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What’s NATO Up to These Days? Provoking Russia, Draining Healthcare Budgets and Protecting Its Own from COVID

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In November 2019, as experts warned that a novel coronavirus was likely to develop in the near-future, NATO boasted that its European Allies, including the UK, as well as Canada, were boosting their military budgets by an average of 4.6 percent, or an additional $130bn since 2016. The implication is that this increase in military spending is at the expense of healthcare, which is being privatized worldwide.

At least 2 percent of national military expenditure among NATO members goes towards funding the Organization. Meanwhile, experts warned that the World Health Organization (WHO) “continue[d] to experience immense financial stress. The precarious financial situation of the WHO has given rise to extensive dialogue and debate.” The US policymaking elite chose instead to enrich the masters of war. Trump’s record Pentagon budget includes a $139m contract to BAE Systems to build THAAD missile prototypes, starting FY21. It comes as the administration announces a halt to WHO funding.

Meanwhile, the WHO estimates that 80 million infants are at risk of diphtheria, measles, and polio, as regular vaccine programs are impaired by operational restrictions imposed by COVID. Due to lack of funds for safety implementation measures, the Sabin Vaccine Institute has stopped or reduced operations in 68 countries. Between March and April, over half of the 129 countries surveyed reported moderate-to-severe disruptions in vaccine programs.

AFGHANISTAN

NATO looks out for its own as it continues to be one of the occupying powers in Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most desperate nations on Earth. NATO describes protecting its personnel as “paramount.” There is no statement about the Afghan population, who live under NATO’s occupation and thus, if international law mattered, are in NATO’s charge. But NATO is not regarded as a formal occupying power, ergo it has no responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Unlike the governments of Britain and the US, NATO is following WHO guidelines on dealing with COVID-19. Its staff have the requisite personal protective equipment, unlike key frontline, civilian workers in the US and Britain. As British and American health workers, gig economy employees, transportation staff, and others, go unequipped, NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency has delivered for its staff a GeneXpert 16 COVID testing lab, as well as Thermo Fisher’s TaqPath Combo Kit, and Bio Fire machines. The mission, Resolute Support, started on 23 April in Afghanistan. As Trump cut funding for the WHO and blustered about underfunding NATO, in the real world US, Australian, and Norwegian taxpayers donated to NATO’s Resolute Support.

Meanwhile, UNICEF writes about the “deafening silence” in US-occupied Afghanistan. Citing the “ultravulnerable,” a news release notes that a child-friendly tent for internally-displaced persons in Hazrat Bilal, northern Afghanistan, “was a lively place where children could gather safely to chat, play and learn.” But recently, “Those happy sounds have been replaced by a deafening silence since the space was closed to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading.” In the absence of hi-tech communications networks, facilitators are going door-to-door, warning and informing about COVID-19. UNICEF is distributing soap in Herat, western Afghanistan, where, like in the rest of the country, few have clean water. UNICEF warns that school closures force abused girls into the dwellings of abusers and prevent teachers from observing signs of abuse. The increased poverty caused by COVID is also increasing the risk of child marriages.

NATO Secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, mentioned none of this in his May 17th address, in which he placed all of the onus on the Taliban to live up to their responsibilities to stick to ceasefire agreements.

LITHUANIA & POLAND

NATO’s Lithuania battlegroup is positioned on the border of Russia’s exclave, Kaliningrad. Lithuania also borders Russia’s last European ally, Belarus, which may soon fall to NATO. The battlegroup consists of 1,200 personnel from eight European countries and is described by NATO as being part of “the biggest reinforcement of the Alliance’s collective defence in a generation.” Beginning May 11th, NATO’s Forward Presence Battlegroup trained with British and Spanish pilots, operating from Šiauliai Air Base, as part of the Organization’s Baltic Air Policing mission. The training involves German and Norwegian Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. NATO describes these as soldiers specializing in guidance for aircraft. British Eurofighter Typhoons and Spanish F-18s were involved.

Perhaps instead of putting its population at risk of nuclear annihilation from a provoked Russia, the Lithuanian government—like the rest of the West—should spend its NATO money on public healthcare? Due to its lack of adequate public health facilities, Lithuania imposed a blunt lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID. Baltic media reported last year on the country’s “expensive and inefficient network” of hospitals. Political leaders “have been procrastinating for years” (sic).

Like Lithuania, Poland shares a border with Kaliningrad. NATO’s choice of appointments has done little to quash theories that COVID-19 is a bioweapon. Poland’s Lt. Col. Piotr Wachna commands NATO’s Combined Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Defence Task Force. NATO describes Wachna, Deputy Commander of the Polish Army’s 4th Chemical Regiment, as the expert “at the center of the COVID-19 fight.”

Putting a bioweapons expert “at the center” of COVID efforts on one of Russia’s borders is not a good look. The fact that Wachna leads both Poland’s military response to COVID, such as hospital cleaning in Wołomin and Płońsk, as well as heading NATO’s CBRN unit signals a blurred civilian-military line.

As Poland and the US spend $1.5bn out to December 2022 on a Raytheon-built Patriot missiles aimed at Russia, Poland’s healthcare system leaves the population wanting. The European Commission highlights Poland’s “long waiting times for medical services, poor working conditions and low pay for medical professionals.” In 2015, according to the report, “there were only 2.3 practising physicians (which is the lowest ratio in the EU) and 5.2 practising nurses per one thousand population.”

MIND YOUR MINES

Russia is strategically vulnerable in the Baltic Sea via the Gulf of Finland. Henning Knudsen-Hauge, Commander Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One (SNMCMG1), says that “[t]he Baltic Sea is of high strategic importance for NATO and its partner nations, and therefore also a highly prioritized area of operation.” NATO recently completed its anti-mining exercise, Operation Spirit, without input from Russia in this strategically vital area. The annual exercise is hosted, on a rota, by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Ships from Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, which shares a northeastern border with Russia, also participated.

Latvia borders the Russian mainland is, therefore, a major strategic NATO partner and a considerable threat to Russia. “Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 were in Latvian waters during the exercise, and also joined the exercise for a day,” says NATO. “They had recently been in Finland conducting joint training with the Finnish Navy, The Finnish Airforce and NATO Baltic Air Policing.” Finland also has a lengthy border with Russia.

Last year, Latvia’s Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš and Finance Minister Jānis Reirs responded to healthcare workers’ protests outside the Saeima (Parliament) by citing two decades of cuts and stating: “I am pessimistic on the topic of finding additional funds for healthcare workers. There will be no additional funds in [the] 2020 budget.” Last year, Finland’s PM Juha Sipilä resigned over protests triggered by social security and healthcare failures. Politico writes that decentralization “led to widespread geographic variation when it comes to quality and access to health care services.”

CONCLUSION

As I write, 100,000 Americans, most of them elderly and/or vulnerable, have died from the effects of COVID. One of the few benefits of the virus is that it has impeded US troop deployments. The Hill reports: “Defense officials have extended a freeze on troop movement, held ships in port and laid the framework for what the military will look like in an extended pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The US and its allies exacerbate the threat of nuclear apocalypse by continuing to goad Russia with nonstop events, like those listed above. In the midst of these dangers, the lines between peace and war blur. On May 5th, United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) requested an emergency airlift of “humanitarian and/or medical items/patients” from NATO’s Euro Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre. Locations include Ethiopia, Ghana, and South Africa. Frequency involves two flights per week. The UN agencies might have been able to manage this alone, had their budgets not been cut.

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T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

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