By Andrew Osborn, Polina Devitt and Steve Holland
MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia sent the United States medical equipment on Wednesday to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, a public relations coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin after he discussed the crisis with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump, struggling to fill shortages of ventilators and personal protective equipment, accepted Putin’s offer in a phone call on Monday. A Russian military transport plane left an airfield outside Moscow and arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport in late afternoon on Wednesday.
Usually, the United States donates supplies to embattled countries rather than accepting them. The origin of the delivery, which Moscow called aid, was bound to revive criticism from Democrats that Trump has been too cozy with the Russian leader.
“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday. Trump himself spoke enthusiastically about the Russian help after his call with Putin.
The State Department said that following the call between the two leaders, the United States “has agreed to purchase” needed medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protection equipment, from Russia and that they were handed over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday in New York City.
“We are a generous and reliable contributor to crisis response and humanitarian action across the world, but we cannot do it alone,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
“Both countries have provided humanitarian assistance to each other in times of crisis in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future,” she added. “This is a time to work together to overcome a common enemy that threatens the lives of all of us.”
A U.S. official in Washington said the shipment carried 60 tons of ventilators, masks, respirators and other items.
The official said the equipment would be carefully examined to make sure it comports with the quality requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Russia’s Rossiya 24 channel on Wednesday morning showed the plane taking off from a military air base outside Moscow in darkness. Its cargo hold was filled with cardboard boxes and other packages.
Confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases have surged to more than 205,000, with 4,500 deaths.
In Russia, the official tally of confirmed cases is 2,337, with 17 deaths, although some doctors there have questioned the accuracy of official data.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in recent years by everything from Syria to Ukraine to U.S. election interference, something Russia denies. Trump spent two years battling a federal investigation into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.
“Nothing to see here. Just a Russian military aircraft landing at JFK with 60 tons of medical supplies to support America’s #COVID19 response. A propaganda bonanza as our own government shrinks from America’s leadership role in a global crisis,” said Brett McGurk, a former diplomat for Trump and former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Trump said on Tuesday he and Putin discussed the virus at length. “Russia is being hit pretty hard,” he said.
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Moscow hoped the United States might also be able to provide medical help to Russia if necessary when the time came.
“It is important to note that when offering assistance to U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” Peskov was cited as saying.
Peskov complained that some U.S. officials had made it needlessly difficult to expedite the aid. He also was quoted as saying that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way because “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception ... there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance.”
Russia has also used its military to send planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of the coronavirus, exposing the European Union’s failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handing Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.
Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Polina Devitt in Moscow and Steve Holland in Washington; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Editing by Mary Milliken, David Gregorio and Peter Cooney