the statement of anonymous official of the Italian Government) that the Russian shipment was just an excuse for aid. Shipment contained the supplies for bacteriological disinfection and mobile laboratory for biological sterilization but no respirators and protective gear for doctors which was the most needed in that moment, specifies this Italian newspaper.

Spokeswoman of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russian Federation, Maria Zakharova, reacted strongly to this, stating that on the example and humanitarian aid that Russia provided to Italy and that Cuba and China are providing to numerous countries, it can be seen what informative aggression is in fact. Spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Defence, Major General Igor Konashenkov, went one step further of Zakharova and accused La Stampa for Russophobia, threatening to this newspaper and the author of the article in a skillfully disguised manner.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy reacted to this statement by saying that they appreciate Russian aid but the freedom of expression and press must be respected while the European Commission stated that free and independent media represent the DNA of the Old Continent.

These threats did not particularly affect journalist Jacopo Iacoboni who published the second article on Russian shipment couple of days after the first one. It is stated in the article that along with doctors and medical supplies, the intelligence officers from GRU also came with shipment from Moscow. There is no doubt that GRU officers are also among them, striving to obtain as many details as possible on the Italian Armed Forces, stabilizing the intelligence network. This huge action is taking place right now, La Stampa quotes the statement of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon who is currently a military advisor and a former NATO commander.

Taking down the EU flags, a motive for disinformation

After the aid from Russia and China had come, numerous media outlets published that the Italians were massively taking down the EU flags and replacing them with the Russian and Chinese ones.

However, the situation on the ground was slightly different. This phenomenon did exist but was not that large-scale. Therefore, Sputnik published the following article on March 24:  Video circulating on social media: Italian removed the EU flag and replaced it with the Russian . It commented that Russia sent large quantity of medical aid to Italy and Russian administration stated that they are asking nothing in return, not even the abolition of sanctions that the EU countries imposed. The same day, Sputnik published another article, referring to Tanjug Agency, where they claim that the citizens of Italy are taking off the flag of the Union and replacing it with the Chinese flag, saying that Brussels did not show any solidarity to Italy. However, it was not about large-scale replacing of the EU flag with the Chinese one but about individual and again not large-scale gesture of gratitude to China.

The regional news portals were not the only to question the solidarity of the EU and its survival. News portals IN4S and Borba did the same by publishing the texts Retrograde bureaucracy – Coronavirus shattered the illusions on the European Union, it is time to turn to ourselves; or the EU fell apart, but they do not know it yet.

The aid was late but was not missing

It is true that many European countries just like the Union itself did not respond well to coronavirus at first but the claims that the aid from Brussels and the EU member countries was missing are false. This is confirmed by the data on EUR50 million of aid to Italy from the EU as well as the medical supplies through the European solidarity in action program. President of the European Commission, Ursula fon der Layen apologized to Italy on April 2 due to the lack of solidarity from Europe and added that the majority of the EU members focused on their own problems. However, in spite of the initial delay, the help in form of tens of billions of euros for small enterprises are announced as well as EUR15 billion for global fight against coronavirus.

It is probable that the perception on the EU will change together with the response to crisis of its member states, notices the European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borel. But, as the experienced diplomat is reminding, citizens need to be aware of geopolitical component which includes fight for a stronger influence in the world, spinning „the politics of aid and generosity“, clearly alluding to Russia and China.

Therefore, there is a good reason to ask the question from the headline – friends in need or tacticians?