NATO tells top commander to speed up medical aid in response to pandemic

Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Foreign Ministers’ session via tele-conference with opening remarks by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 2 April, 2020. [NATO]

NATO foreign ministers on Thursday (2 April) tasked Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Tod Wolters, with coordinating the air transport of medical equipment and personnel to fight the “invisible enemy” of the coronavirus.

“NATO was created to deal with crises, so we can help and are playing our part”, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after their first-ever virtual meeting.

According to Stoltenberg, Wolters’ task will be “to coordinate the necessary military support to combat the crisis, to speed up and step up assistance.”

“For instance, by identifying the airlift capacity to ensure that medical supplies are delivered, coordinating on any surplus capacity or stocks, and better matching requests for support with offers from allies and partners,” the NATO chief added.

In social media, many have been asking why NATO uses Russian transport airplanes, such as Antonov, for aid airlifts. Antonovs are produced and operated in Russia and Ukraine, but recent airlifts have shown that the alliance lags behind in terms of big transport airplanes.

Until recently, NATO member states had largely acted upon their own initiative, with the military alliance primarily working to coordinate the acquisition of protective medical equipment through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Relief Coordination Centre (EADRCC).

The EADRC is meant to keep track of the assistance offered and accepted by members and partners.

In recent weeks, Spain, Italy and most recently Montenegro, had requested assistance through the coordination centre for medical supplies, such as personal protection equipment, respirators, masks and test kits.

NATO passed the request on to members and partners and several provided bilateral aid, offering medical equipment such as mouth masks and protective clothing, mainly to Spain and Italy, the members worst hit by the pandemic.

The Czech Republic has provided 10,000 protective medical suits to both Rome and Madrid. Additionally, NATO planes have been distributing medical equipment, most recently to Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. A Turkish transport flight delivered medical equipment to Italy and Spain.

Nine further supply flights, according to Brussels headquarters, are already planned, including to Montenegro and the partner countries Ukraine and Moldova.

While NATO and the EU were initially criticised for doing little to help member states in need, Russia and China, together with Cuban doctors, were quick to jump into the aid vacuum.

“In principle, it is to be welcomed when countries help each other, we have also sent relief supplies to Wuhan,” German foreign minister Heiko Mass said after the meeting. He, however, acknowledged that at NATO, there are also considerations whether “countries exploit the situation in order to appear in a better light”.

NATO ministers agreed to organise medical aid in a more structured manner, using the military alliance’s wide-body aircraft. Flights carrying aid and equipment will be given priority in European airspace.

“Allies are also working together to ensure public access to transparent, timely, and accurate information, which is critical to overcoming this pandemic and to combating disinformation,” a joint statement said.

However, asked by EURACTIV earlier in March if the alliance has an estimation of the stocks of masks and personal protective equipment in its member states across Europe, NATO said such stock-taking “is the responsibility of national authorities”.

NATO ministers agreed to task Wolters with taking stock and allocating resources if needed, while an extraordinary meeting of defence ministers in mid-April will review the support provided and take decisions on any further steps.

Eastern worries

At the same time, allies are concerned that NATO’s adversaries such as Russia and terrorist groups could conduct hostile activities while member countries are focused on combating COVID-19.

“We have to make sure that the health crisis does not become a security crisis,” Stoltenberg said, while NATO ministers stressed after their meeting that they remain ready to defend themselves against any threat.

“Even as we do the absolute maximum to contain and then overcome this challenge, NATO remains active, focused and ready to perform its core tasks: collective defence, crisis management, and co-operative security,” the ministers’ statement said.

“Our ability to conduct our operations and assure deterrence and defense against all the threats we face is unimpaired,” it added.

Eastern Europeans had expressed concerns that the pandemic might open the door to Russian muscle-flexing on the Eastern Flank.

Stoltenberg said the alliance had noted a “significant Russian naval presence” in the North Sea and a large, last-minute military exercise in late March with a troop involvement of up to 82,000, which NATO read as a show of force.

The Russian defence ministry had said in an earlier statement that the exercises, carried out from 25-28 March, would include medical units and nuclear, biological and chemical protection troops.

NATO had scaled down its military exercises in Europe to help contain the coronavirus, including ‘Defender Europe 2020’, dubbed NATO’s biggest war games in Europe since the Cold War.

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Although there had been infections recorded among NATO personnel, Stoltenberg assured NATO remains “operational, the air surveillance works, the ‘battle groups’ as well”.

Asked about the ceasefire violations in Eastern Ukraine, where OSCE monitors in recent weeks had repeatedly been restricted in their ability to move freely in the region after the coronavirus emerged in the country, Stoltenberg said the coronavirus crisis was used “as an excuse to further limit their work and this makes the situation in eastern Ukraine even more difficult.”

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NATO ministers also approved a new package of support for Ukraine and Georgia at their meeting.

“We decided to deepen our partnerships with Ukraine and Georgia even further, including with exercises in the strategic Black Sea region as well as joint work to counter hybrid warfare and efforts to share more air traffic radar data, making the skies safer for all,” Stoltenberg said.

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[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Benjamin Fox]

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