Internal Fruit of Russian Propaganda: The Political Repercussions of COVID-19 in Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 164

Source: Flickr

October 2021 marked the most dramatic month-over-month increase in reported COVID-19 cases in the Russian Federation since the pandemic began, with up to 40,000 infections and over a thousand coronavirus-related deaths per day. In most Russian regions, hospital intensive care units (ICU) are occupied close to capacity. According to government sources, some 1,300,000 Russians are today receiving medical treatment for COVID-19, with some 268,000 of them hospitalized, of which around 11 percent are in critical condition. The Kremlin has responded by announcing a partial national lockdown from October 30 to November 7, 2021. Only essential grocery shops and drugstores will stay open, while restaurants may provide only takeout orders; all other retail will be closed. Russian regions have been given authority to impose additional mandates and restrictive measures. One of the worst situations seem to be in Sevastopol, where ICU units are over 95 percent full. Roadblocks in the region will be turning away anyone attempting to enter the city without a valid COVID-19 vaccination certificate (Kommersant October 27).

In Moscow, the lockdown began two days earlier, on October 28. Unvaccinated Muscovites over the age of 60 or with serious health conditions—the most vulnerable to gravely suffer from a novel coronavirus infection—have been ordered to stay at home until February 25, 2022. The stay-at-home order will be enforced by police patrols, by the well-developed city-wide face recognition artificial intelligence (AI) system, and mobile phone tracking. The Moscow authorities say this stay-at-home order will be rescinded for senior citizens as soon as they inoculate. Only a third of the over three million senior residents in Moscow have been inoculated, though the Sputnik V vaccine has been freely available to all in the capital city for about a year. In total, only about 50 million Russians have been vaccinated—about a third of the overall population. The rest refuse (see EDM, August 2), and this has frustrated the authorities, including President Vladimir Putin. The official COVID-19 death toll in Russia is over 230,000 and growing, but the true figures of coronavirus-related deaths are apparently higher, as regional authorities at the beginning of the pandemic were concealing the gravity of the situation. The middling Russian health care system is overwhelmed by the need to treat COVID-19 patients. The Russian population is shrinking because of a drastically increased overall death rate, and national life expectancy may decrease from 74 to 69. Putin’s dream of restoring Russia as a world superpower as well as his efforts and money spent on reversing Russia’s population contraction have been upturned and frustrated. Putin has been calling for more inoculations, but his subjects are not listening and his formidable propaganda machine seems inept (Interfax, October 22;, October 20).

Russia’s domestically developed and produced Sputnik V vaccine is an apparent byproduct of the country’s Cold War–era biological-warfare efforts. Preparing for possible biological warfare with the United States and its allies, the Soviet military not only developed the means of mass-producing and delivering pathogens but also developed a system to swiftly produce vaccines. The essence of bio-warfare is to wield a pathogen the enemy does not know, while producing an effective antidote to inoculate one’s own troops. Sputnik V was created using a well-researched human adenovirus as the platform or vector—a system that facilitates the swift production of a vaccine against almost any given virus. The problem with Sputnik V seems to be that the military standards under which it was made are different (less stringent) than civilian ones. The Russian researchers seem to have cut corners in internationally accepted rigid peacetime testing protocols while pushing Sputnik V forward. The end product apparently turned out fairly effective, but the European Union and the World Health Organization (WHO) continue to have questions and are reluctant to officially register Sputnik V for broad use (Interfax, October 22).

Moscow in 2020 believed Sputnik V could be a public relations and commercial success internationally as countries sought effective COVID-19 relief. Thus, the Kremlin and state-controlled Russian media promoted Sputnik V, while criticizing Western-produced vaccines as dangerous and ineffective (see EDM, March 25); the opinions of Western COVID-19 vaccine critics were publicized. Putin has never appeared in public wearing a face facemask, as if defying danger, all the while living for almost two years in an isolated bubble, forcing anyone seeking to meet with him to first quarantine for a week. As a result, a skeptical Russian population widely defies mask mandates and refuses to inoculate. On September 1, 2021, schools opened for all students in Russia. The situation was portrayed as things improving in the run-up to the September 2021 State Duma elections, which were won easily by the pro-Kremlin parties (see EDM, September 23). But the policy resulted in a dramatic new wave of delta-strain coronavirus hitting Russia. This wave may eventually subside, but another one seems inevitable somewhere in the spring of 2022, if the present mood of COVID-19 vaccination refusal and dissidence persists.

Putin, while emphasizing the need to vaccinate, has refused to enforce a national inoculation mandate, instead outsourcing the decision to enforce coronavirus vaccinations to regional authorities, for them to take the blame for any possible public pushback. Sources in the Kremlin told Kommersant that Putin’s administration is considering reversing the ineffective vaccination PR campaign (Kommersant, October 28). Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary and deputy chief of administration, called the report wrong: “The PR campaign is ongoing, without any need to rebut.” Peskov did not exclude a national vaccination mandate to be enforced in the future, “if the situation requires” (Interfax, October 28). Wealthy ruling-class Russians have used the announced lockdowns as an excuse to fly out on vacation to Egypt or other warm destinations. According to Peskov, the Kremlin will not forbid such travel, though it is unwelcome (Interfax, October 27).

On October 24, Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of the government-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya (known as Putin’s mouthpiece), on his prime-time Sunday news program Vesti Nedeli on Rossya 1 TV channel, described anti-vaccine activists as “extremely dumb” and undermining Russian national interests (Vesti, October 24). Vesti on, October 26, doubled down, describing coronavirus anti-vaccine activists as a “well organized conspiratorial network financed from abroad and bent on decimating the Russian population, fomenting dissent and preparing regime change” (Vesti, October 26). Still, Putin and his administration are undecided what to do next—to use the stick or carrot—while the coronavirus wave crests.