29 April 2020

Putin pushed the Special Operations Forces in the fight against COVID-19

Daniel Ilie

Recently, the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, asked the Russian defence minister, through a document posted on Kremlin’s website, to come up with a plan to use the Russian Special Operations Forces, but also other methods from Defence Ministry’s structure, to combat the SARS- CoV-2 virus’s infection spread. In fact, at the end of March, the Russian president already had deployed a complex verification of the Russian Armed Forces to see their readiness and operativity level, in order to put them in combat mode, in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic.

Image source: Hepta

The order was issued after the online meeting which focused on “Russia’s epidemiological health situation”, the president had with people working in the governmental structure, on April 13th 2020, where he highlighted that Russian soldiers are deployed and work effectively in countries outside the Russian borders in the fight against SARS CoV-2 virus, already having important experience in difficult situations.

In fact, everyone knows that Russian military equipment and experts were sent for assistance missions outside the borders to support, at least considering the official version, the fight against the epidemic, in countries such as Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy and Serbia. They came back then with experience and valuable information that president Putin wants to use to stop pandemic’s consequences on the Russian Federation territory.

Controversies on the assistance the Russian Federation gave to Italy in managing the COVID-19 pandemic crisis

As for the assistance given to Italy by Moscow, the La Stampa newspaper brought, again, a series of allegations against the Russian Federation. It suggested that, in fact, the action was only an opportunity Putin took advantage of to enlarge his influence in the area, in a difficult time for the West, using the so-called “soft-power[1]” tools, even involving GRU agents[2]. These would have been secretly infiltrated along the dislocation of the Russian methods and forces, on Italy’s territory, in March, 2020. Everyone knows that the Italian prime-minister sees the Russian Federation as a strategic partner since he visited Moscow, 2018, and asked the cessation of the European Union’s sanctions against this state.

Then, an American think-tank which claims to be a research organization in the political field, a non-profit and independent organization, “The Institute for Global Threats and Democracies Studies (IGTDS)”, has recently published an analysis of the Russian military presence in Italy, after studying all the information they got from open sources, coming to the still debatable, in my opinion, conclusion that La Stampa was right.

IGTDS writers at the end of the analysis that “there are proofs of the suggestions presented by La Stampa, which shows that 80% of the Russian aid sent in Italy is, in fact, useless, meanwhile the troops dislocated there are not composed only by military doctors, but also intelligence structures operators, Special Operations Forces’ officers and military chemists”.

Among their arguments, they invoked: the fact that, before dislocated, the Russian soldiers studied the language of the host-state, suggesting that this is, in fact, a characteristic of the missions SOF or the intelligence troops execute; the Russian soldiers from the Practica di Mare Air Base, from Italy, were wearing military uniforms which were not related to the Russian Chemical Forces, something common to the Soviet era (when KGB agents were using Air Forces marks or the Communication Troops’ ones); Russia sent in Italy military equipment used for heavy military technique decontamination and analysis and genotyping module, and information processing module, and modules for countering high-precision weapons through deploying an aerosol shield and biohazard reconnaissance vehicles; among the personnel dislocated for this mission, there are also some military intelligence and psychological operations specialists. Furthermore, the number of aircrafts of the Russian Federation Air Forces, dislocated in the Practica di Mare Air Base, as well as the time between the landings remembered them of the operation of the Russian Federation in Crimea, in 2014, when a fight group was dislocated in the area some hours before conquering key strategic areas.

Although the Russian Defence Ministry denied and refused the Italian mass-media allegations, saying that the aid offered to Italy was just an uninterested aid, some suspicions are still standing. The fact that Putin wants the Russian soldiers’ experience, who executed such missions outside their borders, to be used in the fight against COVID-18, on Russia’s territory, but also the order for his own SOF to join these missions, a few weeks after the “dislocation” or the Russian military technique and soldiers in Italy, could raise some additional questions.

Some examples for the use of the Armed Forces in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic

Most of the countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic decided to use their own armed forces in the “global war” against the invisible enemy, SARS CoV-2, together with the other forces and methods from the frontline, especially after implementing the emergency condition. It is something normal if we think about the purpose of such power tools, providing national security and defence, but also about the fact there they have the expertise, human resources and materials, including the intervention capabilities for disasters and, particularly, that they are supported also by complex and impressive logistics systems. And we have seen such examples in China, Italy, Spain, US, but also Romania.

Romanian soldiers, including  SOF, besides adapting their tactics, techniques and procedures to new realities (for example the physical distance), have participated, when authorities asked, to different activities, such as: supporting with military medical personnel the epidemiologic sorting procedure at the border points or in civilian and medical facilities and in the country; the air repatriation of citizens from foreign high infection risk areas; the installation and functioning of modular medical centers, type ROL 2, in Romania; the establishment and licensing  of evacuation systems of the personnel infected with biological agents; the air and road transport, with NATO’s partners help, of medical equipment and facilities, acquire from outside the country; strengthening missions of the presence and the provision of traffic fluidization at the border crossing points or common patrols with the Home Affairs Ministry and the Administration Ministry; daily tests on samples collected from patients suspected of SARS CoV-2 and others.

Also, the US soldiers in the SOF, the green berets or the paratroopers, mainly the medical personnel to have experience, were trained and instructed (the SOCRATES program) to asses, treat and offer medical help, including for those in critical emergency and to provide the functioning of ventilators, for the COVID-19 patients hospitalized in a hospital or in special centers, if the existent medical resources will be exhausted. Furthermore, the personnel that flank the parachutes’ pliage platoons started to created protection masks.

These are just some of the examples supporting the idea that SOF do not have a special role in this mission, but they are only a force and support multiplier, which together with the main forces are accomplishing the final goal, the defeat of the killer virus.

