Although Russia had time to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic—the novel coronavirus arrived to Moscow, now the country’s hardest-hit urban center, only in the last week of March—the authorities were nonetheless caught badly unprepared. New infections are increasing by 4,500–6,000 per day; yet, the official number of daily fatalities has remained at about 1 percent of this figure, signifying the low reliability of Russian data. Muscovites have learned not to believe the government’s reassurances: they widely share pictures of long lines of ambulances waiting for hours to deliver patients to emergency wards as well as routinely hear stories of severely overworked and dangerously unprotected doctors (Novaya Gazeta, April 22). Despite the Russian state’s extensive efforts to establish control over the Internet, most social networks remain uncensored; hence, the anger of those who went through ineffectual testing and overcrowded hospitals inform public opinion far better than the propaganda (Moscow Echo, April 23).
The effectiveness of lockdowns in containing the pandemic inside the Russian Federation remains an open question, but they have already pushed millions of Russians, heretofore living paycheck to paycheck and lacking savings, into abject poverty because of the lack of direct state support (Rosbalt, April 24). Official calculations of the scale of the crisis are revised daily, and the latest estimate of GDP contraction, of 4–6 percent in 2020, is optimistic compared to forecasts from conservative experts, who predict a downturn of 8–12 percent (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 23). Accumulated financial reserves have been earmarked primarily for covering the federal budget deficit, so any expectations that the government may compensate Russians’ fast-shrinking incomes are bitterly disappointed, and banks are already reporting mass withdrawals from personal accounts (Kommersant, April 24). The technicalities of how quickly the hoarded money will be spent are of little interest to the millions working in small businesses or the self-employed, who are compelled to break the rules of the lockdowns, being enforced without a declaration of a national emergency (Forbes.ru, April 25).
The economic shock is aggravated by the growing understanding that the collapse in global oil prices does not represent short-term volatility but a new reality that will undercut the foundation of the Russian economy for years to come (Newsru.com, April 21). With the disappearance of the image of Russia as an “energy superpower,” only the country’s ostensible military might is now able to support the perception of Russian “Greatness” on the world stage. But the hypersonic missiles and other “wonder weapons” have become patently irrelevant in the radical reconfiguration of global affairs. The Armed Forces cannot rescue Russia from its ruinous predicament, even if the high command is keen to report on the heroic work of military medics in Bergamo, Italy, or about the ambulances shipped to Syria (New Times, April 20). One particular breakdown in the military organization is the spring draft, which was postponed for a month from the usual date of April 1; yet, it remains quite impossible to execute during May, when the pandemic is expected to peak in Russia (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 21). Seeking to uphold the military’s prestige, the top brass is hastening the construction of a super-cathedral of the Armed Forces that will be graced with a mosaic depicting President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov (Novaya Gazeta, April 24).
This self-glorification illuminates the swift erosion of the authority of the top leadership, which used to be perceived (and to portray itself) as the key guarantor of state security and integrity, delivering strategic guidance in the face of grave challenges and with wide public support (Vedomosti, April 14). That perception of competent and firm leadership has now been shattered by Putin’s self-isolation and obvious reluctance to take responsibility for the costly and unpopular measures addressing the current human and economic emergencies (Svoboda.org, April 24; see EDM, April 2, 6). Meanwhile, his infrequent televised working meetings create the impression of aloofly presiding rather than hands-on management, and sociologists expect a sharp decline in his popularity over the coming months (Republic, April 22). Whereas, the reshuffled government of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has failed to mobilize the vast state bureaucracy into meaningful action and instead seeks primarily to show loyalty to Putin’s inoperable instructions (Znak.com, April 24).
The domestic disarray translates into a passive and temporizing foreign policy, despite Putin’s reassurances that he is watching over international affairs and reading reports from the foreign ministry (Kremlin.ru, April 24). Insightful commentators admit that Russia’s position on the world stage has been seriously damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and find only small consolation in their assessment that the European Union’s influence and integrity have been damaged even more (Carnegie.ru, April 22). The abrupt interruption of multiple connections with Europe has reminded Russians of the unique importance of this neighborhood for their country—but it also confirmed that the EU’s emergency measures include no relaxation of the sanctions regime (Novaya Gazeta, April 25).
Some scant hopes persist in Moscow for an improvement in the contentious relations with the United States, particularly in light of the remarkably amicable joint high-level declaration on the anniversary of the meeting of US and Soviet troops on the Elbe River at the end of World War II (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 25). However, those are overshadowed by concerns about the escalation of tensions between the US and China, which is interpreted as a marker of transition to a conflict-rich post-pandemic world, in which Russia could be at a disadvantage (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 21). Some Moscow pundits engage in wishful strategizing regarding Russia’s escape from its dependency upon China, claiming that Russia—despite the reality of its diminishing options (see EDM, April 20)—is in a position to initiate a new global “non-aligned” movement in which sovereignty trumps globalization (Globalaffairs.ru, April 21).
Russia is, indeed, caught in a fast decline, fundamentally caused by its economic weakness, exacerbated by shrinking petro-revenues and amplified by irreducible corruption. With oil so devalued, only military might is left to underpin Russian claims of “Greatness.” Putin had sought to add spin to this strength by staging extra-pompous celebrations on May 9, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War II, hopefully in the presence of other world leaders. The postponement of this parade is a deviation from that ambitious plan and additionally symbolizes the irrelevance of large battalions in the present emergency. Putin’s leadership is compromised not by the sharply exposed weakness of his character but by the inadequacy of his carefully constructed system of power to the task of managing the unfolding crises.