On October 25, the 82nd (and largest to date) humanitarian convoy organized by Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) delivered 700 tons of humanitarian aid to “the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts” (RIA Novosti, October 25). These provinces make up Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region, the eastern portion of which has been occupied by Russian and Moscow-backed “separatist” forces since mid-2014. The MChS’s latest activities in Donbas, coupled with sometimes high-profile operations in other parts of Europe and around the world, underscore that this Russian ministry does not merely deal with large-scale disasters, catastrophes and various emergencies. Rather, it has become an effective instrument to boost Russia’s international prestige through “soft power.”
Officials declared on July 27 that the MChS is ready to expand its operational activities to Lebanon and Syria, where the vast bulk of sapper work is to be carried out by Russian specialists. Importantly, the government declared its readiness to act in “close cooperation with the United Nations Mine Action Service.” The Russian side pointed to the considerable experience gained since 1996 in “over 30 international projects requiring sapper work, carried out in Serbia, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and other countries” (Mchs.gov.ru, July 27).
The official results of the MChS’s international activities are impressive: “within 25 years of external operations, Russian rescue services have managed to save the lives of 9 million people in 80 countries” (Aif.ru, March 1). In a March 2018 interview with Interfax, the head of the MChS’s Department of International Outreach, Alexander Romanov, pointed out that his ministry took part in three major international trainings in 2017. Aside from the Russians, these exercises also brought together personnel from the International Civil Defense Organization (ICDO), the Joint Research Center of the European Union (JRC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Center), and other structures. Romanov concluded that based on the results of such joint trainings and achievements, “the MChS is ready to react to various crisis situations five times faster than outlined in the UN standards” (Mchs.gov.ru, March 1). To facilitate the coordination of external actions, the ministry’s International Cooperation Department performs both bureaucratic tasks (information exchange, bilateral talks and exchange programs) as well as practical measures (since 2016, encompassing 16 countries, including Portugal, Italy, Serbia and Israel) (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 29, 2016).
The high effectiveness of its personnel who have already operated in about 140 countries, combined with the fact that the assistance comes free to the receiving country (TASS, August 18, 2017), has a had a visible influence on Russia’s foreign partners. Speaking to reporters in 2014, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić praised the actions of the joint Russo-Serbian Humanitarian Centre in the city of Niš, noting that the Serbian people highly value the help provided by Russian specialist, “who were the only ones to assist Serbia in dealing with the consequences of terrible floods and massive fires…” Pointedly, Vučić added that this assistance “did influence Belgrade’s posture on the issue of [the West’s] anti-Russian sanctions” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 15, 2014).
Moscow is also seeking to use the MChS in its struggle for supremacy in the Arctic: in 2017, the cumulative number of personnel from this ministry deployed to the Russian High North reached 16,000 (the overall number of local residents is only 250,000 people). In the future, local MChS forces will be reinforced with a “separate aviation group” based in Murmansk, Vorkuta, Norilsk and Anadyr. It has been argued that, given the high conflict potential in the Arctic region, “Russia needs to boost [its] defense in this zone” (Salavat Galimdzhanovich Mingaleev, “EMERCOM of Russia Aviation Rescue Technologies for Comprehensive Security in the Arctic Region,” Civil Security Technology, Vol. 14, 2017, No. 4). Thus the MChS (which also performs para-military tasks) is likely to play an essential role in reinforcing Russia’s (para)military capabilities in the region.
Yet, the MChS’s overall success was marred recently by a series of disasters and scandals. Notably, the tragic fire that engulfed the Zimniaya Vishnia shopping and leisure center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which (officially) took the lives of 60 persons, gave rise to a storm of criticism leveled against the ministry. For instance, prominent Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov appeared on national television and openly accused Vladimir Puchkov (then the head of the MChS) of presiding over the stagnation of the ministry (Gazeta.ru, April 26, 2018). Subsequent investigative material revealed widespread corruption plaguing the MChS under Puchkov (Actualcomment.ru, March 28).
Although highlighted by the drama in Kemerovo, the multiple problems and terrible corruption inherent in the MChS were hardly a surprise—for years, Russian information outlets had been pointing these out. In 2017, for example, Russian journalist Oleg Lurie published an in-depth investigation into the endemic corruption within the emergencies ministry (Oleglurie-new.livejournal.com, April 3, 2017). Among other aspects, Lurie points to a huge budget deficit that translated into wage payment arrears totaling 4.5 billion rubles ($67 million); Puchkov decided to address these shortfalls by firing approximately 30 percent of the qualified rescue force. In practical terms, the “reform” led to 60 percent of Russian State Fire Service personnel and 100 percent of firefighters over the age of 45 (irrespectively of their qualifications and experience) losing their jobs. Nevertheless, Lurie argues, by manipulating statistical reports, Puchkov was still able to “report to the Kremlin about the successfulness of the reform.” Moreover, the MChS authorities reportedly conducted “massive falsifications of arsons-related statistics,” demonstrating that, purportedly, “both the number of arsons and victims is decreasing on a year-on-year basis.” Lurie’s investigative report also points to the “lavish lifestyle and oligarch-like expenditures practiced by authorities of the MChS.” An RRJ-95LR-100 Sukhoi Superjet ($32 million) as well as other luxurious (and unnecessary goods) were apparently acquired at the expense of the MChS aviation forces, “which have remained chronically underfinanced,” the piece notes.
Incidentally, earlier reports (rapidly hushed down by pro-Kremlin media) on massive fires in Siberia and the Ural region that obstructed transportation and threatened the health of locals living in Omsk and Tomsk also pointed to broad larceny and corruption in the ministry (Moscow-post.com, July 30, 2012). It is highly unlikely that the recent replacement of Puchkov by Major General Evgeny Zinichev (Putin’s former bodyguard), on May 18, will cure the malaise, which is systemic in nature. This corruption will need to be prevented from overly metastasizing into the MChS’s international operations to ensure that the ministry can remain a useful tool of soft power in the Kremlin’s toolbox.