On March 24, President Vladimir Putin canceled a visit to St. Petersburg and went instead to the new Kommunarka medical facility on the outskirts of Moscow that was hastily organized as the main specialized COVID-19 treatment center in the Moscow region. On the excursion, Putin (67) was escorted by the Kommunarka chief surgeon, Denis Protsenko, and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. Putin donned a bright yellow full-body hazmat suit and respirator and was later rubbed down with sanitizer. Putin’s press corps members as well as his official videographer were denied entrance. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, thus, handed a nurse a smartphone and asked her to film Putin’s inspection of the facility “as well as you can” and then to send the resulting video file, via Telegram Messenger (officially forbidden in Russia, but still widely used), to the only contact in the phone’s address book—“Dima.” The nurse was instructed not to return the phone, “but just dump it,” evidently out of concern that the device might, in the course of the visit, become contaminated by the coronavirus (RIA Novosti, March 24).
Putin was apparently impressed by the brand new Kommunarka facility and commended Protsenko (and Sobyanin) for a job well done during their short meeting after the excursion. In footage aired by Russian TV, Protsenko offered Putin policy advice “as a medic” on how to deal with the COVID-19 crisis: There is the “Italian way” of doing little until the situation turns really bad, and there is an “Asian way”—widespread, strictly imposed quarantine measures, like what the authorities undertook in China or South Korea. Russian medics “would be happy” if strict “Asian-style” measures are imposed, he suggested, but they are preparing for the worst-case “Italian” scenario of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Moscow region, ready to deploy medical capabilities to cope with a massive inflow of severely ill and dying patients. According to Protsenko, “If the Chinese or Korean ‘way’ of strict quarantine measures are applied, the spread of COVID-19 in Russia could be contained in April or May ” (RIA Novosti, March 24).
After returning to the Kremlin, Putin called a Cabinet meeting; in seeming deference to the medical advice he received at Kommunarka, the president imposed additional quarantine measures. He delivered a televised address to the nation on March 25, announcing that the work week beginning March 30 will be a holiday week—all nonessential businesses will be closed down and all workers should stay home while receiving full pay. The authorities hope that during this time, most infected persons will develop symptoms and can be quarantined, thus preventing the virus from being passed on to many others, breaking the chain of transmission. In Moscow—the country’s main population and business center, where the threat of a massive outbreak of COVID-19 looms the largest—Mayor Sobyanin has ordered the closure of schools and universities, cinemas, restaurants, parks and trading centers, as well as all retail places, except for food courts and pharmacies. All students and senior citizens over 65 have been ordered to stay home, and their public transit access cards have been remotely deactivated until April 14, 2020. The public is being discouraged from attending any religious public services. Other regional leaders have been called to follow Moscow’s example and impose similar public distancing restrictions. Borders have been closed and all international flights canceled, except charter flights to return Russian citizens stranded abroad (Kremlin.ru, March 25; Interfax , , March 26).
The number of passengers in the Moscow metropolitan area has decreased some 50 percent, and Sobyanin is boasting that at least 50 percent of the city population is quarantined at home already. Panic buying of food and supplies peaked on March 17, but the purchasing power of Russian households is limited after some six years of economic stagnation; thus, many essentials, like toilet paper, are already back on store shelves (Interfax, March 26). The COVID-19 crisis in Russia is aggravated by a dramatic fall in the price of oil and a 30 percent devaluation of the ruble (see EDM, March 25). Logistic supply lines of goods and commodities connecting Russia with China, India and Europe are being disrupted as other countries close down work and production. Many local Russian industries, like automobile and medicine production, may begin to suspend work due to a lack of essential components. Putin and his Cabinet have announced measures to help the struggling economy, but they may turn out to be inadequate (Interfax, March 26).
The stay-at-home quarantine regime in Moscow and in other Russian regions is today only a recommendation. To change that, the State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) will be fast-tracking legislation allowing the authorities to impose high fines or prison time to deter quarantine violations (Interfax, March 26). The Kremlin insists there is no real COVID-19 pandemic in Russia and no need to impose a state of emergency, but the authorities are mobilizing forces to meet any worst-case scenario. The military has been deploying multi-service forces in field exercises to “test the ability to respond to emergency situations caused by viral disease outbreaks” (Militarynews.ru, March 25; see EDM, March 25). The defense ministry has deployed some 4,000 solders, who are now working 24/7, building 16 field infection containment centers in different regions of Russia (Interfax, March 26). Legislation has been sent to the Duma to allow the government to declare at will an emergency in all of Russia or in specific regions (RBC, March 26).
The Kremlin has postponed indefinitely the plebiscite planned for April 22, 2020, in which the public was called to vote for constitutional amendments allowing Putin to run for president two more times (in 2024 and 2030, potentially ruling until 2036) (Kremlin.ru, March 25). Some foreign observers believe this postponement is a serious setback for the Kremlin, but that is a false reading of the situation. Legally, the constitutional amendments are already law, after having been ratified by all 85 legislatures of the subjects of the Russian Federation (this number includes the illegally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol City), signed by Putin and okayed by the Constitutional Court. The planned April 22 plebiscite was a legally nonbinding public relations action; and there is ample time to still hold such a vote before 2024, when Putin’s current term ends (see EDM, March 19). At present, the Kremlin, indeed, has much more pressing issues to handle.