This article was originally published in Italian on Univadis .
The collaboration between Italy and Russia in the fight against the pandemic started during the darkest days of the first wave of COVID-19. On Saturday, March 21, 2020, at the Pratica di Mare military air base near Rome, nine (although some say it was 13) four-engine Russian planes touched down, full of medical supplies and healthcare professionals and equipped with a security detail made up of various members of the Russian armed forces.
On that same day, Italy reported 6557 new positive cases of the coronavirus. Even if in today’s terms that number seems low, it was the highest number of the first wave. In fact, at the time, the capacity for diagnosis was far more limited than it is today: 26,000 swabs were processed daily, while today that number is almost half a million. On that same Saturday, 793 deaths were recorded, with the actual number likely to be far greater.
When help arrived from Russia, Italy was in full lockdown and in the midst of the worst healthcare crisis it had seen since the World War II. Given the difficult situation, the mission named “From Russia with Love” was welcomed with warmth and gratitude by the authorities. Russian operations in Italy took place in the provinces of Bergamo and Brescia, which were among the worst affected in the pandemic, and lasted for almost 2 months.
After the invasion of Ukraine, this 2020 mission was once again the subject of the media’s attention because of certain dubious aspects. One such aspect is that the mission involved more military personnel than healthcare professionals. Out of the 104 participants, there were 28 physicians (with only two of them being civilians) and 4 nurses. Some, like the mission’s general commander Sergey Kikot, were experts in chemical weapons and bacteriology, more accustomed to the art of war than fighting epidemics.
Furthermore, the healthcare supplies brought to Italy didn’t help much in fighting the emergency: while Italy needed millions of masks every day, the cargo from Moscow only contained some hundreds of thousands. The 150 ventilators that Russia provided also turned out to be dangerous and barely functional.
Intelligence or Humanitarian Aid?
The way the mission was equipped and staffed made many people think that it might have a different objective: namely, the gathering of Russian intelligence to be used against a NATO member country. Even the initial intention of the Russians (to sanitize not only hospitals and healthcare assistance residences, but also public offices, as agreed upon at the time with the Italian Civil Protection authorities) raises the question of espionage.
Russian physicians were given the access to familiarize themselves with the therapeutic protocols in place to treat COVID-19 in Italy, the country that probably had the most expertise on the matter (after China) at that time. Beijing, however, took a more scrupulous approach toward patient confidentiality.
On the other hand, the Russian mission caught the attention of both the media and official institutions and was subject to checks by said bodies. From the start, various Italian and foreign media outlets documented the arrival of the Russians for an operation that had both diplomatic and healthcare-based objectives. Among the NATO member countries, Italy probably has the strongest political relationship with Putin’s Russia. National parties such as the Brothers of Italy, the League, the Five Star Movement, and Forza Italia expressed their appreciation for the Russian president on more than one occasion prior to the conflict.
To examine any implications the Russian operation may have had in terms of national security, in 2021 the Italian Parliamentary Committee for the Safety of the Republic (COPASIR) began an investigation through the intelligence services. “From what we can ascertain,” COPASIR stated in its 2021 annual report, “the Russian mission was to be carried out exclusively in a healthcare context, with the objective of sanitizing hospitals and healthcare assistance residences, with Russian personnel being escorted by the Italian military.”
European Divisions Over Vaccines
Supporting the espionage theory, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera cited the fact that during the development of Sputnik, the Russian vaccine, a viral sequence was used that came from an Italian source, extracted from a Russian citizen returning from a trip to Rome. The citizen had visited Italy on March 15, 2020, a week before the arrival of the Russians. Furthermore, by March 21, Russia, too, was recording hundreds of cases of COVID-19 per day. Therefore, it wouldn’t have been necessary to travel to Italy to collect the biological samples needed for the development of the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V.
It was the development of Sputnik, however, that raised doubts about the true meaning of the Russian–Italian healthcare collaboration during the pandemic. Despite the vaccine having been developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, and despite the fact that it was never recommended by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), many local government officials — such as the presidents of Lombardy, Veneto, Campania, and Lazio — proposed buying doses of the vaccine independently from Brussels (a choice made by the anti-European prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, which was also proposed by other continental powers).
They also proposed the direct production of the Russian vaccine in Italy. Numerous declarations to this effect were made between February and March 2021, a period in which Italy was awaiting, with significant delay, delivery of the other vaccines acquired by the European Union. If the European alliance had been broken over the issue of vaccines, EU governments would have found themselves in competition against each other to obtain sufficient doses, without respect for the EMA recommendations, with an increase in prices and a reduction in safety for citizens.
The region of Lazio, following an impulsive decision made by the Health Councilor Alessio D’Amato, took matters further than other regions, establishing a stable scientific collaboration between the Gamaleya Institute and the Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Rome. Thanks to this partnership, several studies were undertaken in which the Spallanzani Institute was tasked with confirming the efficacy of the Russian vaccine as both a primary vaccination and a booster.
The most recent of such studies, published in January on medRxiv only and which was not peer-reviewed, concluded that “the most effective approach, already shown in several studies, is the use of a heterologous booster vaccination pioneered in COVID-19 vaccines by Sputnik V,” which was found to be better than Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine.
However, the scientific community has expressed a great level of perplexity about studies of the Russian vaccine. Russian researchers did not wish to share with their colleagues the data they had collected, and the source of funding for the studies was not apparent, either. Finally, an investigation by the Italian newspaper La Stampa found that to commence the trial at the Spallanzani Institute, Russian officials had offered $250,000 to a senior director at the research institute. With the start of the invasion of Ukraine and an increase in Russian sanctions, the Spallanzani Institute, too, had to suspend their collaboration with the Gamaleya Institute.
Some news outlets, such as the Corriere della Sera, suggest a link between the Russian mission in Bergamo and the collaboration between Rome and Moscow concerning the vaccine, but they lack any concrete evidence. In any case, it would be reasonable to think that in both cases, Russia used the research into the pandemic and SARS-CoV-2 as a means of exerting soft power — namely, to gain influence over how Russia is viewed through Italy’s international position, without the use of force.
Yet, through investigations that are still underway, it must still be established whether this use of soft power also involved the manipulation of scientific evidence and whether there has been any collusion between local politicians and a country that is already subject to sanctions. Finally, questions remain as to whether there has been any corruption within the Italian National Health Service.