Russia's stealth medical aid operation to Italy avoided not only Polish airspace, but US attempts to stop it
On Sunday, March 22, Russia’s Defence Ministry sent more than fifteen Ilyushin heavy transport planes to Rome with medical aid to Italy, setting up a special medical headquarters at Bergamo, in the Lombady region of northern Italy. This is the largest Russian aid operation in Europe since World War II.
To avoid US intervention to stop it, the air convoy flew across Turkish and Greek airspace, avoiding Ukraine and Poland. As military secrets go, the operational plan devised by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Italian counterpart, Lorenzo Guerini, was a near-perfect success.
Recriminations followed the next day from the Financial Times which accused Moscow of trying to “exploit EU tensions over medical export bans and delays in financial support.” The newspaper quoted the director of an Italian think-tank, Nathalie Tocci, as saying “Russia needs a quick win, so it wants to act fast…It does what Russia always does, which is seize low-hanging fruit.” Tocci and her think-tank are employed by NATO, the European Commission, the European External Action Service, and the European Defence Agency.
The Russians and Italians have been discussing a military-scale medical aid plan for some time. Exactly how long isn’t known, nor did it leak into the press.
President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the preliminaries in the communiqué issued by the Kremlin on Saturday evening (March 21) following his telephone conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “There are plans,” the communiqué said, “to deliver protective equipment, KAMAZ truck-mounted units for disinfectant spraying of vehicles and territories, medical and other equipment, as well as to send teams of Russian specialists to render practical assistance in the worst-hit areas of the country. The deliveries will be carried out by the Defence Ministry using the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces aircraft.”
The Kremlin reported that Putin had initiated the call to Conte. In retrospect, it is now certain the defence ministers Shoigu and Guerini had been working on the operation for days before; the Kremlin call was the public announcement on which the two sides agreed in advance.
The Russian Defence Ministry then issued two short press briefings by general-rank officers.
Listen to the briefings of Colonel-General Dmitry Trishkin, Chief of the Main Military Medical Department, and Lieutenant-General Igor Kirillov, Chief of the Radiation, Chemical and Biological protection forces, here.
Boris Rozhin, author of the Colonel Cassad website in Moscow, then published pictures of the arrival of the aircraft and materiel in Rome on Sunday evening (March 22), and the deployment to Lombardy the following morning.
“Practical experience in combating an epidemic in a new area,” Rozhin acknowledged, was one of the Russian objectives. “The political subtext [is that by] assisting Italy, the Russian Federation continues to play on the contrast [with other EU states], reinforcing the Italian front in relation to the European policy of sanctions against Russia. Of course, this assistance will … strengthen the position of those forces which support the lifting of sanctions.”
Alexei Pushkov, a senior Duma deputy, tweeted that the Polish authorities had refused overflight permission for the aerial convoy.
He also attacked US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo for public statements critical of the Russian and a parallel Cuban medical aid mission to Italy. “Secretary of State Pompeo — these are not your doctors, but Russian military doctors are going to save Italians while you make up fables about ‘Russian disinformation‘.”
A day later on March 24, the Polish Defence Ministry told Juliusz Sabak, a reporter for the Warsaw outlet Defence 24, that Pushkov’s claim was untrue.
“The response of the Ministry of National Defence in this matter is brief and unambiguous – the Russian side did not submit an application for entry into Polish airspace.” Speaking for the Polish military, Sabak accused Pushkov of orchestrating an “intensive propaganda campaign… It is one of many actions aimed at confronting NATO and EU member states on the occasion of a pandemic and the strong emotions associated with it.”
The Warsaw source also reported that “[civilian] Russian planes also fly over Poland without any restrictions, as evidenced by today’s Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Rome, whose route ran over Poland.”
“Why did the Russian Ministry of Defence choose the much longer route through Turkey, Greece and Albania?” Without identifying his Polish official sources, Sabak reported “the advantage of the southern route, which Russian assistance has recommended to Italy, is also its course, let’s call it conventionally – political… It is good if Poland does not pay the image price this time. Acting quickly cuts speculation with a clear and simple message — you can avoid further promotion of such false information.”
Pushkov was asked to respond to the Polish claim that there had been no Russian application for overflight permission. He declined to say.
Russian military sources believe the air convoy of fifteen aircraft, loaded with men and equipment, was so unusual and, until it commenced, so secret, there had been reluctance on the part of the Russian authorities to inform the Poles. Had they done so, there was apprehension in Moscow that the US and Poland would combine in an attempt to block, sabotage or discredit the operation in the media.
In retrospect, the Russian sources also believe, the planning negotiations between Shoigu and Guerini, with the authorization of both Putin and Conte, were carried off without the US or NATO discovering.
Over the past 24 hours in a major move, Russia has sent an unprecedented military humanitarian mission to Italy, a NATO country, which in its official press reports tactfully called “an operational group of military doctors, specialists in the field of virology and epidemiology, with modern equipment for diagnosis and disinfection.”
The wording, which does not mention that these units are belonging of the Russians to the Armed Forces, was chosen from diplomatic considerations so as not to stoke NATO reactions when the real aim is to support Italians in trouble.
It’s no joke, a convoy of Russian troops in full view of Europe is moving through a country that is a member of NATO. Evil tongues will still find a reason to gossip, so why give them an extra reason.
“Their capabilities made it possible to land one plane every two hours.”
After the fourth, they prayed: “Make haste, we do not have time.”
We in Moscow stood busy and waited for their team. However, some units to the airfield made a 450-kilometer march.
And then from Rome there was still a column to go 600 kilometers to Bergamo. Why didn’t they put you closer?
– Just for our big company they decided to allocate the largest airbase. They did not know our capabilities. After the first meeting, at which we informed them that we can – the equipment that arrived there is ready to process up to 20 thousand square meters or 360 cars per hour – they were impressed. And they determined the city of Bergamo for us, which must be completely disinfected. At the same time, they thanked us very much. They do not have such a technique as a class.
Moscow sent 20 such special vehicles to Italy, while in Russia there are over 2,000 of them. Among the equipment is a laboratory capable of doing up to 100 tests for coronavirus per hour. In the homeland – 14 more of the same. That is, no one exposed the rear.
On the way to Bergamo, the convoy stopped for refueling in Florence.
“It’s unusual, of course, to go abroad,” admitted one of the drivers, Senior Sergeant Alexander Matryukhin. “But we are ready to carry out any task.“
– There were no breakdowns. The roads are empty, it’s clear that it is quarantine, “said Colonel Igor Bogomolov, head of the Research Center. “But those rare cars that meet greet us and give signals.” Nicely.
As it became known to “KP” from a military-diplomatic source, our units will be deployed in Bergamo and carry out tasks both in the city itself and in nearby settlements. Medical specialists are seconded to the central hospital of Bergamo and the officer hospital of the Alpine Corps deployed in the suburbs.
Specialists of radiochemical and biological protection have so far determined the task of disinfecting transport, special treatment of the internal and external walls of hospitals and hospitals, as well as vehicles that transport the dead.
In fact, the Russian military flew to help not a member of the NATO bloc, which is expanding to the East, and not a member of the EU, which amicably extends American sanctions against us.
They help ordinary people who are not guilty of anything. This is primarily a humanitarian, not a political action. At the same time, a dangerous business trip, no doubt, has purely practical benefits.
Russian experts had a unique opportunity to look at the enemy – the coronavirus – in the face, to study its habits, weaknesses.
Test your new technologies and medical developments on it. Prepare to repel the attack already on their land.