How is Covid-19 affecting the Russian military?

On 1 April, the Russian Armed Forces begin their spring conscription session. Some 135,000 recruits aged 18 to 27 are expected to join the troops. However, as general concerns surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic arise, some say the conscription may be disrupted. Others doubt the military’s capability to handle the pandemic itself.

The debate about conscription is going on amid Russia's anti-virus mission to Italy
The debate about conscription is going on amid Russia’s anti-virus mission to Italy

Will the conscription go through?

In the past week, there have been conflicting reports on whether the conscription would begin as scheduled.

On 26 March, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the conscription would run from 1 April to 15 July, despite the pandemic.

“Recruitment offices and rally points have received all necessary directives. Military medical commissions have been reinforced with specialists and are being additionally supplied,” Shoigu said.

Shoigu added that the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as self-isolation measures imposed in the country, are not considered a valid reason to ignore summons to a recruitment office.

Military rights activists questioned his words, reporting that at least some recruitment offices have postponed the conscription to 13 April.

“According to information we received today, at least in some regions, particularly in southern Russia, the start of conscription commissions has been postponed to 13 April,” head of the Grazhdanin i Armiya (Citizen and Army) soldiers’ rights organisation Sergei Krivenko said on 29 March.

Krivenko added that he expected the conscription to be officially postponed on 30 March.

On that day, instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ruling that the draft will begin on 1 April as scheduled.

However, Shoigu later made a decision to send new conscripts to their stations not earlier than 20 May.


What measures are being taken?

According to Shoigu, by 26 March, 3,241 servicemen had been tested for coronavirus. They all tested negative, he said.

He went on to say that all 135,000 conscripts called up this spring will be tested.

“Only those who tested negative will go to the troops,” he said, adding that all recruits, regardless of their tests, will be quarantined for two weeks.

By 27 March, Russia had reportedly conducted some 250,000 tests and stored a supply of 700,000 more.

On 6 March, the army’s Main Military Medical Directorate, the GVMU, set up special Covid-19 response teams. These teams consist of virologists and epidemiologists, and, according to GVMU head Dmitry Trushkin, are tasked with “rapid response to potentially dangerous situations, including deployment to infection hotbeds and conducting anti-epidemic actions”.

On 24 March, the Defence Ministry received R8.8bn (some 112m dollars) from the Russian government to construct 16 “medical centres based on modular designs, which can be rapidly deployed to treat patients in the military”.

On 27 March, pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia reported that Russia had tightened security at its Khmeimim airbase in Syria. Contact with foreigners is restricted, vehicles are disinfected upon entering the base, and personnel undergoes regular medical checks.


What is the military’s role in containing the outbreak?

The Russian military has two major bodies tasked with combating infections: the GVMU, and the RKhBZ (Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defence) troops.

One of the GVMU’s chief tasks is “provision of sanitary and epidemiological wellness of the personnel of the Armed Forces”.

It is also tasked with setting up medical commissions that will test new recruits for Covid-19.

As of 2016, the GVMU had over 100,000 medical personnel, including some 23,000 doctors.

The RKhBZ troops are charged with biological reconnaissance, as well as “special treatment (deactivation, degassing and disinfection) of arms, military and special vehicles, constructions and other objects, as well as sanitary treatment of personnel”.

According to RKhBZ troops chief Lt Gen Igor Kirillov, the troops have 15 laboratories, 2,065 vehicles and 22,000 servicemen capable of combating the virus.

The Russian military is not directly tasked with monitoring the civilian population during national emergencies and quarantine. This task is instead delegated to the Russian National Guard, Rosgvardia, a paramilitary force under the direct control of President Vladimir Putin.

On 27 March, it was reported that Rosgvardia would strengthen its patrols in Moscow, enforcing mandatory self-isolation measures in the city.


What do experts say?

On 29 March, Defence Ministry-controlled Zvezda TV broadcast a report titled “RKhBZ: army versus coronavirus”. This report praised the capabilities of RKhBZ vehicles sent to Italy to help fight the Covid-19 outbreak there – namely ARS-14KM decontamination vehicles, KDA aerosol disinfection vehicles and MBR biological reconnaissance vehicles – in disinfecting areas and objects contaminated by the virus.

Italian media say Russian vehicles sent to Italy are "useless" in combating Covid-19.
Italian media say Russian vehicles sent to Italy are “useless” in combating Covid-19.

However, Italian media quote the Italian National Institute of Health as saying that despite evidence that Covid-19 may survive on surfaces for up to several days, disinfecting the ground is pointless in the fight against Covid-19. This would render most of RKhBZ’s vehicles largely useless, as disinfecting various surfaces is their primary design.

Some Russian commentators, however, are concerned for the Russian military itself.

“Military crews are the perfect environment for the spread of the virus. A large number of people concentrated in one place does not facilitate limited contacts,” Alexander Staver, analyst for military news website Voyennoye Obozreniye (Military Review) writes.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the coronavirus gets into a restricted facility of, for instance, the Aerospace Forces? Or a unit controlling intercontinental ballistic missiles?” he says, adding that “the absence of even one crew member leads to a partial loss in combat capability of the entire system”.

According to Staver, however, the Russian military has one large advantage in combatting the virus: its controllability.

“Any unit or formation can realistically be isolated from the outside world, and contacts can be minimised. And this is the key to a rapid victory over the infection.”