A meeting of NATO foreign ministers will take place on Thursday by secure video link for the first time, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

To be chaired by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, press conferences are to be held online and journalists are not being given access to NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.

The transatlantic alliance says its armed forces are helping nations to address the coronavirus crisis. “NATO is doing its part to help in this common fight against an invisible enemy,” Stoltenberg said, speaking ahead of the one-day meeting.

“We are in this crisis together and when we respond together, our response is more effective”, he added — mentioning the airlift of medical equipment, US and Turkish medical donations and Germany taking in French and Italian patients.

NATO says it has responded to requests for help from Italy and Spain, which enabled Spain to receive medical supplies from the Czech Republic, and Turkey to send a planeload of material to both afflicted countries.

Longer-term threat
But the meeting comes as COVID-19 poses a huge challenge for the western military alliance.

The US military has suspended all exercises and travel for its forces at home and abroad for at least two months, to try to curb the spread of the virus — a move which has major implications for transatlantic security.

NATO highlights continued monitoring of Russian military activity, as well as other alliance exercises.

Yet a multinational unit based in Lithuania has been forced to reduce its activities after more than 20 troops tested positive for the disease. Military training was reduced and contact with other units restricted. The unit was sent to the country in 2017 because of Russian activity in the Baltic region and aggression in Ukraine.

And even at this stage of the pandemic there are also warnings of a longer term threat to NATO’s efficacy.

Despite recent increases in defence spending among western allies, a commitment to maintain levels at two percent of GDP is bound to come under huge strain as countries deal with COVID-19 and its eventual aftermath.

Countries will inevitably want to concentrate on supporting social welfare and the economy, as UN chief Antonio Guterres has called on them to do.

‘Moment for NATO to act’
But the scale of the task ahead also presents an opportunity for NATO to rise to the challenge, according to one analyst — especially after the European Union was seen as having bungled its initial response to the pandemic.

This is instead the moment for NATO to act, and to show the world that it will protect its member states. This is, in fact, NATO’s moment,” writes Elisabeth Braw of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) for the website Defense One.

At a time when NATO is “struggling to find acceptance”, the alliance has a perfect opportunity to prove its worth.

“Today’s generation and future generations alike would remember when, in the face of global COVID-19 chaos, NATO stepped in to execute an alliance-wide response, delivering medical assistance to the member states worst hit by the virus,” Braw concludes.