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.