EMERCOM: a view from afar, a view from within and a view to the future

Until the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union's emergency response set-up was poorly defined and performed (to a degree) by the existing civil defence system. This, however, was purely war-orientated and the number of civil defence troops decreased during peacetime periods. Furthermore, personnel called upon to respond to a situation often suffered from a lack of training and equipment. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion in 1986 served as an example of the need to reorganise the Soviet emergency response system. This was not a nuclear assault from the 'enemy' but rather a homeland crisis situation. It was clear that there was a lack of coherent and cohesive policy concerning the employment and deployment of emergency response teams. This was principally caused by the marked absence of a legal basis and the lack of a permanent directing body; a rapid-reaction emergency force; a special means of transportation; professional rescue workers; and modern machinery to perform operations.

Years after the Chernobyl explosion (and the break-up of the Soviet Union), to address the consequences of this situation, President Yeltsin created the Russian Federation's Ministry of Civil Defence, Emergencies and the Elimination of the Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM).1 Established on the 10th January 1994 by presidential decree, it is also known as the Ministry for Emergency Situations.2

EMERCOM's civil defence force consists mainly of professional military personnel. These EMERCOM forces are used for both wartime and emergency response and are distinct from the armed forces on the basis that they do not participate in military actions. Indeed, the military training undertaken by EMERCOM personnel is intended for their self-protection alone when deployed on peacetime and peace-support operations.3 The non-combat-orientated rationale of these forces is iterated, for example, by the basing of EMERCOM personnel solely in regions of highly probable natural and technical emergency and where mine clearing or humanitarian aid is required.

EMERCOM units conduct exercises much like the armed forces (holding command and staff exercises to practice interaction in the case of natural or man-made disasters) and EMERCOM units also participate in international training exercises. For example, in 2001 there was a Joint British and Russian training exercise, 'Siberian Challenge', with the principal objectives of testing leadership and logistics.

Why is EMERCOM an 'armed' force when it is predominantly a lifesaving organisation?

In contrast to the UK's moderate climate, Russia is prone to large-scale disasters and emergencies such as severe flooding, nuclear leakages, forest fires, border hostilities and earthquakes. The size and extent of these crises is such that it is judicious for EMERCOM to own its own stock of military equipment which is best suited to work in these arduous conditions. For example, the Zil-4906 'Blue Bird' is an amphibious passenger and cargo vehicle, ideally suited for 'flooding' rescue operations; the IL-76 is a 180-ton heavy capacity jet, having two tanks that hold up to 10,000gal of water, that has dual capabilities and can change from a humanitarian aid to a firefighting mission; and the Kamov Ka-226A is a light helicopter, ideal for rescue operations in large cities.

EMERCOM equipment stock acquisitions demonstrate the necessity of maintaining a wide range of material that will ensure rapid mission response and flexibility. Given the large geographical area that EMERCOM covers (an eighth of the world's land mass), the control of its own equipment is vital in order to maintain a rapid operational response.4 Thus, the employment of professional military personnel to undertake key civil defence tasks contributes towards the overall effectiveness of EMERCOM.5 Given that the Russian military structure has been criticised widely in recent years for the perceived unprofessionalism of its forces, the contrasting skilled, trained, qualified and specialised abilities of EMERCOM's troops in 'emergency' response of all kinds shows that they are the most appropriate personnel to perform these tasks.

A view from afar

Some Western actors have viewed the premise of EMERCOM - using force only for self-defence - with suspicion. Indeed, the intimate relationship between a force of heavily armed troops and an EMERCOM mobile field hospital, which was deployed in Afghanistan, gave some Western commentators cause for concern even in the light of assertions by EMERCOM representatives that these troops were present solely to act as a protection force for the new Russian embassy in Kabul).6 One British Army general remarked that these units "certainly would use force, [since] the Russians always sift the legislation. They always shoot first and ask questions later".7

The legitimacy of such criticisms is questionable, however. What must be emphasised is that the Russian deployment in Afghanistan coincides with the broader shift in the nature of humanitarian missions in the post-Cold War period. The expansion during the 1990s of peacekeeping to take on more of an 'enforcement' approach has led to military personnel acting less forcefully than their pre-1991 predecessors.8 There has been a noticeable shift in the structural characteristics of peacekeeping forces during this period, increasing the scope for heavily (rather than lightly) armed personnel. As such, the potentially intimidatory appearance of EMERCOM deployed units in Afghanistan is not structurally out of step with a significant number of Western force packages deployed at this time.

