The pandemic is putting national and international institutions in the West under unprecedented and increasing strain. The response has been patchy and the leadership vacuum is growing. The disarray gives adversaries abundant opportunities. The story so far is distraction and action from Russia and China, and some limited, but growing pushback from their Western targets. This regularly updated FAQ analyses recent developments to highlight the main security challenges facing the United States and its allies as the pandemic unfolds.

1) What’s the main geopolitical story of the week?

Russia and China continue with their humanitarian aid and mis- and dis-information. But scrutiny is growing. A joint investigation by CEPA’s friends at Coda Story and the Italian newspaper La Stampa uncovered the real story behind Russia’s high-profile delivery of aid and expertise. A similarly high-profile aid shipment to the United States, following a call between presidents Trump and Putin, prompted confusion too. The State Department insisted that it had paid for the shipment — but added that it appreciated Russia selling it at below the market price.

2) Is the EU getting its act together?

Yes, EU efforts are ramping up significantly. The European Parliament approved a big financial package, with €37 billion ($40 billion) from available EU funds to areas that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic (healthcare systems, small and medium-sized firms, SMEs, labor markets, and other vulnerable sectors) plus €800 million to cover public health emergencies. The European Commission has proposed an additional €100 billion in loans to ensure the survival of businesses, job retention, and avoiding disruption to payroll and income under the SURE (short-time work scheme) measure. This was enabled by a €25 billion guarantee from member states under the Corona Response Investment Initiative. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the next long-term budget should include a “Marshall Plan” for economic recovery.

Another new initiative is the joint procurement agreement to create a strategic rescEU stockpile of critical medical equipment such as ventilators and protective masks. The EU’s negotiating clout helps get the best deal on availability and price.

3) What about NATO?

The Alliance has so far played a supporting role for the national, regional, and international efforts to fight the coronavirus crisis. But the first video conference meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers on April 2 directed the Alliance’s top commander, General Tod Wolters, to coordinate military support, speed up assistance, and use fast-track procedures for air mobility. The Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) has so far been the main coordinating structure through which NATO Allies and Partners like Moldova, North Macedonia, Italy, Spain, and Ukraine have requested assistance to cope with the pandemic. Through the EADRCC, NATO mobilized two other support mechanisms (the Strategic Airlift capability and the Strategic Airlift International Solution) that provide countries with access to transport aircraft for medical supplies: Turkey sent medical aid to Spain and Italy, Germany received Italian and French patients, and Polish and Albanian doctors flew to support Italian colleagues. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania imported urgent supplies from China and South Korea.

4) Nice, but what about the core mission?

The Alliance’s main focus remains on delivering deterrence and defense, especially considering Russia’s sustained military activities near Allied territory. In the past days, British ships have shadowed seven Russian vessels in the Channel and North Sea, the Belgian Air Force intercepted a Russian military aircraft close to Allied airspace, and Russia notified NATO of a snap exercise intended to test military capabilities to support their civil response to COVID-19. Given all of this, analysts point out that the long-term implications of such a crisis, which will probably not be the last, demand from NATO a stronger focus on resilience and more robust action in the weeks to come (see this CEPA article). NATO’s Secretary General announced that NATO Defense Ministers will meet in mid-April to tackle precisely these long-term impacts on the Alliance’s geostrategic landscape.

5) Was there a coup in Hungary?

Not really. The Hungarian government announced a 15 day “state of danger” on March 11, with lockdown restrictions introduced on March 16. On March 27, justice minister Judit Varga submitted a draft bill extending emergency measures and creating the framework for the government to rule by decree. Parliament passed that on March 30. The unicameral National Assembly can withdraw this at any time. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said on Kossuth radio “debates and lengthy legislative and lawmaking procedures” could cost lives, and that the government needed to be able to act quickly. When the emergency ended, he told lawmakers “we will give back all powers, without exception.” The government spokesman, Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Relations Zoltán Kovács, notes that other European governments have also taken on special powers. The opposition says the extension of government powers was unconstitutional, and complained about the lack of a clear sunset clause and the criminalization of spreading false information about the pandemic. However, the government already enjoys a commanding two-thirds majority in parliament. The state of emergency is probably better seen as grandstanding, offering a decisive political response to public fears about the pandemic. International criticism is widespread: 13 member parties of the center-right European People’s Party called on the group to exclude Orbán’s ruling Fidesz grouping. But this will not necessarily cause the government problems at home: it chimes with its claim that Hungary is unfairly treated by prejudiced outsiders. And nobody is in a mood to pick a fight. EU countries issued a statement criticizing excessively repressive responses to the pandemic. But it did not mention Hungary by name — and Hungary co-signed it.

