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NATO says its role not hit by virus as Russia drills troops

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that the organization’s security capabilities have not been diminished by the coronavirus, amid suspicion that Russia might try to use the impact of disease to probe the military alliance’s defenses.

NATO acknowledges that cases of the disease have surfaced among personnel deployed near Russia’s border as well as in its training operation in Afghanistan. Wargames have been scaled down and the coronavirus has forced the 30-country alliance to cut staffing and meetings at its Brussels headquarters.

Russia, meanwhile, has been conducting drills that its defense ministry says are aimed at checking troop readiness to deal with any contagion. Britain’s navy said last week that its vessels had been shadowing Russian warships “after unusually high levels of activity in the English Channel and North Sea.”

“We of course see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military district of Russia,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “We have seen significant Russian presence in the North Sea.”

“We have made some adjustments to exercises. We have cancelled some exercises, we have adjusted other exercises, but that doesn’t undermine our operational readiness. We continue to patrol the skies and defend our borders and continue our missions and operations,” he said.

Stoltenberg’s remarks came on the eve of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, to be held by secure video-conference for the first time in the U.S.-led organization’s 70-year history, where the impact of the coronavirus will dominate discussion.

While the disease is hitting all its member countries and could yet raise security concerns, NATO itself has no front-line role to play against its spread, apart from coordinating and supporting national efforts with logistical, transport and communications help.