On March 20, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu led a meeting at the National Defense Management Center (Natsional’nogo Tsentra Upravleniya Oboronoy—NTsUO), in Moscow. Shoigu chaired the defense ministry board discussions at the NTsUO covering a broad range of topics, with special attention to the military’s efforts to contain the outbreak of coronavirus and the contours of the ongoing military modernization. Shoigu’s underlying message was clearly business as usual, while denying that any COVID-19 cases had been detected within the Russian military (Mil.ru, March 20).
Shoigu explained that in order to prevent the import and possible spread of the novel coronavirus within Russia’s Armed Forces, an operational headquarters was created under the leadership of Deputy Defense Minister Ruslan Tsalikov. This will facilitate frequent inspections of military educational establishments, as well as units and related defense ministry structures. Moreover, a stockpile of related medical supplies, including equipment, has already been formed. Existing programs to send military delegations abroad or to receive foreign guests in Russia has temporarily been suspended. Sporting, cultural and leisure pursuits at military bases has similarly been placed on hold (Mil.ru, March 20).
Turning to the issue of the spring draft of conscripts for the Russian military Shoigu stated, “Special attention is paid to the upcoming draft of citizens for military service. It will be held in strict accordance with the federal law ‘On Military Duty and Military Service” on time (from April 1 to July 15). Most of the conscripts will be sent to their units in May and June. Before that, all of them are tested for the presence of coronavirus. Only those whose diagnostic tests show negative results will be admitted to their units. Young recruits after arriving at military units are isolated from the main staff for quarantine activities for a period of at least two weeks” (Mil.ru, March 20).
While denying that the virus has been identified within any Russian military personnel, Shoigu elaborated at length about the set of measures aimed at isolating future cases and preventing its spread within the Armed Forces. Shoigu also stated that the entire leadership of the defense ministry and the General Staff have been tested for coronavirus and all tests were negative. “I draw attention to the need for round-the-clock preventive measures to prevent the coronavirus infection of military personnel and constant monitoring not only by medical personnel, but also by commanders and chiefs of all levels,” Shoigu noted (Mil.ru, March 20).
Morale is evidently an issue in this context, and ahead of the forthcoming celebration of the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945), Shoigu has pushed a great deal of attention to the construction of the main Orthodox Christian temple of the Armed Forces, with its location close to Alabino, marking the spot where Soviet forces held their defense against the Wehrmacht’s invasion. “It is here that the line passes where our troops held the defense. Alabino is nearby, where there was the Moscow defense headquarters led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov, and there were very serious and important first positive events, our first successes began there in 1941,” Shoigu explained. He added, “For the manufacture of the steps of the temple, for example, we took tracks from German tanks, and they are present in these steps—in the form of an alloy. And climbing the steps of this temple, we will go over the weapons of the defeated enemy.” He also pointed out that the main Russian Orthodox icon for the new temple has been donated by President Vladimir Putin (Izvestia, March 23; Tvzvezda.ru, March 22).
During the video conferencing at the NTsUO, Shoigu returned to the theme of military modernization, castigating the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) using “any pretext” to build up military forces close to Russia’s borders. The defense minister then highlighted modernization efforts in the Southern Military District (MD) after expressing concern about foreign activities in the Black Sea region: “We are closely monitoring the situation at our borders, systematically increasing the combat capabilities of the military districts and the Northern Fleet, and improving their military composition and basing system. More than 1,200 units of new and modernized equipment were delivered to formations and military units of the Southern Military District last year, and this year almost three times as much will be delivered. In 2019, more than 550 command post and tactical exercises took place in the Southern Military District, more than a third of them with the participation of the territorial defense headquarters of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation and enterprises of the military-industrial complex” (Mil.ru, March 20).
Shoigu’s comments on the modernization of the Southern MD were also tied to preparations for the operational-strategic exercise Kavkaz 2020, in September; he appears confident such exercises will go ahead despite the global coronavirus pandemic. It is interesting to note the emphasis the defense minister placed on the need for modernization driven by the threat perception linked to the US and NATO in the Black Sea region—a convenient and tried-and-tested theme revamped during the national anxiety over coronavirus. With Putin offering military medical units to assist in Rome’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, the message from Shoigu is that things are under control within the Russian military, while continuing to cautiously monitor the situation. Unsurprisingly, Shoigu publicized his own coronavirus test in Russian media on March 24 (Lenta.ru, March 24). The spring draft will prove to be slow and more complex and challenging in terms of managing the potential virus spread during this period. Shoigu’s overall message was certainly business as usual, staying on the theme of the US and NATO as potential threats to Russia and downplaying the risks posed by the current global pandemic.