How is the Russian Military Responding to COVID-19?
Until recently, the Russian government argued that its armed forces were officially COVID-19 free. State media reported that thousands of tests have been conducted since mid-March and no one in the entire military has contracted the virus.
The reality of COVID-19 in Russia, of course, is almost certainly much different than official accounts. The first cases are finally being reported, and announcements of forced quarantine in the army shed light on potential viral clusters. The authorities can now only hope to hide the increasing number of cases in the army as it scrambles to limit infections and save lives.
It is still too early to assess the real impact of the pandemic on the Russian armed forces. The global crisis is likely in its early stages, and the Russian military — like militaries around the world — will have its hands full in keeping servicemembers safe while at the same time performing its normal national security functions. In Russia, the need for a robust response is particularly acute, as a new batch of conscripts are preparing to join ranks before summer.
Russia’s COVID-19 response will be a stress test for the Russian military, especially command and control, troop preparedness, infrastructure and military logistics, as well as the wider impact on the Russian defense industry. However, this moment represents an opportunity for learning about military planning and crisis management for the Russian general staff, as well as for international military watchers.
The Military’s Early Response
Initially, the Kremlin opted for a highly-centralized, top-down approach to the COVID-19 response in the armed forces. The first move was to create an ad hoc, dedicated operational-level headquarters on March 12 under the leadership of First Deputy Minister of Defense Ruslan Tsalikov.
The center is responsible for centralizing medical inspections of military units and buildings, as well as managing the stocks of medical equipment and supplies for the armed forces. It is also in charge of keeping track of epidemiological monitoring within the military, including in the 32 Ministry of Defense hospitals mobilized during the pandemic. The authorities have also been boasting about the experience the army has obtained while fighting the spread of the virus abroad, namely in Italy and more recently in Serbia. Not least, the May 9 Victory Day parade has also been postponed to a later date.
Readiness Checks and Troop Mobilization
The army carried out a three-day readiness assessment in late March. The readiness check took place across all army branches in the western and central military districts — the best resourced districts and those most likely to be impacted by COVID-19 because of the large number of troops and civilians. This allowed the general staff to fine-tune the duties and areas of responsibility of the armed forces in terms of emergency preparedness and response, anti-epidemic mobilization, and medical support deployment. Meanwhile, combat training continues relatively uninterrupted across army branches.
The Russian military’s response to the pandemic resembles an unplanned military exercise. In a great effort of state-sanctioned propaganda, the Ministry of Defense declared the ‘full readiness’ of the armed forces on April 7 — ahead of the coming storm.
The mobilization of specialized engineering troops and medical support units reflects how seriously military planners are taking the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the coronavirus pandemic is a unique opportunity for the nuclear, biological, and chemical protection troops to step forward and assume a large part of the ‘preventive’ emergency response within the Russian armed forces. So far, nuclear, biological, and chemical protection troops have been mobilized for disinfection operations — from military transport aircrafts and facilities to civilian vehicles.
To centralize medical operations, five mobile epidemiological and medical intelligence posts were deployed late March in central Russia under the aegis of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection troops of the central military district. Furthermore, thousands of disinfection and thermometry checkpoints were also set up on military bases alongside other preventive disinfection operations. Meanwhile, Russian troops — as well as their robotic counterparts — continue to perform disinfection operations.
On top of nuclear, biological, and chemical protection troops mobilization, specialized force groups were created in the western military district for medical and engineering operations. Interestingly, the Central Council of the Volunteer Society for the Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Navy (DOSAAF) — which dates back to the Soviet Union — was also summoned to help contain the pandemic.
In late March, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the construction of 16 multi-functional medical centers in 15 regions across the western, southern, central and eastern military districts. The centers are currently built by the army’s general contractor, the Military Construction Company (VSK), with an allocated budget of 8.8 billion rubles, or roughly $120 million. The facilities come off-the-shelf from prefabricated structures (quality and results will therefore vary) and will be commissioned between April 15 and May 15, depending on the region.
It is a race to build these structures on time (and within budget). As far as official messaging is concerned, the centers have to be ready on time, if not ahead of schedule. Whether they will be fully stocked and equipped is another issue — especially if resources are inadvertently diverted away from their initial purpose.
Total bed capacity in the centers is reported to be 1,600. While officially this is more than enough in reality, the facilities are likely to be quickly overrun. In the Rostov region, for instance, the medical center only has 160 beds.
In response to COVID-19, Moscow delayed the military draft. The draft was supposed to start on April 1, but this year, the mere 135,000 young conscripts will not be deployed to their assignments until May 20 at least. A dedicated hotline was set up to help future conscripts navigate the intricacies of military drafting in the middle of a pandemic.
All conscripts are expected to be tested for COVID-19 and potentially placed in a two-week quarantine. Only those who test negative will be admitted to the army. It is likely, however, that this massive testing campaign will let contaminated conscripts slip through the net — especially since current antibody tests still have a large proportion of false-negative results.
Adaptations in the Military-Industrial Complex
The Russian defense-industrial complex — a key sector of the national economy — is also bracing for impact. Like in the armed forces, measures are being increasingly introduced in state corporations and their subsidiaries to prevent the spread of the infection. This includes working in shifts, introducing distancing measures on production chains, supplying protective gear, etc. This is especially critical as military industry workers are now starting to get sick. Repair work has also been affected.
So far, the official rhetoric from the Kremlin is that everything is under control and that no ‘negative consequences’ will arise for the defense industry because of the pandemic. Similar to the army, expectations far exceed reality. Keeping production chains open is a matter of financial life and death for a vast majority of Russian defense companies: From an economic point of view, they simply cannot afford to stop production or fail to fulfill state defense orders under current military procurement plans.
Keeping production chains open is not only a question of economic survival but also one of social responsibility and stability throughout the country. The defense-industrial complex is a major employer, especially in small-town Russia. Some companies will therefore have to risk keeping operations going and potentially face a viral outbreak among their workers. Some regions will fare better than others. In the Tula region, for example, defense industry producers will be financially assisted in implementing sanitation standards and providing protective gear. Individual companies are also putting together specific measures.
In light of the pandemic, a potential solution for the military industry is to reorient parts of production towards civilian and dual-use markets, as part of current plans for the ‘civilianization’ or ‘conversion’ of the Russian defense industry. This, however, will be no small feat for the sector as a whole. Some companies will adapt better than others. For instance, the consortium Shvabe will increase its production of dual-use infrared thermometers and air disinfection systems in the coming weeks.
The Military as Part of Russia’s National Pandemic Response
The Russian armed forces are in a unique position to support civilian emergency and medical infrastructure. The country’s health care system is under strain even in good times and will be severely tested during a pandemic. Time will tell whether the military will be able to contain likely viral outbreaks and play the role of a much-needed force multiplier for the civilian response. If the virus is not rapidly contained across the armed forces, “then no hypersonic missiles will help.”
It is too early to judge the Russian military’s adaptation to the pandemic. However, defense experts can learn important lessons about the Russian military by the number of cases the military confirms, the ability of the military to cope with the impact of the crisis in terms of preparedness and defense planning, as well as the impact on defense procurement and the military industry.
Mathieu Boulegue is a research fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House – The Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence