NATO’s solidarity and the Russian factor: the tough lesson of state resilience
The ongoing public health crisis associated with Covid-19 provides an opportunity to assess the maturity of European multilateral organizations. For nearly seven decades, the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and the European Union (EU) have demonstrated an impressive capacity to ‘build community’ beyond the level of the nation state.
Showing organizational supremacy over the years, both NATO and the EU has created a perfect image, unintentionally increasing the costs for each episode of inefficiency, as unveiled the sanitary crisis. The high expectations from these organization nurture great disappointment of any sort of dysfunctions, such as belated, insufficient or disarranged reactions to manage the Covid-19 situation. Though the restoration of their public image is essential. The urgency of restoring underlying sanitary, social-economic and public security prevails. Meanwhile, the Eastern geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia, scrutinize the effect of the pandemic on resilience and legitimacy of these Western organizations.
The significant needs generated by the health crisis have highlighted that EU Member States are as likely to rely on resources derived from NATO membership as EU membership. Under the umbrella of the Alliance, there are more responsive, operational and effective civilian response mechanisms than the instruments currently stored in the EU’s toolbox. “Solidarity in action”, as NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu classifies it, has been observed in multiple phases, though usually unaccompanied by media coverage. The Alliance has minimal relevance in providing medical care, although it has military doctors at its disposal. But it has reliable transportation capacity, relatively efficient procurement procedures and smoother instruments to encourage coordination of state efforts, all at a more advanced level than within the EU’s apparatus. “NATO can save lives” during the pandemic, remarked the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, who sees in NATO’s involvement the possibility of “keeping inefficiencies to a minimum” (April 3, 2020).
Decision-making deficiencies or institutional constraints within the EU and NATO are carefully studied by Russia. It uses the existing situation to see how a consequential crisis can impact the viability of Western integration projects. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed such by emphasizing that the pandemic allows understanding better how “in particular, the Europeans think about the EU and NATO”. Russia’s recent “health diplomacy” (described in this analysis) conducted in Italy is meant to expose and capitalize on the weaknesses of the EU, but, as much, is designed also to damage NATO’s image. Even if there are strong assumptions that the instruments of NATO’s civil reaction repository are highly efficient, Russian intervention in Italy tends to show the opposite. The Alliance’s authority is affected, because the resilience of a member state is so demonstrably fragile that Russian aid, regardless of its real usefulness, has become indispensable. Caught in a dilemma, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg interpreted Italy’s decisions by pointing to the right of “nations to decide” for themselves what aid to accept or reject, neglecting the revelations about the espionage stratum of the Kremlin’s Italian aid. Paradoxically, while the Italian side praises Russia, the evidence of the renewed Russian information war against NATO (NATO, April 2020) is published.
NATO or EU — which organization has the more effective solidarity mechanism?
Theoretically, an abundance of intra-European solidarity proportionally reflects the power of European identity. According to Monika Bauhr and Nicholas Charron, “citizen support for redistribution [of resources] within the EU depends on the level of identification with Europe”. Even in the absence of an identity dimension comparable to that of EU citizenship (Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, Art. 20), NATO has encouraged its Member States to act in solidarity, above and beyond the existing mobilization capacities of the EU. Besides, NATO’s popularity, averaging 53% in 16 out of (the then) 29 member countries, measures below that of the EU (PewResearch, 2019). According to the Eurobarometer of spring 2019, the EU confidence has reached a peak since 1983–68% of the public sees benefits in the membership. The geopolitical identity (“European citizen”) or high organizational popularity does not determine the amount of solidarity, as to indicate the comparison between NATO and the EU.
Although the EU has launched robust financial measures in response to the devastating effects of the pandemic, political measures are needed to restore confidence in the “European solidarity mechanism”. As explained in the past (in the IPN analysis of 24 March 2020), European solidarity basically lies in the readiness of the Member States to offer mutual aid. For the moment, the European institutions do not have exclusive competences of activating the “solidarity mechanism” and filling it in with necessary substance. European inter-state assistance has never failed at such proportions, since the aid was directed to limited regions or individual states, including abroad. The uniqueness of the situation stems from the omnipresence of the shock all over Europe. The simultaneous spread of the virus at the European scale has definitely paralyzed the application of good practices of solidarity. EU Council President Charles Michel doubted their robustness. “How is it possible to show more unity, […] more solidarity […]?” (April 15, 2020) — has recently asked Michael underlining the pressing uncertainty about the essential ideational standards of the EU, uncompromised so profoundly so far. More coordination and concessions between the North and the South are necessary to put in place an exemplary and effective European solidarity against the pandemic and beyond it.
