Russian society appears sharply divided regarding the indefinite extension of President Vladimir Putin’s “reign”—with 48 percent in favor and 47 against. Yet, amidst the present-day confusion and separate crises monopolizing people’s attention spans, this split looks far less shocking than would otherwise have been the case (Vedomosti, March 26). Despite, and partly even because of the propaganda blare, debates on the constitutional amendments, which Putin proposed in mid-January, have turned messy and compromised the integrity of the Constitution. His awkward exploitation of these revisions to “nullify” his two presidential terms, effectively granting him two more (see EDM, March 16), has left 20 percent of Russians outraged, 16 percent puzzled and 23 percent indifferent, with only 12 percent expressing satisfaction (Levada.ru, March 27). Poor management of this crucial process was aggravated by bad timing: Putin has had to indefinitely postpone the planned vote on the package of amendments because of the coronavirus pandemic (Kommersant, March 28; see EDM, March 26).
Putin finally addressed the country last Wednesday (March 25) and sought to downplay the scale of the COVID-19 health crisis by announcing a week-long break rather than a quarantine (Newsru.com, March 26). Thousands of Muscovites interpreted that message as an extra holiday and went out to enjoy the spring weather with traditional shashlyki barbecues (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 28). Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had to issue a special “stay at home” appeal in order to correct the presidential emphasis on good news (Moscow Echo, March 28). The pandemic appears to be spreading much faster in Russia than the official data, distorted by the lack of testing, indicates—and hospitals are already facing difficult shortages (Znak.com, March 27).
The failure to convey the gravity of the situation to the wider society has been exacerbated by the Russian government’s inability to address the fast-aggravating economic problems (see EDM, March 19, 25, 26). Putin announced some small steps to alleviate the squeeze on business and the workforce but also added new tax increases, so the impact of the sharp drop in the value of the ruble will be left for consumers to absorb (Moscow Echo, March 27). A group of prominent economists published an open letter arguing for designing a package of serious measures for stimulating the economy, but the government cannot start on this task without a command from the Kremlin, which remains in denial regarding the fast-deepening recession (Forbes.ru, March 27). From the traditional industry-oriented perspective, the severe contraction of various service sectors is insignificant; but the holes in Russia’s complex economic fabric expand daily, leaving millions of people in limbo (RBC, March 26).
One indicator that many Russians see as a reliable predictor of economic ups and downs is the oil price, and the depth of the continuing drop has already exceeded the worst expectations (Kommersant, March 27). Experts warn that Russian oil is not only uncompetitive on export markets but also “toxic” because key customers are aware of the bitter conflict between major global suppliers (The Insider, March 28). Putin’s decision to break the OPEC+ cartel deal on production cuts was clearly another blunder caused by a desire to bankrupt the United States’ shale oil producers (Neftegaz.ru, March 20). That this aim remains beyond reach is only a part of the problem explaining the current oil glut. Its more pronounced feature is that Putin’s rude demarche offended Saudi Arabia, which has engaged in a determined market offensive against Russia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 25).
This quarrel has not only erased the returns on Putin’s efforts at cultivating ties with the Saudi rulers (see EDM, October 23, 2017 and October 23, 2019), whose policy Russian pundits now described as capricious and hostile (Izvestia, March 16). It also undercut Russia’s influence in the Middle East, where Putin used to enjoy the privilege of being a key interlocutor between parties to multiple conflicts. Relations with Israel are strained because of Russia’s critical attitude to the peace plan proposed by US President Donald Trump (Russiancouncil.ru, March 11). The partnership with Turkey is on the rocks because of sharp disagreements on Libya and Syria, which have recently become somewhat muted by the onslaught of the pandemic but remain unresolved (Carnegie.ru, March 16). The ceasefires around the rebel-controlled Idlib province and along the Turkish-occupied parts of northern Syria still hold, but Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s recent visit to Damascus confirmed that the Bashar al-Assad regime nonetheless aims to reconquer these territories (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 22).
Putin’s international setbacks are not limited to the Middle East; even the much-valued partnership with China is eroding as the closure of the border results in a curtailment of bilateral ties (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 23). Putin and President Xi Jinping had only one short telephone conversation since the start of the year. And while Russian official media claims that the recent G20 video conference (March 26) showed unity between Russia and China in the fight against COVID-19, in fact their methods and resolve are far apart (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 27). Putin’s only contribution to the G20 deliberations was about lifting Western sanctions against Russia, but he conspicuously did not mention Russian “counter-sanctions” intended primarily as punishment for the European Union (Svoboda.org, March 26). Assuming that this initiative will not fly, the government has bought out all of Rosneft’s assets in Venezuela in order to help the state-owned oil giant to escape US sanctions. That said, continuing support for Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Caracas marks another entry in Putin’s list of self-damaging decisions (RBC, March 29).
The nexus of a raging pandemic and the devastating economic crisis has exposed the hollowness of Putin’s pretensions of embodying a global statesman and undermined whatever was left of his ability to unite his own country in a time of troubles. The Kremlin leader’s habitual denials of reality cannot produce any calming effect, and even those factions in Russia’s fragmented society that crave a “firm hand” are growing anxious about this lack of leadership. Putin relays confusion in his statements and inspires ridicule for his theatrical efforts to appear in control of the situation (see EDM, March 26); meanwhile, Shoigu and Sobyanin have started to appear decisive and “presidential.” Mistakes of judgement and timing could have been insignificant were Putin executing a firm and coherent course, but they grow into impactful blunders when there is such policy confusion. During national emergency situations, Russians are traditionally even more ready to accept the enforcement of restrictions on normal behavior. Nonetheless, Russians’ tolerance can easily turn into angst and anger when their leadership exhibits impotence and incompetence.