The coronavirus crisis was not the kind of challenge the Russian government was expecting. While Russia was preparing for threats, real or imagined, from geopolitical rivals and internal opponents, the pandemic struck and has now paralyzed the system of personalized power. Russia, like the rest of the world, failed the coronavirus test. But the particular qualities of Russia’s failure have their own logic that will complicate Russia’s exit from the crisis.
Escaping from Responsibility
The Russian case presents a rare phenomenon: a state accustomed to surviving by means of mobilization and militarism has suddenly demonstrated that it can’t function in an emergency situation. Whereas the leaders of illiberal states and liberal democracies alike have turned to the rhetoric of war and mass lockdowns to combat the outbreak, President Vladimir Putin has chosen a seemingly mild approach. While the Russian opposition demands that the leadership declare a state of emergency, the Kremlin has been trying to avoid severe measures. Instead of lockdowns, the Russian authorities have been declaring “non-working” or “high alert” weeks, as if they fear to admit the seriousness of the outbreak. An authoritarian system reluctant to use authoritarian instruments? This is highly unusual.
Putin also demurred from addressing the nation for several weeks, refusing to play the Leader-Savior role that fits the normal pattern of personalized rule in Russia. Hiding in his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, only now has he begun to videoconference with authorities in Moscow and in the regions who have been left to cope with the pandemic on their own. The video appearances from his bunker paint a surreal portrait, as if the leader were talking from a different planet, his subordinates afraid to return him to reality. When Putin finally addressed Russians on April 29, he presented them with a startling statement: “Most important are people, their lives”—a principle he has never lived by.
Putin has delayed opening up the formidable resources at his disposal to aid the Russian people, including a $120 billion sovereign wealth fund and $540 billion in gold reserves. While other states have offered their populations emergency aid packages amounting to as much as 10-12 percent of GDP, the Kremlin has been prepared to spend only 2.8 percent of GDP. Most of that aid is going to state-owned industries, including companies affiliated with interest groups that have close ties to the Kremlin. Small and medium-sized business, and the millions of private-sector workers who have lost their jobs (about a third of the workforce, 40 million people), have been promised only 3 percent of the state’s total financial assistance package. This could mean the annihilation of the most active entrepreneurial class and deprivation for millions of people. The “social state” has rejected its social function.
The Kremlin has elected to stay above the fray, putting all responsibility for combatting coronavirus on the government and the regions. Putin has even made Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobianin responsible for battle against COVID-19 in the capital.
The nature of the leadership and Putin’s psychology partially explain this bizarre escapism. Putin has a standard response to unpleasant problems: He vanishes from the political scene in an effort to avoid associating himself with events that dent his popularity and approval rating. This time he has additional reasons to refrain from taking a more active role. He still plans to hold a vote on the constitutional amendments that would guarantee him rule for life, and a state of emergency could delay the vote indefinitely.
There are two more reasons that explain why the Kremlin has refused to declare a state of emergency. First, why bother with formalities; the country has already lived in a de facto state of emergency for years. Second, a fuzzy situation like the present one, without well-defined rules, allows him to experiment with all kinds of instruments of coercion.
The incoherence of the Kremlin’s response is not only the result of a fading leadership. There are systemic factors too. The vertical power hierarchy encourages passivity among subordinates, who must wait for orders from the top; subordinates also try to polish reality in order not to dampen the mood of the leader, who wants to see an optimistic picture. The same dynamic prevented China from reacting to the pandemic in time. But Xi Jinping was eventually able to wake up and fight. Putin instead has been dragging his feet, and when he is forced to show decisiveness he has done it awkwardly and unconvincingly. Thus a leader who needs to project an aura of charisma, political will, and self-confidence in his television appearances has instead looked tired and stony-faced.
Moreover, instead of proving how the President effectively handles the crisis, Putin’s television appearances have demonstrated how pathetic the “power vertical” is when it comes to problems like scarce masks, personnel, and hospital beds in the regions.
Contrary to expectations, the Kremlin is not prepared to use the pandemic to move Russia in the direction of a totalitarian regime. There are several circumstances that keep it that way: the lack of any ideas that might justify tougher coercion; a bureaucratization of governance that promotes sloppiness; the elites’ fear of the state’s repressive organs; the state’s ability to control the situation through selective coercion; the lack of a strong opposition; and, finally, the Kremlin’s desire to return to the club of developed nations.