In recent years EMERCOM civil defence troops have been deployed to provide humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq.9 Russian forces had little experience of peacekeeping before 1991 and therefore, like their US counterparts, underwent an extremely steep learning curve.10 For obvious reasons, the deployment of armed formations in these areas was expected to be met with resistance by the local populations. In all cases, however, the convoys of civilian defence troops were reportedly given safe passage and all aid was accepted. In fact, "EMERCOM, as one of the best organised of all Russian militarised formations, has great potential for post-conflict deployment beyond Russian borders, especially in those cases where a traditional Russian military may be unwelcome".11

It seems that EMERCOM's 'orange uniform' has become as recognised as the UN 'blue beret', and that the civilians identify EMERCOM as a conflict and disaster-resolution force, and not as an aggressor. EMERCOM is in fact the most trusted organ of state power in contemporary Russia. A preliminary analysis shows that EMERCOM civil defence troops can be seen as an 'intermediate' component between civilian and military involvement in peace-support operations. As working systems of civil-military co-operation on an operational level are currently of major concern for peace-support operations conducted by NATO and the UN, Russian civil defence troops can serve as a positive model for an alternative approach to this widely discussed problem.

A view from within

EMERCOM's response to national emergency situations is, on the whole, first-rate. The heavy flooding in the north Caucasus region in 2002 is just one example demonstrating the speed, efficiency and professional training of EMERCOM response teams to minimise the consequences of the floods in the region. At the same time, however, public attitudes towards EMERCOM have been mixed. On the one hand, public response to the activities undertaken by EMERCOM is very positive when discussing large-scale national operations. On the other hand, it seems there is a lack of clarity regarding the role played by EMERCOM in situations close to home. The issue that should be highlighted is the fact that EMERCOM is a governmental structure and is highly centralised. In other words, all actions go through the authority of Moscow. The benefits of having a centralised ministry are that all component parts of the emergency response system are under the umbrella of EMERCOM and, given the geographical enormity of the area which EMERCOM covers, it is easier to control the numerous teams from the centre. This also has its disadvantages: public response has little faith in EMERCOM responding to a 'close to home' situation, mainly because there are no public phone numbers for the ministry and because EMERCOM has to wait for Moscow's approval before acting.

Moreover, EMERCOM has faced criticism from other areas of the Russian defence structure. Respondents during fieldwork conducted by the University of Birmingham have commented that the ministry is, in various ways, a waste of government investment, and that for what it actually achieves it is not effective. A suggested probable cause for the discord lies with the allocations of the defence budget. EMERCOM is better resourced: pilots always get their hours in, it always has fuel for its aircraft and its equipment is well maintained. EMERCOM provides the best 'offers' for its personnel and subsequently the most professional workers. Having the most resources, therefore, it is also one of the most effective organisations. Being a predominantly 'lifesaving' organisation it has unfaltering public support.

On the other hand, EMERCOM takes a lot of money from the defence budget and it selects the best personnel for its own use. As a consequence, EMERCOM's budget and 'cherry picking' of personnel hinders reform of the armed forces in general. International intervention provides EMERCOM with more money and its interventions within the Russian Federation provide it with publicity, but in many ways it provides a veneer over the actual state of the armed forces. This has caused resentment and anger among certain key players in other areas of Russian defence.

A view to the future

Before drawing conclusions on the future of EMERCOM, it is worth commenting on the idiosyncratic personality and leadership style of the minister in charge of EMERCOM, Sergei Shoigu. Contrary to common perceptions of Russian military reform, the civil military gap is bridged in many respects through Shoigu. He has a civilian background and has never served in a military unit, although he was given the rank of General Major in October 1994. Concerning EMERCOM as an 'armed' structure, Shoigu has managed to bridge the gap through "strategic leadership".12 He has a very high public rating and is one of the most popular figures in Russia; frequently coming second to Putin in public opinion polls.13 Indeed, Shoigu has been the only minister in Russia to have stayed in his post for so long. He works well with foreigners and he is willing to get down to grassroots level: wherever possible he is at the scene of an emergency. This charismatic leader is portrayed almost daily in the media. This dynamic image of EMERCOM's leader has on the whole remained untainted, including in the aftermath of recent charges of corruption, extortion and abuse of office by one of his closest advisers, Lieutenant General Vladimir Ganeyev.14

It seems clear that the development of this organisation has until now depended largely on the personality traits of its leader, because Shoigu has been instrumental to the ministry and his personnel (both 'military' and 'civilian') follow him willingly. For the time being, there seems to be no obvious successor to Shoigu. That being said, now that EMERCOM has grown and has become firmly established in the Russian system, it will undoubtedly survive and continue to grow no matter who is placed in charge. This will depend, of course, on whether the potential for corruption is prevented.

Much has been made in recent years of the deterioration of the Russian armed forces. In the short period - less than 10 years - since the ministry's inception, and despite Russia's difficult economic conditions, EMERCOM does not appear to be lagging behind the West in its disaster relief, peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts. On the contrary, EMERCOM represents the first step in building a modern emergency prevention and response system and it continues to develop its ability to forecast long-term disasters in Russia, learning from previous experiences and facing up to real issues. One only has to review the activities of EMERCOM over the last year to demonstrate the wide-ranging capability of the ministry to respond to catastrophes both within and outside Russia. EMERCOM forces have an excellent humanitarian reputation and will not lose the recognition of the 'orange uniform' trademark. Finally, EMERCOM as a structure within the overall system of the Russian armed forces represents a positive force creating a check and balance for the overall interests of Russian national security.

