London CNN  — 

President Donald Trump’s shock announcement shutting down travel from much of Europe came with the customary back-pedaling common to many of his hastily announced initiatives.

At first, Trump said trade and travel would be targeted, in his latest attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus, staunch market losses and shore up his image as an effective leader. But aides quickly clarified that trade would not be affected, and officials said his plan did not apply to Americans or US permanent residents – although such travelers would face mandatory quarantines.

While the President has taken shots at Europe’s trade policies in the past, it doesn’t seem as if he is trying to take competitive advantage of this situation. However that doesn’t mean it won’t be perceived that way. Implying the coronavirus outbreak in the US is a problem caused by foreigners will smack to many around the world as more of his isolationist US First policies.

His decision will leave an uncomfortable feeling in many European capitals that the transatlantic relationship that Trump has been slowly unpicking for the past few years is about to unravel at an even faster rate.

And while coronavirus is set to exacerbate existing global tensions, some countries, China and Russia in particular, have already been exploiting it.

This week China’s President Xi Jinping took a tour of Wuhan, the city where the virus originated, congratulating medical workers on their great job treating tens of thousands of citizens.

That he did it via video link hints that his confidence that the contagion is under total control is not rock solid; but the fact that he is making a big deal of China apparently shaking off the outbreak reveals he is eyeing the opportunities it creates.

Searching for advantage

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also seems to have the same grasp of how the virus can work to his benefit. This week as oil prices collapsed, a calamity he had a hand in, he moved swiftly to cement his grip on power, a plan he’s had in his back pocket for years.

In China, by the estimates of the World Health Organization, Xi has pulled off a herculean task in containing the virus, albeit one his own officials allowed to blossom, but it has come at a price.

Where much of the world sees calamity in the coronavirus, Xi has been searching for advantage. Everything is at stake for him: his political leadership at home, China’s economy, its position as a world power and ultimately Xi’s own strut on the world stage.

No surprise then that he has sought to rehabilitate China’s image, casting its response to the virus as one of success from which other countries can learn from. A book published late last month by the government – in a variety of different languages – recounts how China won the “people’s war” against the disease, “under the centralized and unified leadership of the Communist Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core.”

China’s state media has been similarly effusive, skirting over the government’s initial missteps and instead focusing on China’s alleged “strength, efficiency and speed in fighting the outbreak.”

But if Xi is using coronavirus to embellish his own credentials, in Moscow Putin is using it to execute both internal and external ambitions.

How all nations weather the virus will be measured by lasting damage to their economies. It is the horrible balance that faces all leaders today, how many lives to lose versus the cost to the economy.

Force everyone to stay home and stop the virus spreading but crash the economy, bury businesses in so much debt they’ll never resurface or wait until the last minute, whenever that maybe, and minimize economic pain at a likely cost of the death of many retirees. It’s an ugly equation that autocrats seem best placed to play.

Carefully crafted message

Putin chose to make his big move on “Black Monday,” the day oil markets crashed off the back of OPEC’s failure to agree (with Russia) how to handle the coronavirus crimping oil demand. He announced plans to break Russian presidential term limits and hold on to power until 2036, meaning he will have been in charge for more than a third of a century.

It’s been no secret that Putin has been planning to hold power past his current term ending 2024. When he signaled a few months ago he was shifting a few presidential powers to parliament, the world jumped to attention with analysts trying to figure its meaning: an unstable Russia is a big threat to the rest of the world.