As far as NATO-driven solidarity is concerned, it is not based on triggering Article 5 on collective defense. There is no indication of a conventional attack on a member, and the risk of the pandemic is rather global, and one that impacts on adversaries in just as devastating fashion. Although, like Frederick Kempe, the author of the book “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the most dangerous place on earth”, there are voices convinced of the rationality of Article 5 application (“collective defense principle”) implementation. Contrary to this opinion, other provisions of the NATO Treaty are more in line with the parameters of the current crisis. Thus, Article 3 invokes “state resilience” as an objective of individual state and collective NATO security. In fact, NATO introduces a causal link between the individual resilience of the Member States and the “vulnerability of NATO as a whole”. Of the seven objectives included in Article 3, the most relevant to the current situation is the measure on the “resilience of the transport system”. Namely due to the unrestricted mobility of NATO forces throughout the Alliance, including for civil activities, easy transportation of medical equipment, doctors and even Covid-19 infected patients from one country to another is facilitated.
Some experts, such as Judy Dempsey from Carnegie Europe, emphasize the common failure (of NATO and EU resilience), without distinguishing between two distinct systems of operation. Both the EU and NATO have civil response mechanisms — the European Civil Protection Mechanism (established in 2001) and the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC), respectively, operating since 1998. But the main difference between them is that the EU, as such, has begun to develop its own capacities for prevention and preparedness for crisis situations, beginning substantially in March 2019. Called “rescEU reserve”, it is designed to complement national capabilities. The utilization of this mechanism was practically invisible in the case of the health crisis. In part, the limited resources of Member States and the need to solve several crises at once (the “migrant crisis” or Syria) explain the ambiguous visibility of the EU’s mechanism. Identical to the functioning logic of the European mechanism, the Euro-Atlantic one, however, proved to be more efficient. In a relatively short time, NATO has specialized in coordinating anti-Covid-19 efforts, in the spirit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement that “NATO was created to deal with crises”. Therefore, between March 23 and April 17, the NATO mechanism reacted with a willingness to respond to requests received from more than 13 member and partner countries, including Moldova (aid which has not yet materialized). After all, Euro-Atlantic solidarity is maintained on a set of logistical capacities, which simplifies the coordination of air transport, rapid procurement or the allocation of state-to-state donations (See Table below).
Table: “Solidarity in action” within NATO
Period / Beneficiary country / Type of aid
March, April / Cech Republic / Air Transport (Airlift Capability): Personal protective equipment, purchased from China.
March / Slovakia / Air transportation: Personal protective equipment, purchased from China.
March, April / Romania / Air transportation: Personal protective equipment, purchased from South Korea.
March, April / North Macedonia / Operational information system about the pandemic development and donations of medical equipment from Hungary, Slovenia, Norway, Czech Republic.
March, April / Spain / Air-to-ground transportation and procurement: Donation of personal protective equipment from the Czech Republic, material for production of equipment in Luxembourg, and ventilators in Germany, including purchases of medical supplies made by NATO.
March, April / Italy / Land transport, procurement, and cooperation with research environment: Donation of personal protective equipment from the Czech Republic, purchase of ventilators, production of respiratory equipment using 3D printing.
March / Luxembourg / Procurement: Construction of improvised hospitals, procurement of beds
April / Czech Republic, Serbia / Cooperation with the research environment: Production of filters for respiratory masks
April / Spain, Italy / Air transport: Donation of medical supplies from Turkey.
April / Kosovo / Donations: Personal protective equipment from NATO.
April / North Macedonia Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo / Air transport: Donations of personal protective equipment from Turkey.
April / Poland / Air transportation: Personal protective equipment, purchased from China.
April / Norway / Purchases: Medical supplies.
April / Lithuania / Deployment of military doctors from Germany, Croatia and the Netherlands.
April / Bosnia and Herzegovina / Donations: Personal protective equipment from NATO
April / Bulgaria / Donations: Personal protective equipment from NATO
Source: Data compilation by the author based on www.nato.int
Recently, the EU has arranged centralized procurement of medical supplies for the entire Union. It applies the “rescEU program” to acquire ventilators from China, as well as incentivizes the production of medical equipment within the EU. These actions need time to become tangible and easily perceived, similar to the NATO’s case.
Moldova — waiting for NATO assistance
Both member countries and partners participating in the Partnership for Peace can benefit from the Euro-Atlantic solidarity exemplified above, as well as requesting aid via the Euro-Atlantic solidarity mechanism — the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center. Moldova is among those eligible for Euro-Atlantic assistance due to participation in the Peace Partnership (since 1994). The request for help from the Moldovan authorities was received by the Alliance on April 1. At that time, Moldova registered 423 cases of infection and 5 deaths. NATO’s response was published the following day (April 2, 2020) and immediately transmitted to all Member States.
The Moldovan side requested 30 types of items — from gloves and protective costumes to infrared thermometers and ventilators. Some units claimed by Moldova numbered hundreds of thousands or even millions of items, such as disposable protection costumes (1 million) or examination gloves (14 million). From the request transmitted to NATO, it appears that Moldova’s preparation for the health crisis is precarious, and comprehensive assistance has been asked for.
