Diagnosing Russia’s COVID-19 response

Despite the Russian government’s assertions that it has the COVID-19 crisis under control, the outbreak is in the beginning stages in the country and three experts says Vladimir Putin’s political fate may rest on how he responds to the crisis.

Person in black hooded jacket and pants facing away from camera walks near Red Square in Moscow.
Crowds are gone from Moscow’s Red Square as the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Russia.

Despite the Russian government’s assertions that it has the COVID-19 crisis under control, the outbreak is in the beginning stages in the country and Vladimir Putin’s political fate may rest on how he responds to the crisis, according to three experts.

“Clearly the crisis has reached proportions which Putin didn’t expect,” said Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, during a Perry World House (PWH) virtual event on Tuesday. “And with the rise in the caseloads and the increasing impact on Russian society, this is looking more and more like a crisis that could actually begin to shake some of the foundations of the Russian system and the Putin system.”

Vershbow, PWH Wolk Distinguished Visiting Fellow, was joined by Yevgenia Albats, editor of Russian-language magazine The New Times, and PWH Visiting Fellow and Philadelphia Inquirer “Worldview” columnist Trudy Rubin in the Zoom panel discussion, hosted by PWH interim director Michael Horowitz.

The panelists discussed everything from the government’s denial of the virus’ effect on Russians to the draconian measures it has used to stifle criticism of the response. They also addressed the potential fallout from the collapse of the oil market and whether the viral outbreak will affect Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

Albats said the government’s initial response to the virus was “pure KGB fashion: denial and blaming others.” She said Russian state-owned TV channels aired stories that the virus was developed in the U.S. by the Pentagon in order to kill Chinese people because China is America’s biggest competitor. “And therefore this virus does not kill Russians—that was the first line of defense,” she said.

After it became apparent COVID-19 was affecting the country, the government reassured citizens that it was very weak and the best protection against it would be garlic, Albats said. Now, the government reports there are almost 156,000 Russians infected and approximately 1,500 dead, but those numbers are likely grossly underestimated, due to poor reporting because governors and doctors are being stifled from giving accurate information and threatened with jail time, losing their jobs or lives if they don’t comply, she said.

Rubin noted that at the beginning of the global pandemic Russia made a spectacle of donating medical equipment to New York and Italy, although most of it was defective.

“The effort was to show Russian confidence in dealing with the crisis and Russian competence,” Rubin said. “It was depicted in Russian media at home as this great gift, in comparison with the days back in the 1990s when American was sending help to Russia. Now poor America was getting help from Russia.”

Now that the virus is spreading, Russia's decrepit health care system is stretched to its limit, Vershbow said, and is in need of the very supplies they donated.

Putin has had to delay a May 9 parade celebrating 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany—which would have brought France’s Emmanuel Macron and China’s Xi Jinping to Moscow—and the constitutional referendum originally scheduled for April 22, which would have amended Russia’s constitution and reset Putin’s term limits. Polls show the public increasingly disapproves of his handling of the crisis, Vershbow said. Putin’s approval rating is the lowest in 20 years.

“I think this crisis has the potential to be much more damaging to Putin than anything he's had to deal with in his 20 years in power,” Vershbow said.

Rubin said she thinks the coronavirus is exacerbating Russia’s already active attempt to stoke tensions before the U.S. elections. Albats and Vershbow disagreed, saying the coronavirus outbreak will overshadow those efforts.

“It's really about personal survival,” Albats said of Putin. “So I think that the 2020 U.S. elections will be the last thing on his agenda.”

The global economic crisis is exposing Russia as a “total junior partner and more dependent on China than people understood,” Rubin said. Russia depends on China to buy its oil stockpiles, and the collapse of the oil market threatens to destabilize the country.

“China now considers itself basically out into the woods, even though it’s going to go through economic shocks in the coming months,” Rubin said “But Russia is just heading into the worst of its crisis with a huge contraction in its GNP which is totally dependent on energy exports. I think this just underlines how unequal that partnership is and how Russia still needs China.”

Ultimately, the crisis is a human issue that has been overly politicized by many players in all countries, Vershbow said.

“Let’s hope that we can deal with the human consequences and find a way to strengthen our societies in the process,” he said.

Albats said that although she’s not a Putin supporter she is pulling for her country and her fellow citizens.

“I just wish my country luck,” Albats said. “We are the nation of survivors. We know how to survive. These are our basic skills. So I just hope that these are skills that we inherited from our grandfathers and great-grandfathers will help my fellow citizens to survive this unfortunate situation.”