So while COVID-19 has given the executive a pretext to implement repressive rule, the system is beset by a host of problems that prevent it from doing so: corruption; a lack of communication channels, leading to inadequate information; and the inability of lower administrative levels to make timely decisions. Russia’s landscape today is marked by the failure of personalized power to govern in a crisis situation. This in and of itself is a disastrous sign of things to come.
In mid-April, Moscow and other regions in Russia tried to take sterner measures against the coronavirus but couldn’t figure out how to make it work. For instance, police checking the electronic passes in Moscow created huge traffic jams; and crowds at metro entrances only helped the virus to spread. Authorities then canceled hundreds of thousands of electronic passes, creating chaos in Moscow. The regions started to close their borders, which undermined the state’s cohesion. The federal and regional authorities have been issuing contradictory orders. The state machine appears totally disoriented. (Of course, the real question is: Is it any better in the West?)
Does this disorder infer a crisis of the Russian system? It would be premature to say that it does. Such a crisis would mean the unraveling of governance. But the Russian system continues to limp along and still has financial and repressive instruments at its disposal. Even if it were tired of Putin, the ruling class is afraid of the unknowns of transition. It still appreciates a leader who does his best to accommodate the interests of key influence groups.
Moreover, Putin has the support of the conformist segment of population that associates leadership with the state’s sustainability. Finally, a strong political alternative has failed to emerge.
After Coronavirus: Two Scenarios
It is still unclear what comes next for Russia amidst the pandemic. There are two scenarios in play that depend on how the COVID-19 crisis evolves and how authorities respond.
The New Norm scenario would obtain if the virus is contained before the end of the year. But even in this case, Russia will not avoid economic damage. Experts predict that, if the state does not increase support for the economy, Russia’s GDP will decline up to 10 percent in 2020. The economic landscape will be desolate, with unemployment up to 11 percent, numerous small and medium-sized business shuttered (about 30 percent of companies are on the verge of bankruptcy), a general lack of investment, and depleted regional budgets. Plunging oil prices could also undermine Russia’s role as a global energy superpower and upend its budget.
The state’s financial resources could still help the Kremlin prevent the worst outcomes: mass hunger, the closure of key enterprises, and an inability to pay salaries in the state sector and benefits to pensioners. But nobody is certain how long this life on a starvation diet can be sustained.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s indifference toward the population could have political implications. At the end of April, 54 percent of respondents to a poll complained about falling incomes, and 24 percent said they have no incomes at all. In another poll, about 47 percent of respondents were unsatisfied with government measures. The gloomy unpredictability and threat of starvation have begun to boil the water in the social kettle. While the pandemic itself complicates the staging of mass protests, there was a street protest in Vladikavkaz in the Northern Caucasus against job losses on April 2. It might be a sign that the population is not ready to suffer in silence and patience. Online protests against the lockdown have already begun in social media.
The only solution is to give people money to help them survive. In the event of the virus’s spread, locked-down regional governments bereft of resources have no chance to control the situation. The Kremlin is facing the same dilemma as other countries: to continue “self-isolation” until the pandemic is controlled or to start reopening the economy. Both options bring problems. The state isn’t ready to give people money, which will escalate protests. But re-opening the economy could bring a new tide of infections. Putin has ordered preparations for lifting the restrictions after May 12. Meanwhile, the country is collectively holding its breath as infections continue to rise.
One could have the impression that the authorities still haven’t grasped the gravity of the disaster. The poll numbers could look non-threatening to the Kremlin. The authorities’ ratings have started to decline, but not dramatically. Putin’s approval rating of 63 percent might reassure him. But only 28.3 percent of Russians surveyed by VTsIOM in March picked Putin when asked to name a politician whom they trust, the lowest percentage since the pollster began asking the question in January 2006. The fact that 38 percent of respondents say that Putin represents the interests of oligarchs, 37 percent say that he represents the interests of the power structures, and 28 percent say that he represents the bureaucrats is a warning that the mass support for his leadership isn’t guaranteed.
In the second, more dramatic Fight for Survival scenario, Russia fails both to stop the pandemic in 2020 and to find a balance between combatting the virus and saving the economy. The state’s finances are exhausted and Russia faces violent economic downfall, mass hunger, and thousands of deaths. (If Urals oil stays below $15 per barrel, the Russian national sovereign fund will be depleted by the end of 2021. In April, the price fell to $11.59 per barrel.)
