Speaking at the White House COVID-19 press briefing on Monday, March 30, U.S. President Donald Trump said many foreign countries were sending help for the coronavirus pandemic. He specifically mentioned China and Russia, without specifying whether assistance was purchased or a form of humanitarian aid.
“Russia sent us a very, very large planeload of things, medical equipment, which was very nice.”
Trump’s announcement created a confusion, first because Russia had yet to send the plane when the U.S. president said it already had arrived. Secondly, Trump’s critics assumed the aid was a gift, providing President Vladimir Putin a propaganda victory.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov was the source of the misleading claim that the Russian supplies were of a “humanitarian nature.”
Peskov said Putin offered to send humanitarian aid to the U.S. during a phone call with Trump on March 30, and that Trump “accepted the offer with gratitude.”
While “some on the American side” did not support rapid implementation of the presidents’ agreement, the Kremlin expects the spirit of cooperation to be mutual, Peskov added.
On Wednesday, April 1, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Twitter that Russia’s “largest cargo aircraft” was en route to the U.S. to “help save lives of American citizens.” The tweet used hashtag “RussiaHelps,” further suggesting a humanitarian gesture.
The Russian diaspora in the U.S. believed the supplies were a gift. The Russian Community Council in the U.S.A. sent a letter of gratitude to the Russian Foreign Ministry, saying: “Numerous representatives of the Russian diaspora living in various parts of the United States are grateful to the residents of Russia and the Russian authorities for sending humanitarian aid, 120 tons of medicines, to the United States.”
A Russian Air Force An-124 “Ruslan” took off from the Chkalovsk military airbase near Moscow on Wednesday, April 1, at around 4 p.m., Moscow time, and landed at New York’s JFK International Airport at 4 p.m., Eastern Time, that same day.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the plane was carrying surgical masks and equipment.
But in a move that unsettled the narrative, the U.S. State Department issued a statement that the U.S. actually bought the supplies from Russia.
“As a follow-up to the March 30 phone call between President Trump and President Putin, the United States has agreed to purchase needed medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protection equipment, from Russia, which were handed over to FEMA on April 1 in New York City,” the State Department said.
The U.S. did not provide the details of the purchase, including the price and the content of supplies. (FEMA stands for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to disasters like the pandemic.)
On April 2, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that the cargo was indeed not entirely humanitarian – and added a new wrinkle.
Moscow said the Americans paid for some of the supplies, while part of the cost was covered by the Kremlin’s Direct Investment Fund, controlled by Putin.
Critics have accused the Russians of trying to engineer a propaganda windfall by sending coronavirus supplies to places like the U.S., Italy and China while Russia’s own COVID-19 response is wanting.
In Russia, the Doctor’s Union accused authorities of covering up a coronavirus disaster. As in the U.S., hospitals across the country are reportedly in dire need of protective gear, masks and ventilators, the head of the union said in a video address.
The Russian authorities have been “waging a crusade” to hide the true COVID-19 predicament under guise of fake news, the Associated Press reported.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Garry Kasparov, the exiled Russian world chess champion and Putin critic, compared the Kremlin’s COVID-19 disinformation efforts to the Soviet regime’s cover-up of the Chernobyl disaster.
“Putin’s coronavirus malpractice isn’t just the latest misery visited upon the Russian people; he also endangers the rest of the world. Remember the lessons of Chernobyl,” Kasparov wrote.
Russia’s coronavirus aid to hard-hit Italy, dubbed “From Russia with Love,” came under criticism, after the Moscow Times and La Stampa newspapers reported that 80 percent of the supplies were “totally useless.”
Photos and videos shared on social media showed Russian military convoys riding through Italian towns. Putin’s “publicity coup” left European Union exposed, Reuters reported, noting that it was not just the Russians seeking advantage.
Reuters reported: “Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, noted China and Cuba were also sending medical aid to Italy. ‘For countries that would like to see the existing world order revised in their favor, the pandemic is an opportunity,’ he said.”