Dimitri Simes

How coronavirus derailed the largest Nato exercise in 25 years

How coronavirus derailed the largest Nato exercise in 25 years
US troops and tanks arrive in Germany for Defender-Europe 20 (photo: Getty)
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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across Europe, the United States has reduced its participation in a Nato military exercise that was set to be one of the alliance’s largest since the end of the Cold War.

In April and May, the Defender-Europe 20 exercise was meant to feature 37,000 troops from 18 countries, including 20,000 soldiers deployed from the United States. It was planned to take place across ten European countries, with the bulk of the drills in Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states.

Shortly after the WHO declared that Europe had become the new ‘epicentre of the pandemic’, the Trump administration enacted a travel ban for foreign visitors from the 26 countries in Europe’s Schengen travel zone, and then from the UK and Ireland. Meanwhile, the European Union has shut the Schengen zone to the outside world for 30 days.

After these new travel restrictions, the US European Command announced this week that it would downgrade its involvement in Defender-Europe 20, despite having already moved 6,000 troops and 12,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment from the United States to Europe for the exercise.

‘In response to the current outbreak of the Covid-19 virus and recent guidance by the Secretary of Defence, we have modified exercise Defender-Europe 20 in size and scope,’ a statement from US European Command said. ‘As of March 13, all movement of personnel and equipment from the United States to Europe has ceased.’

The statement added that with the exception of the armoured brigade combat team, all other US forces deployed to Europe for Defender-Europe 20 will be withdrawn from the continent.

Earlier this month, a senior European general tested positive for coronavirus after attending a planning meeting for Defender-Europe 20 in Germany, prompting the commander of the US Army in Europe and several of his staff members to self-isolate. The incident increased pressure on Nato to either cancel or scale back the exercise.

The decision to curtail Defender-Europe 20 comes at a time when Nato is trying to patch over its growing internal tensions. Since taking office three years ago, US President Donald Trump has vocally criticised the alliance’s other members for not spending enough on defence. In December, the American president warned that the US would impose trade penalties on Nato members who did not increase their military spending.

But Trump is not the only Western leader to express disenchantment with Nato. French President Emmanuel Macron caused an uproar in November when he denounced the alliance as ‘brain dead’ and argued that it ought to shift its focus from containing Russia to fighting terrorism.

Meanwhile Turkey – which has the second largest army in Nato – has become increasingly estranged from the alliance. Ankara provoked outrage from its fellow Nato members last year when it acquired the S-400 missile system from Russia and launched a military operation in northwestern Syria against Kurdish forces supported by the West. The relationship between Turkey and Nato’s European members became even more strained last month, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened his country’s borders for Syrian refugees heading to Europe.

Defender-Europe 20 provided an opportunity for Nato to put on a rare display of unity amidst its rapidly multiplying divisions. The exercise also allowed the United States to practise deploying a large force in Europe in the event of an attack on a Nato ally.

Although Nato has strenuously insisted that Defender-Europe 20 was not designed to counter any particular country, it was hardly a secret that the exercise was designed with Russia in mind. The bulk of the deployment was set to take place in countries on Nato’s eastern flank, who have been increasingly anxious about the Kremlin’s intentions following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper admitted earlier this month that the purpose of the exercise was ‘to show the Russians that we're committed to Europe, we're committed to Nato and we're going to deter bad behaviour.’

Now, thanks to coronavirus, Washington will have to delay its message to Moscow until the pandemic subsides. By the time that happens, deterring Russia might be the least of the West’s worries.