Russia has been invaded once again. But this time, the intruder is the novel coronavirus responsible for the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has already resulted in the deaths of 361 Russians, as of April 19 (StopKoronavirus.rf, April 19). As in past invasions, the country’s Armed Forces are playing an important role in combatting the outbreak. The military has already taken a number of measures to cope with the crisis (see EDM, April 15) and plans to support civilian society if the need arises. “All the capabilities” of the Russian military “can and should be used” for this purpose, Russian President Vladimir Putin told government ministers on April 13 (Kremlin.ru, April 13). Indeed, streets in select Russian towns are already being disinfected by troops, and medical personnel from the Armed Forces are working in hospitals in the Moscow area (Function.mil.ru, April 19; Izvestia, April 17).
Entirely avoiding the spread of the coronavirus among military personnel will undoubtedly be nearly impossible, despite recent claims that strict leave rules and discipline will maintain soldiers’ health (Voinskaya-chast.ru, April 13). Therefore, the pandemic can be expected to have some level of negative impact on military capabilities, readiness, and the delivery of new equipment. This will be exacerbated by the actual number of infected and deceased personnel, the postponement of the spring draft, and the delayed Victory Day parade, which was supposed to take place on May 9.
Much depends on the number of infected and if key personnel are affected by the virus. As of March 30, there were allegedly only three members of the Russian Armed Forces infected by the coronavirus (Prizyvnik, April 14). Interestingly, on April 4, Interfax quoted an official from the Ministry of Defense who stated that there were no infected persons in the Armed Forces at all (Interfax, April 4). But these numbers, in so far as they are trustworthy, could change rapidly, not least because military barracks are particularly prone to the spread of communicable diseases.
This year’s May 9 Victory Day parade was recently postponed, by order of the Russian president (see EDM, April 16). No plans for a new date have been released, but the Russian foreign ministry has stated the parade will take place sometime in 2020 (Russkie.org, April 16). Possible dates might be September 3, which the parliament has just adopted as the official end date of World War II, or November 7, the anniversary of the first parade in 1941. September 3 seems unlikely for a variety of reasons. First, the preparations for the parade this spring began already in March, which means that the planning and training for a parade in September would presumably have to start in July. But the pandemic might not be over by that time. Second, a parade on September 3 comes close to Army-2020, the international military-technical forum, which takes place from August 23 to August 29. Moreover, the international army games also occur from August 23 to September 5, adding an additional logistical hurdle in this time frame (Rusarmyexpo.ru, accessed April 20; Facebook.com, February 24). Third, the military exercise Kavkaz 2020 will also be held in September (Tvzvezda.ru, February 11). In fact, Kavkaz 2020 might itself be at risk, depending on when the pandemic abates. Larger exercises like Kavkaz are usually preceded by staff and command-post exercises as well as preparatory logistical training. If those cannot be carried out, it will negatively impact the main maneuvers.
The postponement of the May 9 parade will itself have an adverse effect on the Armed Forces if the commemoration is held later at the same level. The original event plans involved parades in approximately 450 cities all over Russia, with the participation of 116,000 military personnel, or about 10 percent of the Armed Forces’ peacetime strength (Redstar.ru, February 28). Those personnel had already spent a little more than a month on preparations and would, thus, need to spend at least the same amount of time later this year training for a follow-on parade. A substantial part of the Armed Forces has already been involved in activities other than military training for about a quarter of the year.
The spring draft was officially initiated on April 1, but actually started on April 13 and will be carried out in the shadow of the pandemic. This has led to the introduction of certain precautionary measures such as checking personal documents by telephone, measuring draftees’ temperature upon their arrival at military commissariats, disinfecting these premises, as well as wearing masks and special procedures when the conscripts are transported to their units, set to begin on May 20 (Izvestia, March 31; Mil.ru, April 9; Recrut.mil.ru, accessed April 20). After arriving at their units, the conscripts will be quarantined for 14 days, which could lead to disciplinary problems. The induction of 135,000 draftees at present is certainly a high-risk project, and the likelihood that a number of units will end up plagued by COVID-19 looks high. Even if drafted personnel do not make up a large part of the Armed Forces, they still play an important role when it comes to overall military capability.
On April 9, the Russian president met with regional governors and representatives from major defense manufacturers, who reported on how the pandemic has affected their work (Arms Trade, April 9). Reports show that about 30–50 percent of Russia’s labor force was present and going to work at offices and factories. Some companies introduced measures enabling employees to work from home; and any problems with fulfilling contracts were not linked to the pandemic. The picture presented at the meeting was likely overly rosy; and in any case, it will be important to monitor the ability of Russian military-industrial subcontractors to fulfill their obligations. Depending on how the pandemic develops inside Russia, the delivery of equipment to the Armed Forces could end up being delayed.
COVID-19’s impact on the Russian Armed Forces may range from limited to severe, depending on how the disease outbreak develops and what measures are ultimately taken by the authorities. And though the final outcome is presently hazy, a worst-case scenario for 2020 could effectively mean a “lost year” for the Armed Forces. The political-military leadership would certainly not welcome such an outcome when the results of the military reform initiated in 2008 and ending in 2020 will be summed up. A failure of the spring draft—marred, for instance, by widespread infection and deaths—would reflect badly on the minister of defense as well as the president himself. The consequences could even include demonstrations and social unrest.