As April drew to a close, Russia surpassed China in the number of recorded COVID-19 infections; and by the end of the first week of May, it is set to register twice as many cases as its southern neighbor whose population is ten times greater. Russian official media reflected on this trend rather indifferently. Indeed, the reliability of Chinese data is questionable, even if never questioned in Moscow, but Russian data, in turn, reflects deep confusion in the domestic public health sector (RIA Novosti, April 27). The number of tests per capita in Russia is 30 percent higher than in the United States; however, the reliability of Russia’s testing is known to be quite low, so diagnosis relies primarily on the results of computed tomography (CT) scans (Meduza, April 30). The Russian leadership cannot control the information flows with the same efficiency as the Chinese; but at the same time, it cannot trust the information supplied by the befuddled bureaucracy. As a result, President Vladimir Putin simultaneously informs the public that “the risk of infection is reaching a peak” but that “the peak is still ahead of us” (Kremlin.ru, April 28).
These muddled assessments are the result of the authorities’ inability or unwillingness to undertake anything beyond tentative and palliative measures. Thus, even as he confirms the high levels of risk facing the country, Putin pointedly refrains from declaring a state of emergency or even uttering the word “quarantine”; he has merely prolonged the non-working period until May 11 (Newsru.com, April 30). The Kremlin leader has delegated responsibility for enforcing the painful lockdowns to regional governors, while leaving the difficult task of justifying the state’s scant support for the struggling economy to the government (RBC, May 1).
The uncoordinated half-steps in containing the pandemic has forced the governors to choose between loyally reporting on false successes or asking for trouble by admitting the scale of the disaster. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has notably chosen the riskier option: he suggests that as many as 2 percent of the capital city’s population may be infected by the novel coronavirus, directly contradicting Putin’s assessment of 0.4 percent (Newsru.com, May 2). Sobyanin certainly is better positioned to execute tough measures since Moscow’s rich budget makes it possible to provide some compensations. Meanwhile, most governors cannot expect any extra resources from the federal center (Novaya Gazeta, April 30).
In recent days, the work of the three-month-old federal government was further disrupted by the incapacitation of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who was hospitalized with COVID-19. President Putin issued a special decree appointing First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov acting head of government (Kommersant, May 1). Technically, there was no need for such a decree, as the transfer of functions is regulated by law. But Putin probably wanted to demonstrate his authority to make key cadre decisions—which inadvertently generated rumors that Mishustin would not be returning to his duties (Moskovsky Komsomolets, May 1).
Every virtual appearance Putin makes adds to the widespread impression that the Russian president is confused and irritated with the sudden arrival of an entirely unfamiliar threat (New Times, April 30). Reassurances and appeals to patience cannot camouflage the fact that the top officialdom, which normally excels at projecting the image of supreme confidence, has nothing resembling a plan for managing the overwhelming crisis (Rosbalt, May 1). While the government’s indecisive struggle against the pandemic is demonstrably ineffectual, its strategy for containing and mitigating domestic economic dislocation is non-existent.
Assessments of the depth of Russia’s economic decline are periodically revised. And last week, Alexei Kudrin, the chair of the Accounts Chamber, made a particularly worrisome—albeit still conservative—estimate of 7–8 percent GDP contraction in 2020 (Newsru.com, April 26). The government still prioritizes channeling budget investments through major corporations in order to sustain the output of “essential” heavy industries at pre-crisis levels (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 29). But that preoccupation with traditional central planning ignores the severe decline in demand and disregards the acute need to support Russian small businesses (Forbes.ru, May 1). The postponement of urgently needed decisions on rescuing the most severely affected services that employ millions of people in major cities amounts to letting a large cohort of the urban middle class sink into poverty (Znak.ru, April 30).
Likewise, the reluctance to tap into the state’s accumulated financial resources constitutes a decision, by default, to deny help to the “non-essential” casualties of the current crisis because, in the months to come, such valuable corporate allies as, for instance, Rosneft might need it more (Riddle, May 2). The imperative to cut oil production beyond levels agreed with Saudi Arabia in the latest OPEC+ deal is devastating for the Russian energy sector (Ural-Inform, April 28). Instead of delivering plentiful revenue to the state budget, the giant companies now demand tax cuts and subsidies (Kommersant, April 30). This situation, however, has not prevented Rosneft from paying bonuses amounting to $600,000 to its directors and board members, including former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (TV Rain, April 30).
The combination of confused economic thinking and corrupt practices denies Russia the opportunity to execute meaningful reforms or find sources of new dynamism amidst the severe crisis (Moscow Echo, May 1). Priorities in the Kremlin are set firmly on preserving the structures that support and protect the regime. But the more that propaganda efforts focus on illuminating Putin’s central role in managing the crisis, the more his reluctance to take responsibility and propensity to postpone decisions come into focus. This inability to deliver leadership when it is most needed is fundamentally driven by his fear of political risk and mistrust of any power-sharing arrangements. Instead, he appears determined to concentrate maximum authority in his own hands for as long as physically possible (Carnegie.ru, April 29).
The first half of 2020 was supposed to have been—according to Putin’s design—the decisive breakthrough to enshrining his power via a revised constitution and stimulated mass enthusiasm thanks to pompous May 9 parades. But the coronavirus pandemic has derailed those plans and badly compromised his authority, whether he acknowledges this or not. The health crisis may in fact be approaching its tragically high peak, but the economic decline is a long way from finding a bottom; and the public mood is shifting from shock to anger. Instead of charting a new course, Putin is trying to reassert his original self-serving plan, thus steering Russia into more trouble. While attempting to be the embodiment of stability and hope, Putin has actually turned himself into a figurehead and a focus of irritation.