• Mikhail Zakharov

"Defender Europe-2020"’s breakdown: large-scale NATO exercises may be disrupted by COVID-1

The NATO "Defender Europe-2020" maneuvers were supposed to be the largest military exercises in Europe over the last 25 years – and this is not an exaggeration. Almost 37,000 soldiers and officers from 18 countries were expected to take part, with about 20,000 of them from the United States alone. Germany was to be the main operational area, but part of the maneuvers were to be held on the territory of ten NATO States, including the Baltic States and Poland.

The maneuvers had to emphasize the willingness of the United States to protect European allies. "The purpose of Defender-Europe 20 is to build strategic readiness by deploying a combat credible force to Europe in support of NATO and the U.S. National Defense Strategy", said The United States European Command.[1] Nonetheless, Moscow did not agree with this point of view – at least because NATO allies were to work off the defending by NATO countries of the so-called "Suwalki Gap" between the Kaliningrad region and Belarus. The Alliance believes that in case of conflict, Russian troops could occupy this stretch of land, cutting off the Baltic States from the rest of the NATO members.

However, due to the spread of a new coronavirus, the exercises are at high risk. So far, military commanders are talking about adjusting the scale of maneuvers, but judging by the extremely quick spread of COVID-19, the exercises may be completely curtailed. The infection began to spread across the European Union and the United States, which made the NATO authorities concerned about soldiers’ health protection.

Recently, it became apparent that the command would have to, at least, reduce the number of participants. The US European Command announced that "in response to the current outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and recent guidance by the Secretary of Defense, we have modified exercise DEFENDER-Europe 20 in size and scope. As of March 13, all movement of personnel and equipment from the United States to Europe has ceased. The health, safety and readiness of our military, civilians, and family members is our primary concern."[2]

In addition to suspending the transfer of personnel and equipment, NATO cancelled related maneuvers. Moreover, Germany and Italy have already abandoned "Defender Europe-2020" – shifting their attention to fight the epidemic. However, the Alliance did not stop all exercises. It held command and staff exercises in France and special operations forces maneuvers in Finland. As for "Defender Europe-2020", before the outbreak, the US had managed to transfer about 6 thousand soldiers and officers to Europe. The armored brigade combat team already deployed to Europe would conduct training events with Allies and forces already deployed to Europe for other linked exercises would return to the United States.[3] Nevertheless, the development of the situation with the disease may confuse any plans.

The coronavirus outbreak certainly affected the Alliance's tactical plans. It is difficult to say what exercises, and at what scale, will be held this spring: many details concerning the US military presence in Europe and the conducting of exercises are still being discussed. Coronavirus, of course, can be considered as "training in biological warfare", but it is unlikely the Alliance command will take such a risk.[4] On the contrary, it is more than likely that military personnel will be placed under increased restrictions to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Nonetheless, everything will return to normal in the future. The disease will not change the geography and the political situation of the region. No doubts, later new exercises will be planned. Today military personnel should support society in this turbulent period, not to aggravate a further spread of the virus. The issue surrounding "Defender Europe-2020" shows that all countries cannot react as efficiently and effectively as in normal circumstances. Now they have to cope with a major crisis and that can show the probable adversaries how Allies can overcome their challenges and organize the next iteration of "Defender". In order to address the challenge adequately, NATO states shall maintain their military spending despite the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has recently encouraged.[5]

Thus, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis has already expressed hope for the resumption of cooperation with the United States after the end of the pandemic.[6] NATO partners learn from the deployment and redeployment of forces and equipment – even under the pressure of coronavirus. These logistical challenges can demonstrate the Alliance’s flexibility and adaptability to lift and shift large forces, quite comparable to Russian "Zapad" strategic military maneuvers on Russia’s western flank. Even if the exercise is not completed as originally planned, that can be a valuable knowledge for "Defender Europe-2021". The experience of "worst-case scenarios" is not to keep force from sustaining at a readiness level to effectively deter in Europe, but to help forge closer ties within the military alliance.



[2] https://www.eucom.mil/news/pressrelease/41095/exercise-defender-europe-20-update


[4] https://en.riss.ru/media/22538/

[5] https://www.euractiv.com/section/all/news/nato-expects-allies-to-maintain-defence-spending-despite-virus/


[1] In general, Moscow regards "Defender Europe-2020" as the largest mobilisation of NATO troops against Russia in 25 years.

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