The coronavirus outbreak, which has so far claimed over 60,000 lives and left over 1 million people infected across the globe in less than four months, has shown that the biggest menace to mankind is not some country but a tiny virus. Thus, Russia is now becoming less a "threat" for NATO and the Western world in the current security environment, according to Iztok Prezelj, the chair of Defence Studies and a member of Defence Research Centre at the University of Ljubljana.
"Security policy simply is about prioritization of threats and responses, it is impossible to focus on e.g. 5 threats at the same time", Prezelj said.
The expert distinguished two dimensions of the current situation. The first deals with the "imminent threat" – COVID-19, while the second dimension is Russia, which is becoming a second priority for the US and the West.
"Russian threat is in fact put on hold, but it remains there in minds of politicians, strategists and planners. Strategic documents and threat assessments on Russia will not change in this phase of crisis management in the West", he said.
Chance to Identify Common Enemy – COVID-19
According to Prezelj, the current crisis can be a chance for both NATO and its allies on the one side and Russia on the other to identify a common enemy which is COVID-19 and finally start cooperating against the virus. It is also the opportunity for "melting relations" between the West and Russia", he added.
"This is an ideal opportunity because COVID-19 is an "external" non-state and trans-state threat, borders among states count very little", he said.
Prezelj compared the whole situation to the Islamist threat after the deadly 9/11 attacks on the United States. Back then, Moscow and Washington identified the common enemy – terrorism - and started cooperation which resulted in the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002.
In a move of solidarity with Italy which is the worst-hit European country by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian military has sent there 15 aircraft and dozens of specialists, along with disinfection and diagnostic equipment. As of late Saturday, the southern European nation has over 120,000 coronavirus cases, with nearly 15,000 deaths. Moscow also sent much-needed medical supplies in response to the pandemic in the US which is the new epicentre of the pandemic with over 280,000 cases and over 7,000 fatalities.
"If Russia continues to help West in this period of crisis then there are chances that perceptions of Russia will change towards weakening of the threat", Prezelj said.
According to him, the longer the crisis lasts, the more relations between Russia and the West "could become un-frozen." However, this will depend on what both sides learn from this crisis, and once they are back into "a competition for influence and power" the chance for a thaw in relations "will be gone", he concluded.
NATO Not at War With Russia, Yet Everybody at War With COVID-19
Dr Giray Sadik, Associate Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of International Relations in the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, said that the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming more of a threat for everybody across the globe.
"[COVID-19] becomes like a magnet in the global security threat landscape for everybody, not only for NATO, for Russia [or] China, but globally. NATO is not at war with Russia, to begin with, but nowadays everybody is at war with corona", he said, adding that the world now is confronted with "the global pandemic war" which is gaining a priority.
However, he stressed that Russia and COVID-19 cannot be put in the same niche of threats.
"Russia and corona are not comparable. You need another state actor. Corona is comparative with SARS or another virus", he said.
According to Sadik, the world today is not only busy thinking about fighting the pandemic but also about the day after. He believes that many things will change after the end of the outbreak, including how we fight wars. However, though NATO’s policies are becoming a bit softer than in the past, the bloc is likely to "continue to do what it used to do because it was built for that," the expert noted.
"We see some ways of diplomacy reciprocating. Russia sending aid to Italy when many EU countries do not send, although they are members of the EU and NATO. Russia is also sending aid to the US. That becomes more vocal, visualised. That is the part of public diplomacy", he noted.
When it to comes to battling COVID-19, everybody, including NATO, Russia and China are on the same side, but when it comes to the topics of Ukraine, Syria and Libya, the differences remain, according to the expert.
"When it comes to other issues, like Syria, Libya we see that some allies are also on a different side of the page. Some of them have better working relations with Russia than with each other. This is another indication that there is some room for a thaw in relations but there are also signs that NATO will continue to do what it was established for and Russia is likely to continue to do that", Sadik concluded.
COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals Military’s Ill-Preparedness
The coronavirus outbreak showed to the whole mankind that the military aspects of security are "outdated" and that they only benefit the military-industrial complex, Professor Biljana Vankovska from the Security and Peace Department at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje said.
"NATO (and particularly the US) were supposed to demonstrate their military superiority on the European soil through the well-announced military manoeuvers 'Defender 2020.' Ironically, the biggest war manoeuvres that were expected to show muscle to Russia and the rest of the world were defeated by the COVID-19. They were cancelled, while the military staff is unable to protect itself from the invisible virus", she said.
