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A nation must think before it acts.
The Moscow lockdown announced on March 29 is an unprecedented event in Russia’s post-Soviet history, as are the similar measures introduced across the country to slow the spread of COVID-19. Yet, the way that Russia has responded to the outbreak so far has followed an unusual pattern: early, swift action was followed by several weeks of uneasy lethargy, and then, as the number of cases picked up, a new surge of activity outsourced from the Kremlin to the regions. The crisis reached the country just as the Kremlin sought to focus its political energies on the push for constitutional amendments that would allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power after 2024. And as cases picked up in the Russian capital, the Kremlin hesitated. But tensions in Russia’s political system and a belief at the top that the worst had been avoided muddled the Kremlin’s response.
Compared to Western countries, Russia’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in China was quick and large-scale since the country’s 2,615 mile-long border with China made the threat of the virus more tangible. A special coronavirus headquarters was created on January 27, and Russia closed its border with China three days later. Then, on January 31, the same day that Italy reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19, two Russian regions announced that two Chinese tourists carried the virus, making them the first confirmed cases in Russia. It wasn’t until February 20 that Chinese citizens were temporarily banned from entering Russia.
Those measures sparked problems (the border had to be partially reopened after the interruption of trade led to price hikes in Russia’s far eastern regions) and controversies, but showed a willingness to deal with the outbreak while it was still in its early stage.
Things quickly fizzled out, however, as the number of recorded cases remained under one hundred from January 31 to March 16. “We were able to contain mass penetration and spread,” Putin said on March 17, adding that “the situation is generally under control.” Seven days later, confirmed cases had spiked to nearly 500, and the Russian president announced a “non-working week” that was essentially a quarantine order.
Western media picked up on Russia’s surprisingly low numbers, with explanations ranging from successful early action and geographical factors (Russia’s size and the isolation of most of its urban areas could make it harder for the virus to travel), to number fudging or even pure luck. What the first few weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in Russia showed is that Moscow was willing and able to act decisively when it was about preventing the virus from entering the country and when it was about dealing with an external threat: the decision to close the border with China and ban Chinese citizens from entering the country reportedly ruffled some feathers in Chinese diplomatic circles, but Moscow did not budge.
When it became clear that the virus had settled in Russia, even as contagion figures remained low, domestic concerns took over and led to a hesitant response.
Since the beginning of the year, the Kremlin has focused on pushing new constitutional amendments that would increase the president’s authority and allow Putin to remain in power after 2024. The Duma passed amendments, which will “zero” the number of presidential terms served by Putin and effectively allow him to run again in 2024, give the president power to dismiss judges of the Supreme Court, and prevent anyone who has ever held foreign citizenship or residency from running for the presidency. Crucially, the Kremlin’s domestic policy team wants to have the amendments enshrined by a “national vote,” which would also serve as a plebiscite for Putin. In mid-March, as large-scale events were already being cancelled all over the world (including in Russia), the Kremlin was still hoping to hold the nationwide vote—Putin signed the decree setting the date of the vote for April 22 on March 17, one day after the Constitutional Court approved the amendments.
Putin’s response to the virus outbreak has struck a different tone. He has tried to distance himself from the handling of the crisis. He mostly avoids commenting on the virus, and a rare visit at a Moscow hospital backfired when a doctor he had shaken hands with tested positive for the virus. His addresses to Russian citizens have been muted in tone, refraining from carrying out calls for full mobilization that have become routine in other countries. This in itself is notable: in a country that has for two decades so often relied on Putin’s “manual control” when the cogs of the Russian state fail to turn properly, the omnipresent Russian president has been largely absent from one of the biggest domestic crises in the history of post-Soviet Russia. One common assumption by Kremlin-watchers is that Putin has always hated being forced into this position, with each instance of it a new expression of the system’s failure to work. Putin also may simply consider that the situation just isn’t bad enough yet to warrant his personal intervention.
According to sources interviewed by Riga-based Meduza, Putin is mostly afraid of the impact that strong measures would have on his popularity ratings. There’s some debate about this point: political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya makes the reasonable argument that has Putin not been afraid of unpopular measures in the past (raising the pension age being the most recent example). It’s not clear at all that showing strong leadership in the face of the global pandemic would affect his popularity.
It is also likely that that the Kremlin is looking to shield Putin from the crisis. It adopted a highly unusual strategy that comes after two decades of ever-increasing centralization of state power: Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin effectively passed the hot potato to regional leaders, trusting them to make sensitive decisions over whether to declare quarantine rules and how. The most important and visible Russian official in the fight against COVID-19 thus became Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. When he officially announced an imminent lockdown, Mishustin called on other regions to do the same. This is at least in part about optics—it’s unlikely that Sobyanin would have made this radical decision without the Kremlin’s approval—but optics matter.
While the decision to trust governors to handle such a sensitive crisis has little precedent, the logic behind it could be far more common: governors have, in the Putin years, regularly been used as lightning rods for popular discontent, diverting criticism away from the Kremlin and allowing Putin to be seen as the ultimate recourse rather than the source of problems. This time, however, putting them on the frontline of the pandemic means giving them increasing authority just as polls have recorded a rise in governors’ popularity. What if their response proves efficient and effective? Or, on the other hand, what if the situation quickly worsens in one or several regions outside of Moscow and the Kremlin—meaning, Putin— is forced to step in, raising the question of why it did not do that in the first place? There are already hints that the Kremlin is struggling to find the right balance: On April 6, Mishustin criticized some regional leaders’ decisions to effectively close their regional borders, claiming that they “should not confuse regional and federal prerogatives.” But with Putin himself unwilling to take charge, the question of what exactly are the federal prerogatives in this crisis remains open.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.