In addition to street turmoil, there would probably be a split among the political elite. One can’t exclude the rise of dissent not only within the loyalists in Moscow but also among regional elites frustrated at being left to their own devices during the pandemic.
At the moment this scenario seems unlikely. The Russian political class has been servile for decades. However, fear of the virus and the state’s failure to cope with it might change its behavior. The mixture of an insecure political elite, especially in the vulnerable regions, and the rage of ordinary people could become powerfully explosive.
This may create an opening for the emergence of a new political center. Several drivers could play a role in the building of a new balance of forces: an understanding among elites that violence will not solve the crisis; their fear of domination of the power structures; the outrage of various elites concerning the influence of the oligarchic circle surrounding the President; a population that longs for coherent rules; and popular rejection of confrontation with the West (which would make it difficult to return to an anti-Western mobilization). And let’s add to this list the issues of injustice and corruption that have become key triggers of popular anger.
One should not have any illusions about the nature of this putative future power center. Most probably it will be authoritarian. A rising tsunami of desperation, hatred, mutual suspicion, and animosity is not the best precursor for building consensual politics and political compromises, to say the least. Indeed the bitter irony is that a regime change could bolster the system of personalized power, since an alternative with powerful forces that support it is nowhere to be seen. So we might see a typically Russian paradox: the reproduction of the system by means of regime change.
To be sure, we are not there yet, but it’s worthwhile to think about how this still-fluid situation might develop.
Here are a few questions to ponder.
The pandemic crisis will test the Russian system’s ability to return to reproduce itself in the new modality. Global confusion, the crisis of the West, and the lack of consensus in Russia on a new order may push the Russian system to continue much as it has. But we already see the system’s limits and its inevitable dysfunctions.
The Russian Question remains on the agenda: Can Russia shift from a state that suppresses the individual to one based on the rule of law? Or is Russia incurable?
About 70 to 80 percent of Russians want change. But there is no consensus in society regarding such a profound transformation—no way to settle the conflict between the longing for change and the fear of the chaos of a state collapse.
The COVID-19 crisis could trigger Russians to start thinking seriously about how to resolve this dilemma. The pandemic will force Russians to deliberate on questions like the value of life now versus that of the next generation, justice and equality, sacrifice and empathy. Such an existential narrative is always a helpful frame for a nation that has to assess its destiny.
One has to think about other challenges regarding Russia’s future as well. First, is it possible that a state based on expansionism and hegemony could be transformed before the turmoil, or is a change of order only possible after the system’s disintegration?
Second, is it possible to transform Russia within its current borders? How would one go about transforming all of Russia, including, say, Chechnya, which long ago became a civilizational project unto itself? If it can’t be done, how could Russia peacefully rid itself of its imperial ballast?
Third, if the Russian system is doomed, what does that mean for Russia as a nation? In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler offered the following description of Russian civilization: “The primitive tsarism of Moscow is the only form that is even today appropriate to the Russian world.” According to Russian tradition, the Leader embodies the homeland, which is the foundation of Russian tsarism. But will it survive once the pandemic crisis is over and the people understand that tsarism can’t cope with the changes Russia is facing? Will the society be ready to sacrifice for the sake of a new order?
Fourth, what about the role of the West? The Western democracies are understandably alarmed by the prospect of upheaval in nuclear-armed Russia. They are trying to avoid taking steps that might destabilize the regime, and there are powerful forces in the West that cater to its interests. Does this mean that the West will help the Russian system to reproduce itself?
The coronavirus drama is strengthening subterranean currents in Russia. We don’t know whether those currents will bring a flood, or what kind of flood. All we can do is offer our best guesses and wait for the Russian system to confound them.
We can only be sure that a new Russian landscape is emerging that demands patient observation. The Russian system could still propose imitation solutions that would allow it to drift further in an unknown direction. At the same time, it is pregnant with conflicts that could blow it apart. The lull is deceptive. Russians will have to start thinking about existential questions before the new apocalypse comes.
One thing seems clear: Post-communist states have much more limited opportunities for transformation than communist states. Systems with a strong oligarchic class and the fusion of property and power are harder to transform, as the case of Ukraine has demonstrated. Achieving a successful transformation requires Western involvement, which is hardly possible today. Moreover, history provides no guide for transforming a nuclear empire with a geopolitical agenda that has made its survival an international problem.
The pandemic crisis is uncovering new trends to bolster the arguments of both pessimists and optimists. All we can be certain of is that we need to dump our old clichés and be prepared for the challenge of new puzzles.