6) What about medical equipment shortages?

The United States and several European countries face significant supply shortages of critical medical equipment — including surgical masks, ventilators, and N-95 respirators. Shortages in Spain have contributed to an estimated 12,000 infections of healthcare professionals. Some Romanians are improvising with household goods. A north Italian hospital is reportedly turning scuba masks into ventilators while physicians have been faced with decisions usually reserved for “catastrophic medicine.” Why not make more? Paradoxically, today’s globalized supply chains have made the sourcing of life-saving medical equipment easiest for producers, rather than easing their redistribution. Take facemasks. The leading producer of the filaments needed in N95 masks is China. The PRC now produces 85% of total world supply, an increase of 35% since the pandemic. N95 prices quintupled this month. Global supply chains may adapt as producing countries “flatten the curve,” but the pandemic will continue to accelerate in the United States and Europe.

7) Any encouraging signs?

Medical supply export bans have been lifted in Germany and Romania, for example, easing European supply distribution. There is also greater reliance on multinational organizations and institutions to hasten the transfer of existing resources to critical areas. NATO’s foreign ministers agreed yesterday via teleconference to allow medical supplies to fast-track through European airspace. Individual countries such as Poland are supporting national efforts elsewhere. The United States has promised ventilators to Europe. Western crisis response measures have been somewhat slow, but its institutions and multinational organizations are now engaged.

A parallel effort is to ramp up innovation. On the technical side, this means new designs for ventilators and the 3D printing of valves. NASA is putting supercomputing and artificial intelligence experts, among others, on the case. Logistical innovations are occurring with ragtag efforts to scour remote warehouses for hidden stockpiles. Companies are realizing the importance of more efficient supply network mapping to resilience. The constraints imposed by global supply chains have fattened — not flattened — the curve. But the Euro-Atlantic community is rallying to meet critical supply shortages with institutions and innovation. And of course, by staying at home.

8) Meanwhile, what are criminals up to?

The distress and information overload that societies worldwide are experiencing allow malign actors to take advantage of the vulnerable in the cyber domain. The attacks are not only targeting private citizens but also medical facilities. While some hacker groups have suspended their activities during the pandemic, others are running extensive human-operated ransomware campaigns. These attacks are exhibiting a vast knowledge of network administration systems as well as common misconfigurations of the large networks — like the ones used in healthcare facilities. The 2020 campaigns are using malware software called REvil (also known as Sodinokibi) and Maze to knock down IT infrastructures of labs testing for COVID-19 and major healthcare facilities in Europe. These are more serious than the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attacks. The outcomes of such attacks can be deadly even when the healthcare system is not overloaded with a pandemic. Medical histories, dosages, and test results become inaccessible. Medical facilities and labs are often faced with a critical choice — pay up and have their systems decrypted or face potential consequences which may lead to patient health deteriorating or even deaths.

9) How has the pandemic affected Europe’s migration crisis?

On February 28, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey would open its European Union borders to migrants wishing to cross into Europe. This came amid a time of increased national border closures and security measures to halt the COVID-19 outbreak. The two crises are particularly strenuous for Balkan countries, a region that is still feeling the effects of the 2015 migrant crisis. Although Greece immediately enforced tighter border controls and blocked thousands of refugees from entering Europe after the border opening, the UNHCR estimates that around 9,500 refugees crossed the border from Turkey in 2020, a country that is already host to more than 41,000 asylum seekers and whose camps are unsanitary and have far exceeded capacity. Two weeks after Erdoğan’s announcement, Turkey then closed its rail and land borders with Greece and Bulgaria amid fears over the coronavirus, leaving an estimated 2,000 migrants camped out on the Greek-Turkish border. In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to approximately 7,000 refugees, many of which are located on the Croatian border in the camps of Tuzla, Bihać, and Velika Kladuša, where they live in abandoned buildings or disused train stations without electricity or proper drinking water. Several European countries have also used the crisis to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. On March 1, Hungarian National Security Advisor Gyorgy Bakondi announced that Hungary has indefinitely suspended border transit for asylum seekers citing a “link between coronavirus and illegal immigrants.” Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini maintained that the docking of an NGO Ocean Viking rescue ship in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo that held 276 African migrants contributed to Italy’s health crisis. The problems are not new: on April 2, the European Court of Justice ruled that three Central European countries — Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic — failed to fulfill their obligations for accepting refugees during the 2015 crisis.