However, instead of emphasizing the strategic needs, such as the personal protective equipment for struggling frontline medical personnel, the Moldovan authorities made an abundant request, that has proved difficult to fulfil (NATO, April 2, 2020). Ukraine and Georgia, which also demanded help from NATO on February 23 and April 4, respectively, have employed a more realistic approach. They requested assistance in feasible volumes (Ukraine — 10 types of items) or provided well-defined coordinates (Georgia). So far neither they nor Moldova has received the requested assistance. The reasons may derive from the high and ongoing concomitant needs in most Member States, but also from a NATO tendency to prioritise beneficiaries. Additionally, in the case of Moldova, after the ousting of the pro-western government of Maia Sandu (in November 2019), the Socialists and President Dodon re-focused Moldovan foreign policy on promoting the status of neutrality, as an element of restoring strategic ties with Russia. Therefore, the relative decrease in the quality of the political dialogue between Moldova and NATO may have reduced somewhat sympathy from the Euro-Atlantic allies.
Russia’s calculations — only disinformation?
Euro-Atlantic solidarity was not interrupted by the health crisis. However, from the data published by the Alliance, it turns out that the Member States and partners started contacting the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center during the second half of March. For example, the Ministry of Interior of Italy (not the Defense one) triggered the mechanism on March 26, 4 days after the arrival of dubious assistance from Russia (March 22). Thus, in just a few days, eight mobile brigades of doctors and over 100 Russian military virologists (TASS, March 24, 2020) arrived on Italian soil. The extent of Russian aid — “With Love from Russia” — immediately raised suspicions about Moscow’s sincerity, notably after Italian journalists reported on the extremely low usefulness of Russian assistance, even if it contained some suitable sanitary equipment as well.
In fact, the aid sent by Russia had a mixed composition. In addition to doctors expedited to treat Italian patients, military personnel were also deployed to Italy. The Russian Ministry of Defense indicates that only 32 doctors work directly, with others involved in the disinfection of Italian localities — 44 buildings from 40 areas in Lombardy (Russian Ministry of Defense, April 9, 2020). Both the Italian authorities and NATO refused to give explanations regarding Russia’s suspicious espionage activities in Italy. The deployed military equipment on the Italian soil, inside the Alliance, allows Russia to collect useful data. Hypothetically, based on such data and experience, other similar interventions of Russia in a NATO country can become eventually tempting.
NATO was one of the targets of Russian disinformation (FPRI, March 2020), especially concerning the so-called “abandonment” of Italy, but the primary focus of such disinformation platforms remains the EU. The predominant concentration of Russian propaganda on the European institutions is not a reason for relaxation for NATO, which must reassess the role of information security. Publication of a shortlist of counter-arguments in response to the myriad falsehoods launched by Russian propaganda questions the potential that the Alliance actually has. The latter can get inspired at any time by the anti-misinformation practices, though still limited, of the EU — East Stratcom Task Force. NATO’s resilience cannot be defined only by “hard power”. It necessitates investing in “soft power” that effectively counters Russian disinformation campaigns. This would necessitate investments in the protection of the integrity of the informational space.
Russia wants to re-nationalize and profoundly revise the European project than just destroy it. The admission of North Macedonia into the NATO Alliance amid a pandemic has angered Russia. She understands that enlargement is progressing. Thus, after Bosnia and Herzegovina, all the attention will shift to Ukraine and Georgia, which since April 2020 have deepened their partnership with NATO, which provides for joint exercises in the Black Sea basin, sharing information on geographical positioning, expanding participation in military studies offered by NATO etc. The enlargement of NATO to the East makes Russia’s aid to Italy a valuable mission to gather data on the training and prevention capabilities of key Alliance members. It is certain that NATO’s “solidarity in action” has excelled compared to the EU, but it has lagged behind Russian so-called “health diplomacy”. Therefore, in addition to the recently agreed “complementarity” (EU, April 6, 2020), EU-NATO cooperation requires a comprehensive program to cement intra-European resilience preventing future eventual Russian intervention, without any invitation.
Instead of conclusions…
The pandemic is providing Europe with a living experiment that assesses the survival capacity of Western multilateral structures. Both the EU and NATO have in place an array of solidarity mechanisms, but their effectiveness has been seriously overestimated and requires a review initiated now and in-depth after the health crisis.
At the same time, the crisis offers hope to Russian geopolitical strategists, which emerges from the newly created realities and has seen Russia adjust its instruments of influence in the EU-NATO countries, and also in the common neighborhood.
Russia’s presence in Italy has overshadowed NATO’s resilience, whose logistical capabilities are currently superior to those of the EU. If the Alliance does not draw lessons from the Italian case, then the events in Crimea (2014) may become repetitive, including on Euro-Atlantic soil.
Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU’s foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.