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On March 19, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg officially announced the suspension of the Defender Europe 2020 drills. The most monumental since the Cold War, they were planned to involve nearly 40 thousand soldiers from 18 NATO member states and their partners but had to be terminated due to the coronavirus pandemic spreading across most countries of the planet.
The Secretary General's statement came as no surprise, because since March 13, the transfer of troops from the United States to Europe has stopped, as well as the unloading of transport vessels that have already arrived on the European continent. A NATO press release issued the day before said that "protecting the health of our military, allies and partners is our primary concern," and by stopping the exercise the Alliance would contribute to preventing the further virus spread.
Last fall saw the first public announcement of the upcoming exercise. It immediately obtained the status of a major event in NATO's 2020 life. Later on, anything related to it got a wide coverage by the mass media, numerous experts and analysts, and ultimately grew into a vivid military-oriented advertising campaign.
Virtually from the very beginning, it was clear to the experts that the upcoming drills will be more of a political, not military venture. Counting in favor of this is a comparison of the Defender Europe 2020 exercises' military component with their Cold War counterpart, the repeatedly conducted REFORGER drills. This primary conspicuous detail is their significant duration of over six months, as well as the exceedance of time standards for certain activities and stages. A planned training mission in Georgia raises questions, as it runs counter to the Defender's field legend.
Amid claims by NATO generals that the exercise was not targeted against Russia, a powerful Russophobic campaign was launched in the media. Average European citizens were sold the line of a growing Russian threat, an egregious militarization of the Kaliningrad region, and hundreds of Iskander missiles directed against their peaceful cities.
The exercise script presented to the general public was different from the restrained military language. It resembled a Hollywood blockbuster scenario, according to which the Russian army launched an operation to block the Suwalki Gap (a 100-kilometer corridor between the Kaliningrad region and Belarus, running along the border between Poland and Lithuania) in order to cut off the Baltic states from Europe. Under the suspenseful scenario, the valiant Europeans struggle to resist the superior enemy force until exhausted in a losing fight, and then the "overseas defenders" come to the rescue. For some reason, the simple idea that the journey took several months did not occur to authors of those horror stories.
Europe demonstrated a mixed reaction to the drills. Old NATO Europe threw a damper upon it. The engagement of many states was rather symbolic. A number of countries had protests escalating as the events unfolded. The most active opposition came from the public and left-wing forces of Germany.
French President Macron, being critical of NATO and planning to create a European army, was initially unenthusiastic about the idea. He might have represented the ambiguity of his position at May 9 celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War in the Red Square, having got an invitation from President Putin, as this was the time to deploy NATO shock troops next to the Russian border in compliance with the drills' active phase schedule.
German Chancellor Merkel had her own reason for anxiety over the unleashed maneuvers. She realized that the costly exercises would provide Trump with an optional argument in demanding an increase in Germany's payment for the maintenance of American bases in its territory, which is $1 billion per year. Currently, Germany's share is 28% of this amount, while the American President insists on increasing it to 200%.
While everyone wondered how events were going to develop, an epidemic of coronavirus broke out in Europe. For this reason, early March witnessed NATO stop large-scale Cold Response exercises in northern Norway. And now the time has come for the Defender Europe 2020. The Italians were the first to declare their withdrawal, followed by Germany and France. With knowledge that the exercise is falling apart before its very eyes, the NATO leadership resolves on its termination. At the same time, the United States claims to have taken the initiative. Never mind, that's beside the point.
Essentially, it was Russia, not the United States, that offered Italy, where the epidemiological situation is becoming catastrophic, real help in fighting the threat. After a telephone conversation between President Putin and his Italian counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu issued directions to create a military transport aircraft squadron to deliver eight mobile teams of Russian military virologists, medical specialists, aerosol disinfection systems for transport and territory, as well as medical equipment to the Italian Peninsula.
In the meantime, the "defenders of Europe" are packing their kit bags and starting on a trip back across the ocean…