A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Russia’s Coronavirus Drama


Vladimir Putin’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has produced a paradox: instead of using the pandemic to further strengthen his personalized power, Russia’s president has refused to take tough measures, leaving his administration in disarray. Various signs point to a deepening crisis.

© REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Ironically, even the liberal opposition has been calling on the Kremlin to introduce the state of emergency, but with no effect: Russia’s government continues its muted response to the virus that spreads across the country. Indecisiveness and confusion in the Kremlin has not only confirmed the inability of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personalized system to effectively react to the unpredictable circumstances. We also see the true nature of Putin’s governance style: his attempts to avoid responsibility and his distancing from unpleasant problems. Instead of using the crisis to shift toward a more restrictive rule, Putin has chosen “wait and see” tactics. He even postponed the national vote that has to legitimize his indefinite rule which were supposed to take place on April 22.

The most likely explanation: an introduction of emergency rule in Russia would mean a reconfiguration of power within the Kremlin and new political regime that Putin apparently is not yet ready to accept. Putin’s hesitation and foot-dragging could be explained above all by the belief that Russia will escape the dramatic spread of virus. (On April 7, Russia officially had a total of 7,497 cases, with 58 fatalities, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.) The seriousness of the pandemic, often described as “just a form of influenza,” has been grossly underestimated. And the authorities hoped that Russia’s economy would not be affected dramatically because it is more isolated than those of Western countries. Also, the Kremlin has built a financial “nest egg” for rainy days, with foreign-exchange and gold reserves presently around $570 billion. The political establishment until recently persuaded itself that moderate measures against virus spill-over were enough.

In addition, there’s a Russian habit of concealing bad news from the top and of attempting to create a glossy image of reality. Putin’s plan to celebrate the 75th anniversary of victory in World War II—the preparation for the May 9 parade continues at full speed—also played their role in the Kremlin’s attempt to minimize the hazards of covid-19.

In his long-delayed address to nation on the coronavirus crisis on March 25, Putin decided to refrain from introducing stringent measures against the pandemic. He did not adopt adequate measures to support the population segments that are losing their jobs, small and medium businesses, and big companies that will suffer from the pandemic. The measures announced so far have been piecemeal and are lagging behind those introduced by other states. Russian observer Sergei Shelin, expressing the dominant mood in Moscow, wrote on March 27: “The president’s ‘anti-coronavirus package’ has been prepared in haste with reasonable, opportunistic, and even absurd measures mixed together… There’s been an atmosphere of irresponsibility and chaos.” One could add a total disrespect for the human health and life as well as a fear of undermining the optimistic picture of Russia produced by Kremlin propaganda. In comparison, the Russian measures look meager:  the United States has announced to spend a sum equivalent of 9 percent of its GDP to fight the pandemic, the United Kingdom 14 percent, and Germany more than 20 percent. In contrast, Russia will only use means equivalent to about 1.3 percent of its GDP.

Moscow’s Mayor: Crisis Fighter

A week ago, however, Moscow finally woke up to the grim reality: the pandemic has started its deadly marathon across Russia. On March 30, Russia sealed its borders. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin ordered an indefinite city-wide quarantine (the self-isolation order applies to all residents regardless of age). Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin imposed the same restrictions in Russia’s regions.  On March 31 Russian lawmakers swiftly passed legislation threatening severe punishment—including up to five years in prison—for people convicted of spreading false information about the coronavirus. The ever-bustling Russian capital has been suddenly transformed into a post-apocalyptic sight. Precious time had been lost, however.

Moreover, the Kremlin continued to take a back seat. As Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov announced on March 30, “The state of emergency is not called because all necessary measures are being undertaken.” It seems now that the Kremlin’s strategy is based on several components: achieving “herd immunity”; attempting to force business and the middle class to carry the financial burden; relying on the population’s self-isolation, controlled by the authorities. However, even pro-Kremlin analysts think this approach is not any more satisfactory.

On April 2, Putin again addresses the nation. But he offered only the extension of Russia’s nationwide “non-working week” until April 30. Moreover, the Kremlin delegated the decision-making power on anti-coronavirus measures to the regional authorities. It looked as if the Kremlin was more afraid of introducing tough quarantine measures than of the coronavirus itself.  As one of the regional officials commented, “They even try to avoid the word ‘quarantine’.”

The Absent Leader

Meanwhile, Putin continues to shy away from publicity. Moscow Mayor Sobyanin (and not Prime Minister Mishustin!) was designated the lead figure organizing the coronavirus defense (Putin gave him the job of heading a special working group in the State Council for combatting the pandemic). But the state apparatus and society at large continue to wait for the Kremlin to define the mechanisms of fighting the virus. Having no definite agenda the police in the Moscow region introduced the curfew and then stopped it.

The speculation is that Mishustin and Sobyanin are hoping to use this crisis as a springboard if not to the status of Putin’s “successor” than at a minimum to that of his “number two.” However, the Russian system of personalized power has no place for the role of “successor” who could undermine the omnipotence of the only national leader. Meanwhile, the Russian system oriented toward solving bureaucratic tasks demonstrates its inefficiency in an emergency situation. It can  crack down on the protests, but is unable to tackle national disasters. It is quite a paradox: an authoritarian regime unable to successfully implement authoritarian measures!

Already, Putin’s popularity has fallen victim to the pandemic. Only 48 percent of respondents supported the idea of “Putin forever” in a Levada poll at the end of March, while 47 percent disagreed with this. Every second respondent preferred “a rotation of the authorities and the emergence of the new leaders”; only 37 percent of respondents opted for “stability and the same politicians.” Given that already a quarter of the population has to struggle to feed itself, there is much potential for disaffection growing for which there are no legal channels of articulation. The fight of millions left without jobs and financial help may well create “Titanic atmosphere” in Russia, pregnant with mass social turmoil.

Formidable Challenges

Russia will follow likely follow the Chinese pattern of restricting the freedom of information. However, the Russian system is lacking a uniting idea, basically relying on predatory clans. With Putin’s authority fading, there will be serious difficulties securing societal obedience even under threat of repression.

Systemic conundrums have become apparent, too. Putin will have to think about how to revive Russia’s ravaged economy. He will also have to balance Russia’s domestic insulation with its participation in the global politics, which he is eager to continue. Putin will try to return to the international scene as the responsible leader accepted by the West, and not only by China. Of course, in case of domestic disorder he may try to switch to the real “fortress Russia” mode. But this move will hardly be supported by the part of the Russian elite that has become globalized and personally integrated into the West.

The challenges Russia is facing are formidable. Depleted health care systems, corrupted authorities, an atomized and demoralized society, the state’s inability to help the most vulnerable segments of society—all that mean that Russia is moving toward an existential crisis. How Russia will respond to it will form its future destiny.

This article is based on a DGAP Study Group: Russia presentation delivered on April 7, 2020.