Full details of the research project, "The Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations (EMERCOM) - A view from afar, a view from within, a view to the distance" may be found at: http://www.crees.bham.ac.uk/ research/cmil. Interested readers should contact: Laura Hooper, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, B15 2TT laurahooper@yahoo.co.uk

Comparison of US and Russian emergency control systems

Characteristics of thecontrol system Russia US

Federal agency responsible for the organisation of control EMERCOM Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Year established 1979 1994

Main tasks Directing and co-ordinating prevention of and response to emergencies resulting from accdents, natural or man-made disasters and the employment of CBR weapons by a likely enemy Protection of the population and natural resources, support for uninterrupted control of the country in wartime and during natural and technological disas-ters, co-ordination of mobilisational preparations of the national economy

State emergency control system Russian State System of Disorder Management (est. 1992) The National System of Management in Emergencies (est. 1934)

Main functional components of emergency management state system Crisis Management Centre, Moscow; Central Control Post, EMERCOM Russia, Moscow; 9 EMERCOM regional disaster management centres; Computation Centre, Moscow; Mobile EMERCOM control points; Automated Information and Disaster Control System Crisis Information and Co-ordination Center, Washington, DC; Backup Crisis Information and Co-ordination Center, Virginia; 10 regional centres; FEMA Special Computation Center; Mobile field equipment; Integrated Information System Management (+32 autonomous information systems) of FEMA

Complement Central headquarters, EMERCOM Russia Central headquarters, FEMA

Source: YL Vorobiev, Disasters and Man (1998), p 168


  1. 'For a more comprehensive explanation of the classification of emergencies see 'The Russian experience of emergency response' in YL Vorobiev, Disasters and Man, (AST-LTD Publishers, Moscow 1998), pp41-45.
  2. Some consider the real birth of the agency as 27 December 1990 when the Russian Rescue Corps was established. See TL Thomas, 'EMERCOM: Russia's Emergency Response Team' in

Low Intensity Conflict and Law Enforcement, Vol 4 No 2, pp227 -236.

  1. For a more comprehensive explanation of peacetime and peace-support, see V Rukavishnikov, 'Peacekeeping and National Interests' in Working Papers of the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, Vol 20 (2001).
  2. The Central Airmobile Rescue Unit runs 24 hours a day; the units are on standby for operation and can be airmobile within 30 minutes. The Search and Air Rescue Service has a fast response to the situations: its teams can be operational from 15 minutes to 2 hours after call out.
  3. The modern study of the military profession and professionalism dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. See, for example, M Janowitz, The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait, (New York, Free Press 1960).
  4. Transcription for Interviews 7, 14, 15. File Reference: Laura Hooper, 'Catalogue of Interviews', CREES, University of Birmingham, September 2002 (unofficial translation).
  5. Discussions with a British Army general, September 2002. See notes for Interview 33. File Reference: Laura Hooper, Catalogue of Interviews "2", CREES, University of Birmingham.
  6. Rukavishnikov, op cit.
  7. See, for example, 'The Emergency Situations Ministry of Russia launched a humanitarian operation to assist Iran for possible refugees from Iraq', Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Daily News Bulletin (24 March 2003).

10 L Jonson, 'Keeping the peace in the CIS: the evolution of Russian policy' (Royal Institute of International Affairs discussion paper, 1999).

11 E Stepanova, 'The Use of Russia's 'Grey Area' Forces in Post Conflict Environments', (CMR Network, January 2002).

12 Foster argues that leadership is about exercising power over others, getting them to go along with one's wishes. And in contrast to coercive power, leadership involves inspiring others to follow willingly. See G Foster, 'The Civil-Military Gap; What are the ethics?' in US Naval Institute Proceedings, No126 (April 2000).

13 VTsIOM ratings of politicians, September 2002. Shoigu frequently comes second to Putin when respondents are asked to name the politician they most support and trust. The results of the February 2003 VTsIOM survey showed that 31% of people who would vote for Edinstovo (United Russia), given certain conditions, would like Shoigu as the leader of the party. L Sedov, 'Results of the February 2003 VTsIOM Survey' (Russian Centre for Public Opinion and Market Research). See www.wciom.ru/vciom_e/new/public/sedov_february.htm.

14 On 23 June 2003, Lieutenant General Vladimir Ganeyev, Head of EMERCOM's internal security directorate, was arrested and detained during a large-scale anti-corruption operation. Ganeyev has been charged on the basis of four paragraphs in the criminal code; forming a criminal group, extortion, power abuse and illegal trafficking of precious stones.

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