NATO Responds to the Covid-19 Pandemic

This week NATO hosts its first foreign ministerial by secure video teleconference, complete with an online press conference. Continuity of operations is second nature for a political-military organization such as NATO, but the Covid-19 crisis will test its unity, capabilities, and resilience in new ways.

Discussions on Covid-19 and NATO’s response will occupy much of the ministerial agenda. Nevertheless, it is important that allies maintain focus on NATO’s main business, including its deterrence and defense posture, capacity building efforts, and overseas operations particularly in light of a recent uptick in Russian military exercises and activity. With individual countries preoccupied with managing the pandemic, the most important contribution NATO can make is to safeguard their physical security and retain vigilance against hybrid activities.

Crisis Management in Action

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg rightly observed that the Covid-19 crisis is “too great for any one nation or organization to face alone.” To that end, the alliance’s response has focused on providing support to the World Health Organization and other international organizations and responding to requests for assistance from NATO allies and partners.

Drawing on NATO’s superb logistics support, its principal civil emergency response mechanism, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EARDDC), is executing its clearinghouse role. While NATO has no medical supply stockpiles of its own, the EARDDC can quickly coordinate requests and offers of assistance from allies and partners, matching providers and requesters.

To date, NATO has received requests for medical supplies from five allies (North Macedonia, Spain, Italy, Montenegro, Romania) and one partner (Ukraine). On March 29, a Spanish C-130 delivered personal protective equipment and respirators donated by the Czech Republic to Spain and Italy. On April 1, a Turkish A400M made a similar delivery to these same two allies, both of which are the most affected European NATO members to date. In addition to national assets, countries have utilized the Strategic Airlift Capability—an arrangement under which 10 NATO allies and 2 NATO partners jointly own and operate three C-17 heavy cargo aircraft—to transport medical supplies, most recently from South Korea to Romania. Behind the scenes, NATO’s Civil Emergency Protection Cell is conducting resilience assessments on NATO members’ civil preparedness to withstand the Covid-19 crisis.

Always Be Prepared

These efforts are a visible demonstration of NATO solidarity and its ability to support members (and partners) in non-military crisis management, an often-overlooked dimension of NATO’s core tasks. This is particularly welcome at a time when solidarity was not the initial impulse for many at the beginning of the crisis.

Yet equally important is the alliance’s ability to maintain its deterrence posture. NATO has seen an uptick in cyberattacks and disinformation during Covid-19. Russia’s Twitter army suggested that DEFENDER 2020, a planned NATO exercise that has been scaled back significantly due to Covid-19, would spread the virus throughout the population of several member states. On the conventional front, Russia flew its strategic bombers over the Barents, Norwegian, and North Seas three times in one week. In each instance, NATO was alert and responded rapidly and visibly to the incidents.

Several anticipated items on the meeting’s agenda will help reinforce this deterrence message:

  1. NATO continues to grow as an alliance. On March 27, allies welcomed the Republic of North Macedonia as NATO’s 30th member. At a time of great power competition, NATO allies and partners are one of the West’s greatest assets and strengths.

  2. Allies continue to make progress on increasing defense spending, filling readiness targets, and meeting their deterrence commitments. Speaking earlier this month at the virtual release of NATO’s annual report for 2019, Secretary General Stoltenberg acknowledged the negative effects Covid-19 will have on government budgets but called on allies to uphold their commitments to NATO.

  3. NATO should continue to strengthen its Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states and Poland and, in particular, its Tailored Forward Presence in the Black Sea. Measures could include enhanced support to Black Sea partners Georgia and Ukraine and approval of additional Tailored Assurance Measures for Turkey. While Turkey’s purchase of Russian equipment has led to questions about its commitment to the alliance, the Russian-backed Assad regime’s recent assault on Idlib, Syria and attacks on Turkish forces should be a reminder to Turkey that its interests lie not with Russia, but with NATO.

  4. It is unclear whether foreign ministers will advance specific activities to strengthen NATO’s actions in the Middle East, particularly NATO’s Training Mission Iraq, which has been challenged by both Covid-19 and internal instability in Iraq. This mission, along with defense capacity building efforts, demonstrates how NATO’s partnerships can serve as force multipliers.

  5. Finally, foreign ministers are expected to endorse Secretary General Stoltenberg’s proposed forward-looking review process that was announced at the London leaders’ meeting in December 2019, in response to French president Macron’s comment that NATO is “brain dead.” The review is an opportunity to assess NATO’s political dimension, possibly resulting in changes to its decisionmaking, funding, and procedures that improve the alliance’s ability to build consensus on and respond to new opportunities and challenges.


In a crisis, it is tempting to set aside business as usual in order to respond to the immediate threat. Yet doing so would be a strategic mistake for NATO, whose primary task is the collective defense of its members. As adversaries test the alliance in the conventional, cyber, and information domains, NATO must continue to press ahead with an ambitious agenda. NATO foreign ministers should demonstrate solidarity and support in the current crisis while putting in place political and military measures to ensure the long-term health of the alliance.

Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Rachel Ellehuus