The government of the Russian Federation, like the authorities in most other countries, proved slow to respond and initially mostly downplayed the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But as cases of COVID-19 have begun to soar in the densely populated parts of the country, with the Russian capital hit especially strongly by the virus, Moscow has sought to utilize the military in wide-ranging efforts to contain and prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. For the Armed Forces, this divides into two areas: their use as an emergency support mechanism to aid the civil response to the crisis, and the implementation of measures within the military to protect service personnel. President Vladimir Putin turned to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with a request to involve the military directly in the fight against the health crisis, ordering the development of a set of proposals by April 22. While the Armed Forces have conducted a number of exercises aimed at rehearsing and improving ways of delivering such support (1pnz.ru, April 20; see EDM, April 15, 21).
The challenge the defense ministry faces in protecting military personnel is certainly complicated by the timing of the pandemic affecting Russia, coinciding as it does with the spring drafting of 155,000 conscripts aged 18–27, which began on March 30. It is not as simple as mass screening these recruits, as they can test negative but still carry the coronavirus or prove to be asymptomatic; there will also be issues linked to implementing social distancing in their living quarters and how to conduct training. After defense ministry denials that military personnel were testing positive, steady reports have emerged indicating that there are cases affecting military facilities within the country (see EDM, April 15).
For example, on April 16, an outbreak of coronavirus was identified at the Tyumen Higher Military Engineering School. Though the educational facility hosts 1,000 cadets, the size of the outbreak was not disclosed. In addition to these cases at the engineering school, workers from subcontracted organizations involved in providing services there were also infected with the disease. The deputy governor of Tyumen Oblast, Olga Kuznechevsky, described this as a “serious outbreak,” but she avoided offering any figures. Officially, by April 16, there were 112 positive tests for coronavirus in the region (Gazeta.ru, April 16).
With the reported numbers of COVID-19 cases identified across Russia spiraling, the Kremlin finally agreed to postpone the May 9 Victory Day Parade on Red Square, which, this year, would have marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War (the term Russia uses to refer to the Soviet Union’s war against Nazi Germany). Meanwhile, preparations for the parade continue in the context of the emergency measures against the coronavirus spreading within the Armed Forces, with tests for personnel assigned to the event, orders not to allow leaves of absence prior to attending, as well as frequent monitoring by doctors. Moreover, the defense ministry is taking additional steps to reduce close contact between military personnel. In effect this isolates commanders due to COVID-19. All meetings involving representatives of units and remote headquarters are now conducted exclusively by video conferencing using the military intranet. Officers can no longer be sent on professional off-base trips, and violations of these rules by commanders will result in disciplinary punishment up to dismissal from service (Izvestia, April 2).
While video conferencing is now standard at the level of the National Defense Management Center (Natsionalnogo Tsentra Upravleniya Oboronoy—NTsUO), in Moscow, it is less well tried and tested at lower levels of command. During meetings at the NTsUO, the participants mainly involve the defense minister and chief of the General Staff, with the commanders of military districts and fleets participating remotely. Some experts argue this may benefit the military in the long term by forcing this level of video conferencing and autonomous work further down the chain of command, thus allowing the defense ministry to better monitor its progress (Izvestia, April 2).
The defense ministry is additionally involved in the provision of medical services to fight the coronavirus pandemic in Russia. As well as offering frequent health checks for military personnel, it is establishing 16 anti-coronavirus clinics within a network of military hospitals across Russia. The Kremlin ordered these to be fully functional by May 15. Eight of these clinics will be built by April 30: in Odintsovo, Podolsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd, Novosibirsk, Orenburg, Ulan-Ude and Ussuriysk. The first was already opened in Nizhny Novgorod on April 15. On April 20, the main military prosecutor’s office inspected the defense ministry’s new medical center in Nizhny Novgorod and found no violations of emergency rules and procedures (Izvestia, April 20). While the medical side of the Russian military is actively supporting the state-level response to the crisis, it appears that the search for a Russian vaccine against the coronavirus lies with the leading civilian research establishments. These are the Vektor scientific center in Novosibirsk, the Faculty of Biology of Moscow State University, the Shemyakin and Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, and the Nikolai Vavilov Institute of General Genetics (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 3). Russian military personnel will also face economic consequences from the pandemic crisis, not least as the Russian Central Bank has refused to cut its 6 percent interest arrangements on loans (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 14).
Russia’s military is helping to speed up some processes, such as the decontamination of vehicles. One such system has been established at a checkpoint in Penza Oblast. Lieutenant General Andrei Kolotovkin, the commander-in-chief of the 2nd Combined Arms Army (Volga Oblast), explained that modern outposts appeared at the checkpoint in the Penza region, allowing the disinfection of vehicles automatically, without involving people, and four times faster than before. New technology has reduced sanitation time from 2 minutes to 30 seconds. Moreover, if previously one person with a DK-4 decontamination kit participated in the process, now the disinfection of vehicles is carried out without the participation of people at all. According to the general, the technology was prepared by specialists of radiation, chemical and biological protection at the Chapaevsky training ground. Similar checkpoints have been established in Samara and Orenburg oblasts. Whether these technologies will be used for processing civilian transport is not yet known (1pnz.ru, April 20).
Russia’s Armed Forces evidently face multiple challenges linked to the COVID-19 crisis. Its economic impact, both on the country and potentially the defense budget, combined with efforts to maintain combat training and readiness, will undoubtedly remain ongoing concerns for Moscow.