The scale of the complex disaster in Russia caused by the escalating COVID-19 pandemic becomes clearer with the incessant stream of bad news coming out of the country, even if official propaganda is strictly economical with the truth. Reports about a new test of the Zircon hypersonic missile or about the planned construction of a naval base in Sudan (see EDM, November 19, 25) cannot significantly boost patriotic pride when Russians trade rumors about overloaded hospitals and disappearing jobs (RIA Novosti, Carnegie.ru, December 11). President Vladimir Putin will likely try to demonstrate the firmness of his control at the annual press conference scheduled for December 17, which will be combined with the traditional (but canceled earlier this year) “Direct Line” for responding to questions from “common” Russians (Interfax, December 11). Yet it is precisely the actual feebleness of his leadership that is distorting state responses to the social pains of the crisis as well as feeding speculation about his possible departure (Sobesednik, December 9; see EDM, December 2).
Official data on the pandemic shows a gradual increase in the number of daily infections, to the level of 30,000 cases (with Moscow accounting for about a quarter), while mortality figures have grown to about 600 a day (RBC, December 12). Experts have long argued that the real numbers of lives lost to the novel coronavirus are several times higher (Mediazona, November 23). The statistical data on demographic changes show, for instance 22,571 COVID-19-related deaths in October, against 7,344 announced by the government (VTimes, December 11). The most devastating data reflects the total number of excess death compared to 2019, which amounts to 164,957 until the end of October and may reach 300,000 for the year (Meduza, December 12). Russia’s population, given the decline in the number of births, may shrink by some 680,000 people.
The authorities are trying to divert attention from these grim statistics by promising to bring the pandemic to a fast end by mass vaccination. The Kremlin has engaged in a “patriotic” vaccine race with the West, claiming that the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine was not only developed faster but also has higher efficacy than all “competitors” (Kommersant, December 1). One striking difference is that inoculations with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the United Kingdom began with the elderly—the most vulnerable group to this disease—while in Russia, testing for people older than 60 has only just begun (Izvestia, October 31). Another problem has been Russia’s limited production capacity; Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin promises to resolve this bottleneck by constructing a new factory in a matter of a few months (Interfax, December 11).
Russians remain skeptical about the official advertising. And in the first week of vaccination in Moscow, many teachers and medical workers (the groups invited for priority treatment) failed to show up for the shot (Novaya Gazeta, December 6). This skepticism is informed by first-hand knowledge about the real quality of many Russian products; but the Ministry of Defense directly attributed it to Western efforts at discrediting Sputnik-V, announcing that it had “detailed information” about the foreign resources ostensibly allocated to this malicious campaign (Mil.ru, December 11).
The social impact of the pandemic has been badly worsened by the further contraction of household incomes and the expansion of poverty. Putin has suddenly begun speaking on the steady increase in Russian food prices, and he has ordered the government to correct this trend (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, December 10). Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has eagerly agreed to apply price control levers, assuming Putin will want to point to instant results of his instructions during this week’s press conference (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 10). Yet the real driver behind this inflation has been the political decision to “punish” the European Union for enforcing its sanctions against Russia by banning the imports of European agricultural products, which has severely distorted the Russian food market (Kommersant, December 7). Every attempt Moscow has made at regulating prices has only resulted in supply shortages, and Russian consumers are now bracing for further hardship regardless of the government’s political depictions of better times ahead (Rosbalt, December 11).
The Russian economy is set to decline by only 4–5 percent in 2020, according to conservative estimates, but this contraction is nonetheless aggravating the structural distortions that had caused stagnation in previous years (RBC, December 11). Notably, the oil and natural gas sector received a disproportionate share of investments, and now its lobbyists demand more tax cuts, while prospects for a renewed rise in petro-revenues are bleak (Forbes.ru, December 8). Facing budget deficits, the government has opted to curtail support for “insignificant” sectors, such as services and retail, and has been slow to address rising unemployment (Moscow Echo, December 8). A third of Russians now describe themselves as “poor”; and yet the country’s macro-economic policy is expected to result in the further impoverishment of Russia’s lower-middle class (Newsru.com, December 11).
The super-rich, meanwhile, are the main beneficiaries of this policy, and the crisis has done little damage to their fortunes (Rosbalt, December 11). Russian investigative journalists have exposed the spectacular enrichment of many of Putin’s closest associates, such as banker-media magnate Yuri Kovalchuk (Proekt-Media, December 9). The only threat to their business empires comes from the gradually fine-tuned Western sanctions, including the “European Magnitsky Act,” finally approved by the EU (The Insider, December 8). Putin’s “oligarchs” have every reason to worry about investigations into their corrupt practices and punishment by personal sanctions likely to be passed by the incoming administration in Washington (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 12).
The Kremlin leader and his courtiers have accomplished the consolidation of the regime through dubious constitutional reform, announced at the start of 2020; however, the arrival of the profound COVID-19-related crisis has eroded the foundation of this autocratic monopolization of power. Russia is enduring the deepening disaster with the usual forbearance, but it is also changing under the impact of extreme stress and pain in more ways than the elites likely could fathom. The old Soviet habit of relying on the state for support and protection against outside misfortunes is giving way to new skills of self-help within society, and the prevalence of official propaganda is undercut by the explosive growth of social networks. Meanwhile, Putin’s protracted self-isolation has rendered his mastery at manipulating the levers of power increasingly irrelevant; even his performance as omnipotent boss is less and less convincing to average Russians. He remains a useful figurehead for his “loyal lieutenants,” but they cannot hide the fact that, in the time of troubles, he does not seem up to the job.