The Coronavirus Crisis Undercuts Russia’s Geopolitical Ambitions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 138

(Source: Getty Images)

The sharp rise of COVID-19 infections in Russia in the last couple of weeks was predictable given the relatively high “plateau” of new cases over the summer after the sharp peak in early May. Yet the escalation of the pandemic has apparently caught the authorities by surprise as the government focused on Moscow. Cases of the novel coronavirus in the Russian capital grew to a maximum of about 6,000 infection a day in May, before dropping to the low level of about 650 through the last week of September; but those numbers have now jumped again, to 3,300 daily cases (Kommersant, October 4). The data on lethality is fragmented, and the average figure for August was about 100 a day; however, the recently revised vital statistics give the total number of coronavirus-related deaths in that month at about 7,500 (RBC, October 2). Russian regions are adopting various policies to minimize the economic consequences. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin introduced two weeks of school vacations from Monday, October 5, with instructions to prepare for distance learning for the rest of autumn (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 2).

The emphasis in the official discourse is that compulsory mask-wearing would make it possible to avoid the dreaded second lockdown (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 1). Russian economists argue that the consequences of a second wave would amount to only a few percentage points of GDP decline and that the devaluation of the national currency can be checked (Moscow Times, September 30). But whether or not such “rosy” prognostications are accurate, the authorities may nonetheless find it useful to enforce various restrictions and regulations in order to keep the populace nervous and obedient (Rosbalt, October 3). Discontent is gradually building, and trust in the state’s capacity to deal with the escalating crisis is eroding (Forbes, October 1). A horrific reminder of the rising public anger was the tragic self-immolation of Irina Slavina, a journalist from Nizhny Novgorod, who had been ruthlessly harassed by police (Novaya Gazeta, October 2).

The unfolding recession and growing grievances are undermining Russia’s ambitions for playing a major global role. President Vladimir Putin has locked himself in strict isolation, with only occasional tightly controlled public appearances, such as observing the final stage of the strategic military exercise Kavkaz 2020 (Izvestia, September 25). This protracted disconnect from normal life has affected his approach to key international matters, making him inattentive, irritable and indecisive (, September 29). His presentation at the recent United Nations General Assembly was especially thin on content, except for his advertisement of Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine against the COVID-19 virus (, September 23). The necessary tests of this vaccine on thousands of volunteers have just started, but according to first-hand accounts, the organization of this process has been so chaotic that skepticism among Russians about the effectiveness and side effects of this vaccination is well justified (, September 29).

Putin cannot quite comprehend how his carefully cultivated dialogue with European leaders has broken down, and he is particularly bitter about the leaked details of his phone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron (RIA Novosti, September 26). The Kremlin expected that resolute denials would swat down the story about the government’s suspected role in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a leader of the Russian opposition. As such, Navalny’s firm statement that only Putin himself could have ordered this crime has infuriated the Russian president (, October 3). Meanwhile, the disastrous setback in Russia’s European policy overlaps with the deepening conflict centered on the continuing revolution in Belarus, which was discussed at the European Union summit last week, resulting in the approval of new sanctions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 1). Putin’s support for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose grasp on power is deemed illegitimate by most European states, is not strong enough to secure the Belarusian head of state’s position. However, its demonstrative character alienates not only Europeans but, increasingly, the traditionally Russia-friendly Belarussians as well (Moscow Echo, October 2).

Finally, an unexpected but quite predictable challenge to Moscow’s geopolitical posturing has exploded in the South Caucasus, where Azerbaijan continues its offensive to break Armenian defenses in and around Karabakh (Izvestia, October 3). The Kremlin used to play the role of a heavy-handed mediator in this old conflict, but Azerbaijan’s ruler, Ilham Aliyev, feels confident enough to dismiss Russian appeals for a cessation of hostilities (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 1). Armenia is a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but Yerevan’s leaders, propelled and legitimized by the “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, know that they cannot count on any material support from Moscow (Riddle, September 30).

What turns the familiar settings of a local war into a massive problem for Russia is the new role of Turkey, which declared full solidarity with Azerbaijan and provides direct support for the offensive operations (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 2). Putin has close but uneasy relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is emboldened by the perceived success of Turkish interventions in Syria and Libya and calculates the risk of challenging Russia in its traditional sphere of dominance in the South Caucasus as entirely acceptable (, September 30). Erdoğan is as prone to miscalculations as any other authoritarian populist, but Moscow has so far failed to show that the capabilities demonstrated at the Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2020 exercises could be used for projecting power sufficient to terminate the real fighting in this region on Russian terms (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 1).

Putin’s passivity stands in contrast not only with Erdoğan’s showy agitation but also with Macron’s high-profile (even if ineffectual) efforts at resolving the crises in Belarus and in the South Caucasus. The three key foreign policy instruments for the Russian potentate are military power, special operations, and natural gas exports; but presently, the first is over-stretched, the second has badly backfired (see EDM, September 28), and the third is devalued because of the oversupply in the global markets. The fear of contracting the coronavirus has compounded multiple other fears that shape his policymaking, from the trepidation to show weakness by accepting compromises to the dread of a sudden mass uprising. Meanwhile, the quarrelsome clans of Kremlin courtiers, siloviki (security services personnel) and oligarchs that compete for access to the “decider” are worried about the contraction of their parochial sources of income. And the sum total of their anxieties reduces Russia’s policies to inertia, ineptness and irrelevance.