10) What’s behind Sweden’s unique containment approach and how are they faring?

Most governments in Europe have imposed strict social distancing and quarantine procedures in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Sweden, by comparison, has taken an extraordinarily lenient approach: as of April 1, restaurants remain open for dine-in service and students up to 16 years old are still attending school. The government limited public gatherings from 500 to 50 people starting March 29, current public guidelines call for “keeping a distance,” and employers are being encouraged to switch to teleworking if possible. But shops, restaurants, bars, libraries, offices, ski slopes, and museums are allowed to remain open. An analysis of smartphone data usage in public spaces is significantly down everywhere in Europe — except Sweden.

This uniquely lax approach likely comes from Sweden’s cultural attitudes and the relationship between governments and citizens. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has emphasized “heavy” individual responsibility and the need to avoid “panic or rumors” and Swedes’ fear of coronavirus is the lowest of 26 countries. Public trust in the government’s response to coronavirus increased from 65 to 74 percent in March. Swedish public perceptions are likely influenced by the government’s official stance more than the actual safety threat. Demographic traits may also play a role: more than half of households are single-resident, the highest rate in the EU. Sweden’s central bank has taken a relatively subdued approach relative to many peers, opting not to cut its benchmark rate from 0%. Nonetheless, there were signs of strain on Stockholm’s emergency medical response capacity this week: a convention complex in the city was converted into a field hospital and authorities asked for assistance from medically-trained citizens with coronavirus patients. Meanwhile, Finland is considering a total shutdown of its border with Sweden, as Denmark and Norway have already done.

11) What’s happening in Ukraine?

People living in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine have been hit hard by the Russian-sponsored war, which has shattered public services and infrastructure. Now the coronavirus — the available evidence suggests — is wreaking further havoc. The leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, and the chief physician of the neighboring “Luhansk People’s Republic” declared neither territory had any cases of coronavirus. But unconfirmed press reports and Ukrainian military sources say the authorities are trying to cover up the extent of the virus’ spread. Civilians returning to Ukraine from the occupied territories before the border was closed report a high number of cases in both regions. Two patients in Hospital #4 in the city of Luhansk reportedly had the virus, confirmed on March 14 after the arrival of tests from Russia. (It is unclear whether these cases were civilian or military personnel.) By March 21, seven people had coronavirus symptoms in the hospital, while at least 17 residents of Luhansk were on self-isolation at home. According to the Information Resistance Group, which verifies operational reports from the war zone, the lack of preventative measures and medical assistance, coupled with worsening conditions, is stoking alarm among residents, who accuse the Moscow-backed authorities of ignoring the problem.

In the military, the 1st Army Corps of the Russian occupation forces in both regions has ordered that any case of respiratory infection and fever among their service personnel be diagnosed as angina or pneumonia, Ukrainian military sources say. Civilian hospitals in the Luhansk region recorded 350 cases of acute respiratory infection during the week of March 16-23, and as well as 40 cases of pneumonia. Since February 1, at least 1,676 cases of pneumonia have been reported overall, 43 of which have been fatal.

Edited by Edward Lucas and Carsten Schmiedl with contributions from Dr. Alina Polyakova, LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, Réka Szemerkényi, Ray Wojcik, Corina Rebegea, Milda Matačiūnaitė-Boyce, Brian Whitmore, Krystyna Sikora, Alex Lehtis, and  Miruna Sirbu.

3 April 2020

Common Crisis is a CEPA analytical series on the implications of COVID-19 for the transatlantic relationship. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.