Brussels, 1 April 2020 (dpa/MIA) – NATO remains strong, united and able to defend itself despite the current coronavirus pandemic, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg stressed on Wednesday, ahead of foreign ministers’ talks this week.
“Our primary objective is to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis,” the head of the 30-country defence alliance said in Brussels.
Allies are concerned that NATO’s adversaries could exploit the situation and conduct hostile activities at a time when they are focused primarily on combating the potentially lethal disease.
Last week, Russia conducted a large-scale exercise involving its two military districts geographically closest to NATO members in Eastern Europe.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the exercise – which included a check of troops and strategic missile forces – was to practice containment of an emergency situation in light of the pandemic.
The exercise involved some 80,000 troops, according to the Estonian defence force. NATO’s Baltic allies are among those that feel most threatened by Russia’s actions. Lithuania reported that NATO had intercepted five Russian military overflights last week.
“We, of course, see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military districts of Russia,” Stoltenberg said, adding: “Our operational readiness is maintained, is not undermined.”
NATO foreign ministers are expected to reiterate their resolve and readiness to react, during their videoconference on Thursday.
The talks are expected to focus on responses to the coronavirus outbreak. NATO has helped deliver emergency supplies to its worst-hit members, such as Italy and Spain, while national armed forces are supporting domestic measures to combat the crisis.
NATO is also tackling the spread of disinformation relating to Covid-19, with many pointing the finger at Russia and China.
“This is not the time for blame and it’s not the time to try to divide our publics either,” said US ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison, adding that the alliance would set the record straight.
“The facts are that we are coming together, we’re doing everything we can, as free democracies, that are helping each other in this time of need. So, there’s no reason for malign influence from Russia or China or any other group at a time like this,” she added.
Ministers are also due to take decisions relating to NATO’s activities in Iraq and focus on developments in Afghanistan, while welcoming their 30th ally, North Macedonia, which joined the Western alliance last week.
Meanwhile, Stoltenberg appointed a 10-member expert panel this week to review ways of giving the alliance more political clout, after French President Emmanuel Macron triggered a fierce debate with comments last year about NATO’s “brain death.”
The panel includes former German defence minister Thomas de Maiziere, senior US ex-diplomat Wess Mitchell and Herna Verhagen, the chief executive officer of PostNL, who has overseen an overhaul of the Dutch mail provider.