Turning the Tables, Russia Sends Virus Aid to U.S.

MOSCOW — In the early 1990s, amid the poverty-ridden collapse of the Soviet Union, American food aid in the form of a flood of cheap chicken thighs — Russians called them “Bush legs” — symbolized the humiliating downfall of a superpower.

Three decades later, Moscow got a chance to turn the tables. A giant An-124 Russian military transport plane landed at Kennedy International Airport in New York, bearing cartons of masks and ventilators from Russia for a pandemic-stricken metropolis.

“If someone had said even just a week ago that the United States would be thanking Russia for humanitarian aid,” an anchor on Russian state television marveled Thursday, the day after the plane touched down, “people would have said you’re crazy.”

But with the pandemic increasingly bearing down on Russia, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine appeared to avoid trumpeting the aid shipment lest Russians think that the government was ignoring their own plight.

After plans for the shipment stirred criticism on both sides of the Atlantic, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on Thursday that the two countries had in fact evenly split the cost of the medical goods and that Russia could depend on future aid from the United States in fighting the coronavirus.

“We are certain that if it’s necessary they will in the future be able to help Russia,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said in a statement.

The pushback over Russia’s shipment to New York — where the governor and the mayor have been sounding alarms about a shortage of personal protective equipment and ventilators — traced the geopolitical shadow cast over the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. It also raised fresh questions about Mr. Trump’s close relationship with Mr. Putin — and Mr. Putin’s commitment to fighting the virus in his own country.

For the Kremlin, the shipment was a propaganda coup: the latest chance to show Mr. Putin’s nation and the globe that the days of Russia as a supplicant on the world stage were long gone.

But the propaganda victory was bittersweet as the spread of the coronavirus gathered pace in Russia, perhaps explaining why the plane’s landing in New York received only cursory treatment on Thursday’s main Russian state television news broadcasts. While the pandemic does not yet appear to have reached the scale seen in Western Europe and the United States, in Russia, opposition politicians and medical workers have warned of a potential shortage of equipment in the coming weeks.

In the Perm region in the Ural Mountains, the authorities on Wednesday urged residents to start sewing their own masks.

“Doctors and nurses in the whole country are sitting without masks and getting each other sick,” the opposition activist Aleksei A. Navalny posted on Twitter. “This is monstrous. Putin is crazy.”

Mr. Putin did not mention the aid delivery in an address to the nation about coronavirus on Thursday. Instead, he warned that some regions, including Moscow, had not yet brought the pandemic under control.

“Virology specialists believe that the epidemic is not yet past its peak globally, and the same goes for our country,” a stern Mr. Putin said Thursday, addressing Russians from his country home outside Moscow, where he has been working remotely in recent days.

Mr. Putin said a nationwide paid holiday to fight the pandemic would be extended until the end of the month, but he left it to regional authorities to decree their own social distancing measures. Russia’s two biggest and hardest hit cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, went into lockdown this week with residents forbidden to leave their homes except to buy food and medicine, and to walk their dogs within a hundred yards of their residence.

Russia has reported far fewer infected people than hard-hit countries like the United States and Italy, but their numbers have increased fourfold over the past week, to 3,548, with the authorities on Thursday reporting 770 new cases, compared with just 182 new infections a week ago. Thirty coronavirus patients had died in Russia as of Thursday morning, the government said.

The coronavirus has already stung Russia’s economy, with global demand for oil and Russia’s other natural resources plummeting, in part as a result of the pandemic. But it has also provided the Kremlin with new propaganda openings, as Russia — for now — has appeared to fare better in slowing the spread of the virus than have Western countries. While many Russians doubt the official numbers of cases and deaths, there have not been reports of hospitals being overwhelmed by patients.

The Russian military said last week that it had also dispatched at least 15 planeloads of medical equipment and personnel to help Italy fight the virus. Russia’s Defense Ministry sent Moscow-based journalists at least 37 emails to trumpet that mission, including footage of dark-green Russian military trucks accompanied by Italian police on Italian roads. They carried Russian flags along with banners reading “From Russia With Love.”

Pro-Kremlin news outlets have been quick to contrast Russia’s Italian mission with what they say is a lack of help to Italy from the United States and even other European countries.

“Each of these countries that are part of the same NATO bloc and of the European Union and brag about their trans-Atlantic solidarity began by walling themselves off from one another and tried to all solve their problems on their own,” Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Russian Parliament’s upper house, said in a Russian state television interview Thursday.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump spoke on Monday, and the American president later said Russia was “very nice” to send “a very, very large planeload of things.” Brett McGurk, Mr. Trump’s former special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, called the Russian flight “a propaganda bonanza” and said Washington had shrunk from a global leadership role in fighting the coronavirus crisis.

Russia, however, insisted the aid flight to New York was part of a longer-term strategy to fight the pandemic on a global level. The government-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund, which paid for half the shipment, said it was working with U.S. companies to deliver medical supplies to Russia if they are needed.

On Thursday, the latest target of Russia’s virus diplomacy emerged: Serbia. Moscow and the West have long battled for influence in the Balkan country, which has reported more than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. Mr. Putin spoke by phone to his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, and promised that Russia’s military would send aid to help fight the virus.

Afterward, Mr. Vucic issued a statement thanking the Kremlin, according to the Interfax news agency. Despite the crisis touching Russia itself, the statement said, “the Russian leadership is thinking about Serbia and the friendly Serbian people.”

Andrew Higgins contributed reporting.

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