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By Robin Emmott and Andrew Osborn
BRUSSELS/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's military planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of coronavirus have exposed the European Union's failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handed President Vladimir Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.
Italy has been thankful for the Russian decontamination units and army medical staff sent over the past four days, contrasting it with a piecemeal response by EU states.
But senior EU and NATO diplomats and officials see the assistance less as generosity and more as a geopolitical move asserting Russian power and extending influence.
"The Italians made a general request for assistance and the Russians are sending military doctors and military equipment by military planes," a senior EU diplomat said.
"That sends a signal."
Russian gas imports help fuel Italy's power plants and Rome has long called for a relaxation of EU sanctions imposed on Moscow over Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. The penalties have been repeatedly renewed while Moscow backed separatists elsewhere in Ukraine.
Rome denies the aid signals a merging of geopolitical interests.
"There are no new geopolitical scenarios to trace, there is a country that needs help and other countries that are helping us," Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio was quoted as saying by Italy's Il Corriere della Sera newspaper on Thursday.
"It is not a question of a Cold War, it is a question of reality, or realpolitik, you call it what you like."
'FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE'
Russia has flown at least 15 flights to Italy using military transport planes with truck-based disinfection units. Eight medical brigades and another 100 personnel include some of its most advanced nuclear, biological and chemical protection troops.
"France has given us 2 million masks, Germany has sent us a few dozen ventilators. (Prime Minister Guiseppe) Conte requested and obtained some planes from Russia that brought 180 doctors, nurses, ventilators and masks," Italy's government commissioner for the coronavirus emergency, Domenico Arcuri, told RAI on Sunday.
Russia's government and its delegation to NATO have published multiple videos of trucks on their way to Bergamo, the epicenter of Italy's coronavirus crisis, on their Twitter accounts while Russian state media showed Italy's foreign minister personally welcoming the first Russian plane.
Labeled "From Russia with Love", planes and trucks bore giant stickers showing heart-shaped Russian and Italian flags next to one another.
By contrast, NATO airlifts of urgent medical supplies to European allies have not grabbed public attention. The European Union has faced delays obtaining face masks and other protective gear while EU governments have closed borders to one another.
NATO militaries are active flying sick patients to hospitals, delivering beds and repatriating citizens, although NATO has not deployed its own biological protection units.
"This is a big success story for Putin. I think the Italians have fallen into a trap," said a senior NATO diplomat, although he noted that Italy was now receiving more support directly from the alliance. Spain has also requested direct NATO help.
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.
The EU and NATO have long accused the Kremlin of using a mix of soft power, covert action and computer hackers to try to destabilize the West by exploiting divisions in society.
Last week, an EU internal document seen by Reuters accused Russian media of deploying a "significant disinformation campaign" against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus. Moscow denied any such plan.
While not mentioning Russia by name, the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in his blog this week that the EU needed to be more aware of "a struggle for influence through spinning and the politics of generosity".
Russia is subject to European Union sanctions on its banking, financial and energy sectors and all 27 governments must agree to renew them every six months.
When asked if Russia expected Italy to return the favor by trying to get EU sanctions lifted, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the notion as absurd.
"We're not talking about any conditions or calculations or hopes here," he said on Monday. "Italy is really in need of much more wide scale help and what Russia does is manageable."
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in London Giselda Vagnoni in Rome; editing by Philippa Fletcher)