Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting via video conference with heads of local governments at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting via video conference with heads of local governments at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Putin Is Projecting Strength In the Face of Coronavirus. But the Image is Cracked

Russia’s leader has removed himself from the spotlight as his country’s COVID-19 problems become harder to hide.

The Kremlin is trying to project an image of competence and power as the pandemic roils the world, and aiming to conceal a darker reality back home: an uneven healthcare system, a vulnerable military, weakening centralized control, and a largely absent authoritarian leader.

At the end of March, as the United States implemented social-distancing guidelines that put the economy into shock, the Kremlin took the easier route of just giving people the week off: a paid “holiday” that Putin then extended. But Russia’s infected numbers reached an official 47,121 on Monday, and despite some signs that the growth rate is declining, even Putin concedes that deaths will continue to climb.

Many Western observers believe the official figures vastly understate the actual problem. “The Kremlin is underreporting the extent of the pandemic and using propaganda to make Russia look strong when in fact Russia is on the cusp of a health care catastrophe,” Michael Carpenter, Managing Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, told Defense One via email on April 3. “In reality, however, the Kremlin has been very slow to test its population and likely has hundreds of times more COVID cases than it admits. Fatalities are being classified as comorbidities with no mention of COVID. It’s quite likely that by the end of the month the Russian health care system will be stretched beyond the breaking point, at which point Russia will need medical assistance from the West.”

In fact, Russia has begun to buy large amounts of protective gear from China. While it scored an early propaganda victory by sending much needed medical supplies to coronavirus-hit Italy and the United States, evidence suggests that the medical supplies it sent to Italy were useless and that the mission served as cover for an intelligence-gathering operation. 

Russian military activity has remained consistent. Russia-backed militia continue to fight in eastern Ukraine while hiding COVID-19 rates among their ranks. Russian jets continue provocative probing maneuvers against U.S. aircraft in the Mediterranean. Russia has also continued to collect intelligence on foreign targets, including U.S. supply lines, according to a recently revealed DHS memo. And on Tuesday, U.S. Northern Command's Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy said he expects aggressive Russian behavior to continue.

Carpenter noted that the Russian military held large-scale military exercises in its Southern Military District in March. However, the contrast between the image of strength and the reality of vulnerability took a literal turn when Putin was forced to cancel the annual May 9 Victory Day parade, and had to quarantine some 10,000 troops who took part in rehearsals. 

Yet Russia’s military may be better poised than the United States' to avoid a major coronavirus hit. “Because it is not a globally deployed force with constant operations abroad, besides cases like Syria, the impact is much reduced compared to that on US forces,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.

An Uneven Landscape

As in the United States, the pandemic will affect Russia's various regions differently. While Moscow and St. Petersburg have well-equipped medical facilities, smaller cities and rural areas have seen their access to health care decline over the past 10 years, Judyth Twigg, professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, said during an Atlantic Council webcast earlier this month.

Twigg noted that the Russian government led “an enormous amount of investment” in health cases five years ago. “That’s good news,” she said. But much of the money went to create small, specialized hospitals for cardiovascular health, maternity, and cancer — centers that aren’t necessarily equipped to help with a pandemic.

“There are millions of people in rural areas right now that have literally zero access to healthcare,” she said. “Keep an eye on the flare-ups in regions where the population is older.” 

Those include the country’s central and northwestern portions. A stark example is Komi, which has more cases of COVID than any Russia region outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite having a fraction of the population. 

What’s worse, Russians aren’t that healthy. Compared to most other countries, a larger proportion of the population has underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous, particularly middle-aged men. The lack of healthcare in many rural parts of the country is compounded by other deficiencies, such as sanitation and plumbing.

An Expanded Spy State 

What will this mean for the Putin regime’s internal support? For years, the Kremlin has built a digital infrastructure to support surveillance and root out dissent: ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, facial recognition, even experiments with AI-driven monitoring of social media. Now such tools may be used to spot and control infection clusters — and could even win a measure of popular acquiescence. The pandemic provides a perfect auspice to continue that expansion. 

“Even if some Russian human rights or tech watch groups are alarmed by the rapid expansion of state surveillance capabilities, the regulatory and legal frameworks today tilt this debate in favor of the state as the most capable entity combating a global pandemic,” says Samuel Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an Adviser at the CNA Corporation. “Most Russians have accepted (albeit grudgingly in some cases) the new requirements and rules and have resolved themselves to a month of quarantine.”

Health experts across the globe agree that a rigorous program of contact tracing will be necessary to manage infection rates, especially after lockdowns end. Bendett pointed to reports that coronavirus patients in Moscow were given cell phones with pre-installed social media monitoring. 

“All of this means that now it may be easier for the Russian state and especially its law enforcement agencies to monitor people's behavior both on and offline. With less activity outside the home, and exponentially more online activity, Russians are now behaving in a more predictable fashion,” he said. “Russia may tout their model as key to stemming the COVID effects.” 

But Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, points out that this technology serves a dual purpose, monitoring the pandemic and monitoring dissent. “The country’s internet regulator has been ordering internet platforms to take down ‘false information’ about the virus; while it is highly likely these takedown requests include efforts to suppress true infection counts and other accurate information about coronavirus, there is little information presently available about such takedowns, and some of the limited information that is available indicates takedowns additionally focused on rumors about a curfew in Moscow,” he says. 

“While the Russian government was pushing to expand digital surveillance and control already, this crisis has certainly given officials further reason to both use and expand those authorities and capabilities."

A Suddenly Shy Putin 

Where is Putin in all of this? He has distanced himself from the problem and put the onus of responsibility on local governors and other bureaucrats, Kofman said. 

“I think Putin is letting mayors and governors take the political hit for unpopular measures, especially in cases like Moscow, in response to the outbreak,” he said. “Individual mayors or governors will become their own local lightning rods, depending on the scale of the crisis, while national leadership hopes to avoid being blamed for how the situation is being managed.”

Putin is trying to accept credit where there is success and deflect popular anger where there is failure. But anger is rising in many parts of the country. The weekend saw major protests against lockdown restrictions in the city of Vladikavkaz.

It remains unclear just how the pandemic will affect Putin’s grip on the country. 

“No one is speaking about regime change. But this will have an effect inside the ruling class. During this time, there will be people emerging who will be seen as more effective, more hands-on,” than Putin, said Konstantin Eggert, a longtime Russia watcher and political commentator for various news outlets. “Their problem will be to operate in such a way that Mr. Putin will suspect that you will get some presidential ambitions in your head.”

Kofman said Putin’s attempt to devolve responsibility could ultimately reduce centralized control. 

“Putin will try to manage this in the classical style of Russian administration, calling regional leadership, firing those where the situation is the worst as a lesson to others, and hoping that they will figure out a way to resolve the problem in their region because he presides over a patronage network of individual elites more so than a competent state.” he said.


Related podcast:

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.