The place, role and missions of Russian SOF in the Armed Forces

Five years after the foundation of the Russian Special Operations Forces’ Command, Putin was underlining, in his message for SOF’s day, that “founding these capabilities was an important phase in Russia’s Armed Forces qualitative development, in increasing their operativity and mobility level. The country still has a strong and effective tool to protect the national interests”.

The first special operations center from the Russian Army was created at the end of the 90’s, at the request of the Chief of the Major Staff, and called the “Center for specialists’ training”, subjected to the GRU and, according to some reports, center’s fighters have actively participated to terrorism combat mission, in Chechnya, to the fight against piracy in Aden Gulf, exercises in CSI countries and the 2008 august conflict from Georgia.

In 2009, it was founded the Special Operations Direction, subordinated to the General Staff of the Russian Federations’ Armed Forces, and in 2012, within the modernization process of the Armed Forces, it was transformed in the Special Operations Forces Command of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces. Officially, the SOF foundation within the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces was announced in 2013.

According to the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces, General Valery Gerasimov, Russian FOS and their command-control structure were created following the study of models and good practices in training, strengthening and use in combat of such capabilities by the most important states in the field.

Currently, these are quick-reaction strategic expeditionary capabilities, they have land, air and naval components, their own training centers and are totally independent on the other force categories, composed only of professional soldiers. They are equipped, use and test ultimate military equipment and armament, they have a unique and simplified command-control chain, directly subordinated to the Chief of the General Staff. The latter, along with the Defence minister and president Putin, may use them in specific missions, like the military assistance and intervention, special reconnaissance on enemy’s territory, direct sabotage and counter-sabotage mission, counter-terrorism missions and other tasks inside and outside the country. Details about all of these are published, as expected, extremely rare.

The Russian SOF drew public’ attention during the military intervention of the Russian Federation, in Crimea, in 2014, which ended with the Ukrainian territory’s annexation and with them being named “polite people”[3], in the Russian version (the public media in Russia quickly adopted the term, propagandistically, and some Russian officials have even used catchphrases such as “Politeness is the power that opens any door) or the “little green men[4]”, following the Westerns mass-media version.

The use of Russian SOF in the fight against COVID-19 on Russian Federation’s territory

Given these circumstances, why would President Putin want his own FOS to be used in the fight against COVID-19 on Russian Federation’s territory, even issuing an order to that end, published on Kremlin’s website?

Is it about the ability of these troops and their medical teams or paramedics to react quickly? Should it be about using the expertise of the medical staff within the Russian FOS? If it was gained in assistance missions to other states, then does it mean that the assumptions of the Italian media regarding the presence of FOS operators in the territory of their country are, somehow, confirmed? We do not know because we do not know what tasks the Russian FOS receive in managing risks such as pandemics.

Perhaps it is the use of specific forwarding logistics capabilities, including mobile medical facilities, such as modular hospitals, or simply the execution of enhanced presence missions and providing the traffic flow at various checkpoints or joint patrols with other forces of the state administration. Is he relying, thus, on the psychological impact of the presence of the soldiers and military equipment in the street, in order to control and limit people’s freedom of movement in order to minimize the risks of spreading SARS CoV-2 infection?

What else could will the "polite people" or "little green men" be able to do, only time will show. What is certain is that at the deadline set in President Putin's order, nothing of the requested draft regarding the use of FOS in the fight against COVID-19 was published. Why? Are these force protection of security measured for some special…operations?

Among the measures taken by the Defence Ministry of the Russian Federation in the fight against the spread of the new coronavirus infection and presented in the latest newsletter posted on its website are listed only those for prevention, testing and diagnosis of its own staff, providing personal protective equipment and disinfection of medical personnel, temporary suspension of recruitment for compulsory military service, installation, construction and functioning of multifunctional medical centers and disinfection of facilities and facilities.

If when it comes to the hybrid annexation operation of the Crimean Peninsula the "little green men" managed to open with "professional politeness" the door to the hearts and minds of this territory’s inhabitants (indeed, mostly of Russian origin) without having to break them, occupying one by one the strategic positions and taking control of the entire peninsula, in the fight against the killer virus we can hardly predict what strategy and tactics they will apply to achieve their strategic objectives. For that mission, the Russian FOS were very well trained, equipped, instructed and used in the operation, managing to make a name as "silent professionals" after its successful execution.

Maybe these elite military capabilities will play a force multiplier role in the combat and, then, defeat of the killer virus on Russian Federation’s territory, but only an ulterior assessment of their performance and effectiveness will show if their use made or not the difference in the fight against the invisible enemy or it was only an image game of the Russian Federation president. Actually, the Special Operations Forces are not and should not be seen as the miraculous cure-all.

English version by Andreea Soare

[1] Soft Power- the use of cultural and economic influence of a state to convince other state to do something, rather than using the military power; Cambridge Dictionary; https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/soft-power

[2] GRU- The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (the main Intelligence Directorate).

[3] “Polite People” -  The term was first used by the editor-in-chief of the website "Voice of Sevastopol", quoting in a blog post a security chief of the Ukrainian airport who said that the Russian military "politely asked" his staff to he leaves, loading the page with threatening images of the Russian Army. Russia's state media quickly adopted the term for propaganda purposes, and some Russian officials addressed slogans such as "Politeness is the power that will open any door." https://www.newsweek.com/polite-people-russia-321759

[4] “Little Green Men” - Term used to describe the masked soldiers of the Russian Federation equipped in green military uniforms, without military insignia, armed to the teeth with modern Russian weapons and military equipment, observed in the Crimean Peninsula during the Russian invasion in 2014.