The plans for the ambitious NATO-sponsored DEFENDER-Europe 20 drills — slated for April-May — were grandiose, with the European Union promising the largest deployment of US forces to Europe "in more than 25 years". Some 20,000 servicemen were due to be deployed to demonstrate Washington’s "commitment to NATO". In total, some 37,000 servicemen from the participating countries were scheduled to join the manoeuvres.
However, the plans were jeopardised by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the US European Command said that the drills were modified "in size and scope". The movement of personnel and equipment from the United States to Europe ceased as of March 13. Others deployed Europe for linked drills are due to be sent back.
"Such a concentration of people on a limited space represents additional cluster for spreading the infection. The military as an organisation is one of the best equipped social organisations, but ill-prepared for such health crisis and disaster management", Vankovska assumed.
NATO acknowledged the pandemic had a major impact on its troop movements across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that the alliance’s “operational readiness” was not hit by the COVID-19 crisis, adding that the bloc’s ability to defend itself was unimpaired. He criticised the recent drills conducted by Russia on its western borders. Moscow, however, has repeatedly stated that the exercises were solely aimed at checking the readiness of its servicemen to deal with any contagion, including COVID-19.
"What 'blocs' mean on a planer that is faced with serious ecological crisis, climate change, the devastation of natural resources, common health challenges? They are meaningless - and it is what COVID-19 teaches us all. We hope that the political leaders will come out of this predicament wiser or at least more reasonable", she said.
Russia, China Demonstrating New Sort of Soft Power
While admitting that the world would not change overnight, Vankovska suggested that the durability of the pandemic and the severe death toll may give rise "to different worldviews".
"The so-called humanitarian diplomacy (run by China, Russia, Cuba and even some smaller countries) is demonstrating a new type of soft power, while the EU - the organiыation that pretended to be the force for good with its alleged normative/soft power - has failed miserably", she said.
She criticized the European Union for closing the borders, suspending the common market and lack of solidarity among the politicians.
"This is indeed something that few could imagine just a couple of months ago", she said.
The European Union has come under severe criticism for little help the bloc provided to the most COVID-19-affected nations – Italy and Spain. In particular, Rome accused the bloc of being slow in coming to Italy’s aid over the coronavirus pandemic. Responding to the criticism, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised to financially support Italy in its fight against COVID-19.
Fighting COVID-19 to Boost NATO’s Capabilities
Meanwhile, Dr Heinz Gartner, a political scientist at the International Institute for Peace and the University of Vienna, stated that since NATO drills were designed to improve the bloc’s internal coordination they were not directly related to any external threats.
"Therefore they [the drills] have a strong autistic dimension and would continue even if external enemies would disappear and NATO would not know about it", Gartner, who is also the chair of the Advisory Committee for Strategy and Security Policy of the Scientific Commission at the Austrian Armed Forces, said.
According to the expert, fighting COVID-19 will be designed to boost the capacity of NATO in dealing with a different challenge.
"Pandemics have played a minor role or have been ignored in doctrines and strategies of NATO and its member states as challengers altogether, so far", he said.
Meanwhile, Gartner, does not believe that the perception of Russia by NATO and the US will change after the pandemic weakens or over.
"Mainstream media in the West, which are a seismograph, already accuse Russia of using the virus to distribute disinformation, and downplay Russia’s aid to Italy", he said.
He drew an example from history - the Spanish flu pandemic at the start of the 20th century which did not improve great power relations.
However, Gartner admitted that it was possible that "a different positive narrative" about Russia’s aid could prevail since the European Union failed to provide adequate help to Italy and Spain but also to Africa.
"China and Russia stepped in and filled this void to some extent. The US was very successful, for example, to build the very positive image about the Marshall-Plan-Aid after World War II", he said.
The Marshall Plan was a US-led initiative which was designed to improve the economy of post-war Western Europe. Since 1948 and for four years, the US sent billions of dollars in aid to Europe.
Thaw on Other Levels
Asked whether the recent developments with battling the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a thaw in relations between the bloc and Russia, Gartner assumed that the security relations would not change much because the "the security establishments on both sides might not want it".
However, a certain thaw between Moscow and the bloc can appear on other levels, such as science, research, technology, academics, think tanks and companies which are doing common research, according to the expert.
"In these areas cooperation will be indispensable as the fight against the global pandemic demonstrates. That is a lot and important and over time it could also enhance political and security relations between the West (including NATO members) and Russia", he said.