As the US pulls troops from potential conflict zones to deal with the virus at home, Vladimir Putin could take advantage, a former US diplomat has said. The warning follows “unusually high levels” of activity in the Channel by Russian warships last week. It also comes after the scaling down of a Nato exercise that was to have seen the largest US force in continental Europe for 30 years. Britain is using the MoD to help with the virus in the UK, and 800 British troops with 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, currently stationed in Estonia as part of Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence, will remain in post without relief until the situation normalises. Usually they would be on a six-month rotation.
More than 20 Nato members, led by Britain, Canada, Germany and the US, deploy forces to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to act as a “tripwire” in the event of more Russian attacks following the invasion of Crimea. But they rely on Nato’s rapid batallions to shore up Europe’s defences.
On Wednesday Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance continued to meet its defence challenges despite Covid-19, following a meeting of ambassadors.
However, a decision to deploy only 6,000 of 20,000 US troops for the exercise Defender Europe 20, as well as a move to bring others home to help battle the outbreak, were “carefully watched by Putin”, said former US diplomat Brett Bruen, the head of the Global Situation Room think tank.
“It is very likely that Russia will try to take action while the US and Nato is distracted with Covid-19, arguably the first time we have a serious home threat that is impacting our readiness. In terms of overall readiness, the question is: how many soldiers can you cut from a brigade before it is inoperational? “The other challenge is the logistics and supply of strategic medical reserves. The US’s number POISED: Putin one priority is saving American lives. This means fewer personnel abroad and less resources.
“All this is ringing alarm bells in foreign capitals.”
Kremlin-supporting media outlets have already pushed out a variety of stories, including blaming the US, Italy, Estonia or even a secret global elite for creating Covid-19.
COMMENT BY MARCO GIANNANGELI
Beleaguered Italians celebrated as the Russian military convoy of 22 vehicles laden with Covid-19 testing kits and ventilators snaked its way under police escort from Rome to Bergamo on Wednesday.
But no one was happier than Vladimir Putin.
As the West grapples with its biggest peacetime crisis in a century, Russia is seizing opportunities one by one. Italy, Europe’s Covid-19 epicentre with 80,000 confirmed cases and 7,505 deaths, was easy pickings.
Naturally, the hope that Rome would return the favour by vetoing fresh EU sanctions over Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea never entered Putin’s mind.
To Nato consternation, he delivered his “from Russia with love” aid in a high-profile propaganda coup (never mind reports that it’s 80 percent ineffective) as Brussels delivered a £7million fine for Rome’s illegal subsidising of Sardinia’s tourism trade.
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