Russia is rightfully held responsible for and often caught red-handed spreading disinformation around the globe; but its own policymaking is, in fact, informed by similarly false assessments, which are “improved” (exacerbated) many times while traveling up the bureaucratic pyramid. For months, President Vladimir Putin has been aloofly presiding over Russia’s poorly coordinated efforts at managing the complex crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has betrayed his poor understanding of the scale and consequences of this unexpected disaster (Znak.com, May 15). It is difficult to judge whether the Kremlin leader actually wants to know the real picture, but it is increasingly clear that the few courtiers who still have access to his tightly isolated residence are careful not to upset him with bad news, all while promoting their own parochial agendas (Meduza, May 15). Operating in this distorted reality, Moscow has no problem with the Chinese manipulations of crucial information. And recently, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov once again described the United States’ criticism of China’s behavior as allegedly ungrounded and unfair (RBC, May 15).
A particular twist in this tale of self-deception occurred last week, when Russian officials protested against Western media reporting on the country’s dubious coronavirus statistics (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 15). Strikingly, the number of infections in Russia is rising fast, approaching the 300,000 mark, and yet, fewer than 3,000 deaths have officially been attributed to the disease—a less-than-one-percent mortality rate that many Russian experts suggest is an obvious anomaly (Moscow Echo, May 14). Investigative journalists have shown that hospitals are instructed to register the causes of death in such a way that the data on the pandemic is agreeable for the regional authorities, who are held responsible for controlling the disease (Meduza, May 14). At the same time, it is convenient to accuse the West of having a hostile attitude toward Russia and to demand apologies from The New York Times and Financial Times, despite knowing full well that these publications are impeccably researched (Kommersant, May 15).
The tendency to camouflage disturbing reality impedes Moscow’s ability to reduce the health crisis’ economic impact, which requires far more generous spending and deeper reforms than Putin is prepared to contemplate (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 14). A doctoring of economic data in Russia long predates the novel coronavirus; it broadly expanded in response to the Kremlin’s demand for a “breakthrough” in the face of persistent stagnation. But presently, the government’s calculations of the depth of the recession are performed on a strictly minimalist basis (Novye Izvestia, May 15). The state has adopted extra-frugal guidelines for any potential fiscal stimuli. Putin has the privilege to grant bonuses to doctors on the frontlines of the battle with the coronavirus and some direct payments to families with children (Moscow Echo, May 14). But these gestures are insufficient to arrest the severe decline in disposable incomes, which had already been shrinking for the last five years (Forbes.ru, May 15).
Where the state support is certain to be channeled is the energy industry. And Putin’s meeting with the CEO of Rosneft, Igor Sechin (the two trusted officials felt no need to observe social distancing during their face-to-face conversation), confirmed this priority (Newsru.com, May 12). The government’s supreme benevolence toward the oil and natural gas business is not surprising. But Putin’s obvious lack of understanding of the shifts and “green” trends in the global energy markets is becoming confounding; yet, it enables the court oligarchs to continue to manipulate his judgements (Novaya Gazeta, May 13). Sechin had no problem persuading Putin to clear some toxic assets in Venezuela off of Rosneft’s books. At the same time, the Russian president expressed interest in some dubious-sounding genetic research, allegedly led by Sechin’s daughters, and promised to sponsor this enterprise (Republic, May 15).
Another domain where Putin is entirely receptive to misinformation supplied by a self-serving bureaucracy is in the area of military buildup and readiness (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 16). He was loath to postpone this year’s extravagant Victory Day military parade on Red Square. Nonetheless, he reassured that all rearmament programs will be executed, no matter what. Such guarantees ring hollow for those familiar with Russia’s deep economic problems and sound like bad news for all those expecting greater state investment in the degraded public health system (Izvestia, May 9). Reports about tests of a new super-capable S-500 surface-to-air missile system may bring joy to some militaristically minded individuals, but the majority of Russians want to hear more about the testing of COVID-19 vaccines (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 10).
Worries about dissipating public support for the rulers—who show insufficient concern about the plight of their “subjects”—have prompted the top political managers in the Kremlin to quietly push through new legislation on electoral procedures (Newsru.com, May 15). The easing of rules allowing for postal and electronic voting might appear justified by the concerns about the ongoing pandemic; but in fact, it opens new opportunities for the state to falsify election results (Novaya Gazeta, May 14). Liberal politicians argue that the parliamentary elections in autumn 2021 are now fated to turn into a senseless farce, but that is exactly what Putin’s spin-doctors ordered (Moscow Echo, May 15). Mobilizing real public enthusiasm for the plan legitimizing the indefinite prolongation of the ageing autocrat’s rule is seen as too expensive; however, executing this plan against the background of widespread political indifference looks entirely feasible (Carnegie.ru, May 13).
It may appear—and probably does to the Kremlin court—that the manipulation of information further secures state control over the political space. But in fact, it denies the authorities access to knowledge about crucially important processes. Actionable data, for instance on the real mortality rate of the severe pandemic, is not hidden away in some top-secret files; it simply does not exist. Facts that do not fit the official discourse on Russia’s unique oil and energy wealth are dismissed, evidence of rot in the superior military might is suppressed, and any signals that challenge the myth of Putin’s unshakable popularity and absolute indispensability are silenced. At the start of the year, this resolute departure from the reality of looming crisis seemed to reflect a winning strategy for the reform-rejecting regime; but the arrival of the massive multifaceted crisis has cracked the mirrors of imagined stability. The instinct of self-preservation should prevail over the authorities’ habits of self-deception and dictate a curtailing of grand ambitions, but it is by no means clear it will.