China, Russia Exploit CCP Virus Pandemic to Advance Interests in Italy: Defense Secretary

US Defense Department provides humanitarian aid to Italy: Esper
May 12, 2020 Updated: May 12, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Italian newspaper La Stampa in an interview on May 4 that Russia and China are using humanitarian assistance provided to Italy to advance their own interests.

“Russia provided medical assistance to Italy but then attempted to use that assistance to drive a wedge between Italy and its allies with a disinformation campaign,” Esper said.

According to researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) stories alleging that “the virus is a hoax, that it is man-made”, or that it is “a U.S.-made biological weapon” are examples of Russian disinformation.

“I have repeatedly called for Russia and China to be transparent with information during this crisis,” Esper said, adding that he recommended that “their donations to other countries be of quality and come without strings.”

The issue of exploiting the vulnerability of NATO allies due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus outbreak, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, was also discussed during the recent NATO Defense Ministers meeting attended by Esper. The United States and NATO Allies will take steps “to ensure the health crisis does not turn into a security crisis,” Esper said.

US Provides Humanitarian Aid to Italy

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Cleaning personnel in protective gear disinfecting patients’ beds in one of the tents from a newly operative field hospital for coronavirus patients, in Cremona, southeast of Milan, on March 20, 2020. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Esper authorized the Department of Defense on April 20 to provide humanitarian support to Italy including transportation of medical equipment, fuel, or food, providing medical supplies, the involvement of U.S. military personnel in humanitarian operations conducted in Italy, remote clinical services provided to Italian medical facilities, and medical services to non-COVID-19 patients in Italian hospitals, according to a Defense Department statement.

President Donald Trump ordered his administration on April 10—at the request of the Italian Government—to provide COVID-19 relief to Italy, and aid to mitigate the economic damage made by the pandemic.

The assistance to Italy, one of the “closest and oldest Allies” of the United States, will not only help Italy to fight the CCP virus outbreak but will also counter the Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns, and “lessen the risk of re-infection from Europe into the United States,” Trump said.

The humanitarian aid to Italy leverages the current presence of 30,000 U.S. military personnel and their family members in Italy so it will affect neither the readiness nor health of the military force in the United States nor their participation in the domestic response to the CCP outbreak, Trump’s order says.

General Tod Wolters, the U.S. European Command commander and other commanders in that region were tasked to provide assistance to Italy in combating COVID-19, Esper told La Stampa.

Military Personnel Accompany Russian COVID-19 Assistance to Italy

Russia provided medical aid to Italy, following a conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, according to experts at CSIS.

The delivery of medical supplies from Russia to Italy was accompanied by “over 100 Russian military personnel trained in biological, chemical, and nuclear decontamination,” reported CSIS.

Esper told La Stampa that some actors “may seek to use the pandemic and resulting economic challenges we all face as an opening to invest in critical industries and infrastructure, which in turn may affect long-term security.”

NATO defense ministers agreed during a meeting that “potential adversaries will almost certainly look to exploit this situation to further their own interests and try to sow division in the Alliance and in Europe,” Esper told La Stampa.

The Russian military personnel sent to Italy were headed by Sergei Kikot, a deputy commander of Russian radiation, chemical, and biological defense troops, and they include virologists and epidemiologists, according to Russian state news agency TASS, as well as intelligence personnel, according to La Stampa. La Stampa also reported that some critics argue 80% of the aid provided by Russia was of little use to Italy.

Massive Propaganda Campaign Accompanies Chinese COVID-19 Assistance to Italy

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Members of a Chinese Anti-Epidemic medical expert team attend a press conference after landing at Milan – Malpensa airport in Ferno, near Milan, Italy, on March 18, 2020. (Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)

Chinese deliveries of medical supplies to Italy have been accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign.

According to Dean Cheng, a Senior Fellow Researcher at the Heritage Foundation, the goal of the Chinese communication campaign is aimed at boosting its reputation abroad in order to build 5G networks in key countries around the world.

Esper told La Stampa that “Reliance on Chinese 5G vendors … could render our partners’ critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation, and espionage. It could also jeopardize our communication and intelligence sharing capabilities.”

The United States has been working on the development of an alternative 5G technology solution and encourages its allies to do the same, Esper said. These technologies are being currently tested by the U.S. military, he added.

It is not by coincidence that “one of the earliest recipients of Chinese medical attention was Italy,” Cheng said in his report. Italy is the only one of G7 countries that joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, or One Belt, One Road) aimed at expanding the Chinese political and military sphere of influence through opaque lending practices leading to debt traps.

Chinese company Huawei has already been establishing “5G testbeds in a number of Italian cities,” Cheng said.

The Chinese embassy in Italy has been posting “videos, vignettes, slogans, and messages,” and the Ambassador has been giving interviews and releasing “messages of support” to the Italian society, according to Francesca Ghiretti, a researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI). The Chinese propaganda also targets “politicians and decision-makers”, Ghiretti said.

Although the propaganda is aimed at boosting the Chinese Communist Party’s image abroad, the first concern of the CCP and its leader “is regime survival,” according to Ghiretti. “Thus, a lot of the Chinese propaganda we see in the West is actually aimed at domestic audiences in China (and its diaspora),” she said.