NATO foreign ministers are due on April 2 to discuss their countries' response to the global coronavirus pandemic, while stressing that the alliance remains ready to defend itself against any threat.
The meeting will take place by video conference -- a first in NATO's 70-year history. The virtual format was chosen because of restrictions on travel and physical interaction imposed to contain the coronavirus.
Foreign ministers representing the 30-nation alliance are due to assess ways of coordinating pandemic response efforts more closely and reiterate NATO's resolve and readiness to respond to any acts of aggression.
'Our primary objective is to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis,' NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on April 1.
NATO has already 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.
At the same time, allies are concerned that NATO's adversaries could exploit the situation and conduct hostile activities while member countries are focused primarily on combating COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
The alliance is working to prevent the spread of disinformation around the pandemic, with many pointing the finger at Russia and China.
Measures to try to slow the spread of the virus have forced NATO allies to scale down war games, but Stoltenberg insisted that the alliance's 'operational readiness is maintained.'
The allies 'continue to patrol the skies and to defend our borders and we continue our missions and operations not least in the fight against terrorism, because these threats continue to exist,' he said, adding that increased Russian military activity showed NATO needs to remain on its guard during the coronavirus crisis.
'We see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military districts of Russia...and we have seen significant Russian presence in the North Sea,' Stoltenberg said.
Last week, Russia conducted large-scale exercises involving its two military districts geographically closest to NATO's Eastern European member states. Russia's Defense Ministry said the drills, which involved strategic missile forces, were intended to check troop readiness to deal with any contagion.
Meanwhile, Britain's navy said its vessels had been shadowing Russian warships after 'unusually high levels of activity' in the English Channel and North Sea, and Lithuania reported that NATO had intercepted five Russian military overflights.
The NATO foreign ministers are also set to take decisions relating to NATO's activities in Iraq and focus on developments in Afghanistan, while welcoming their 30th member, North Macedonia, which joined the Western alliance last week.
With reporting by dpa and AFP
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