NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the military alliance must not allow the coronavirus pandemic to become a security threat, warning that adversaries like Russia and terrorist groups could try to exploit the situation and conduct hostile activities.
Stoltenberg made the comments during a video news conference on April 1, on the eve of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers to be held by video conference for the first time in the organization's 70-year history.
The allies are set to discuss their response to the COVID-19 epidemic, which has infected more than 880,000 people across the world, killing over 44,100, according to a database maintained by the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
"Our primary objective is to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis," Stoltenberg said.
Measures to try to slow the spread of the virus have forced NATO allies to scale down war games, but Stoltenberg insisted that NATO'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, was 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.
On April 2, NATO foreign ministers are expected to reiterate unity, as well as resolve and readiness to respond to threats.
The ministers are also due to address developments in Afghanistan, while welcoming their 30th ally, North Macedonia, which officially joined the Western alliance last week.