20 years under Putin: a timeline

Since July 1, Russia has been hitting COVID-19 mortality rate records on a daily basis, while the number of new cases has also been growing. However, during his annual Direct Line conference, Vladimir Putin yet again emphasized that vaccinations in Russia will not be mandatory and decisions on restrictive measures will remain at the discretion of regional leaders. The Kremlin is clearly sticking to its old tactic of “taking the situation under control”—a bureaucratic euphemism that stands for freezing the problem instead solving it.

 

In June 2021 head doctor of Moscow's Kommunarka medical center for coronavirus patients reported that he admitted 136 COVID-19 patients who had been inoculated with Russian vaccines. Photo: Pavel Golovkin | AP Images.

 

Two months ago I addressed the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic in Russia, highlighting the quirks of the country’s statistics and suggesting that the scope of the problem remains underestimated. Today, the situation has deteriorated in a more drastic way than I could imagine earlier. By the middle of the year, Russia has reported new mortality records, the regions keep introducing new COVID-19 safety measures, and the government still cannot formulate a unified policy against the spreading infection. 

The situation has become very difficult and complicated. On one hand, the Kremlin has reasons to claim that Russia fell victim to a new viral attack from the outside and that the sudden increase of daily cases and hospitalizations can be traced back to the new variants of COVID-19, which are much more dangerous to humans than the original strain that originated from Wuhan. A number of other countries were similarly afflicted: in June, the daily number of new cases in the UK grew almost fivefold, while most European and North American countries reported significant declines in the number of new cases.

On the other hand, the Russian government bears a much higher responsibility for the current state affairs in the country for at least two reasons. First, it failed to implement or even launch mass vaccinations, virtually letting things take their own course. As of July 1, only 11.5 percent of the population was fully vaccinated, and at the end of June the government finally admitted that achieving the initially planned 60 percent vaccination level by fall 2021 will be impossible. Second, the government never made any significant effort to stop the spread of the virus. Many commentators flagged the risks of mass public gatherings at the end of June, such as high school graduations, which brought together nearly 40,000 students in Saint Petersburg, or meetings held both by the pro-Kremlin United Russia and the parties of “loyal opposition,” which took place as the number of new cases kept growing. The current dynamic leaves no room to doubt that the third wave will be more massive than the second—many doctors and demographers have already rushed to assess this summer’s “excess mortality” at 300,000 people.

A new wave of COVID-19 seemingly took the Russian government by surprise in two ways. First, it must be noted that Putin had already claimed a victory against the virus on several occasions. Exactly a year ago, Vladimir Putin said with optimism: “No doubt, we managed to overall complete the task which we have undertaken—protect the Russian citizens against this infection.” Then, with similar bravado, officials reported the end of the second wave in April of this year, and the Ministry of Economic Development even released its outlook for 2021 and 2022 not accounting for the coronavirus as one of the factors impacting the economy. The launch of the vaccines—Sputnik V, which was the first registered vaccine in the world, and then a few others—was viewed as a guarantee of the pandemic’s end. People across the world waited for the vaccine like a breath of fresh air, and it was hard to imagine the extent of the anti-vaccine sentiment in Russia. Second, the biggest “scare” was that Russia would not be able to produce the necessary amount of vaccine on time. Assured that the situation is under control, Putin scheduled the State Duma elections for September 19, and they are currently the biggest obstacle in the effective fight against the pandemic—both in terms of propaganda (no one wants to highlight the graveness of the current situation in the sensitive period before the elections) and in a purely technical sense (mass events need to be held to make sure people come to the polls). Therefore, timing issues as well unfulfilled promises loom large.

Other issues that factor into Russia’s grim pandemic picture are no less important. It is clear that the Russian government fell victim to its own economic and ideological policy. Since the start of the pandemic, the Kremlin decided not to support citizens or most businesses through direct subsidies. Even in the winter, at the peak of the second wave of the pandemic, no lockdowns were introduced. They will not be introduced now either to avoid undermining the already unstable economic growth, but this only means that the pandemic won’t be stopped quickly. The government attempts to ban unvaccinated individuals from cafés and restaurants, but the infection risks there are significantly lower than on public transport or in the subway during rush hour. The emergence of new virus variants in Australia, New Zealand, and Bangladesh instantly returned major cities to full lockdown, although the number of new cases per one million residents in Australia is more than 30 times smaller than in Russia. Such measures are not acceptable for the Kremlin: the government prefers the loss of citizens’ lives to the loss of financial reserves, and this choice appears unshakeable.

There is yet another significant issue at play: During his long rule, Putin developed a tactic of adapting to the Russian public’s psychology and way of thinking rather than leading them to new achievements. It’s the secret of his stable support. The Russian public is used to saving itself without the government’s involvement. While this laissez-faire approach is generally beneficial for the Kremlin, since its own failing economic policy doesn’t cause uproars or mass uprisings, when it comes to the coronavirus, this very trait of the public becomes a curse, assuring a stable resistance to the vaccination campaign and neglect of basic sanitary norms. The government is afraid to pressure people first and foremost because it doesn’t want to see even a semblance of mass discontent on the eve of the parliamentary elections. Therefore, letting things take their own course remains the Kremlin’s main strategy, but the risk of unforeseen consequences is quite high and continues to grow.

Over the last two decades, the Russian government came to the conclusion that it flourishes best in an environment that allows it to freeze the situation for an indefinite period of time, rather than provide solutions to difficult challenges.

What policy options are available to the Kremlin under these circumstances? If the government’s goal was to quickly suppress the pandemic surge, the most feasible strategy would be to introduce decisive restrictive measures while “loosening” the vaccination campaign—for example, purchasing foreign vaccines and giving Russians the choice of getting any vaccine, whichever they trust most. No expenses associated with such purchases or profit losses of the Russian pharmaceutical companies are comparable to the losses from the potential lockdown and deaths of tens of thousands of people. With that in mind, postponing the Duma elections by, say, a year would be a completely logical decision: people would see it with more empathy as opposed to pre-election pro-Putin rallies in the midst of the third wave of the pandemic. Providing a selection of available vaccines would eliminate much of the criticism regarding mandatory vaccination, while postponing the election would avoid many populist solutions. I’d like to believe that by the fall of 2022, the pandemic will settle down, the economy will recover, and that will give the Kremlin more advantages than the current ambiguity. 

But Putin’s June 30 Direct Line showed that the government is not ready to pursue these options: the general policy line continues to reject mandatory vaccinations for the entire population; no state of emergency, which could imply centralized government efforts to support people or businesses, will be declared; the burden of introducing unpopular measures is placed on regional leaders, who, with the exception of Moscow’s mayor, are not thrilled at being made scapegoats as they attempt to limit citizens’ irrational behavior. For instance, Krasnodar Krai’s authorities, having banned access to its resorts for unvaccinated people starting August 1, reversed this decision three days later—just two hours after Putin’s Q&A. 

Under these conditions, falsifications will inevitably become popular again, but they will be even more widespread than before. The government will once again downplay coronavirus infection rates by writing off new cases as “outpatient pneumonia”; the lack of hospital beds will be denied; wrong diagnoses will be assigned to the dying. I can argue that in the official data, the current wave of the pandemic will be no bigger than its predecessor—but the government will keep reporting a large number of lethal cases as a tool to push people to get vaccinated. Still, there will be no new case records, which would otherwise indicate that the government’s measures are not effective.

Falsified statistics will likely be accompanied by falsified medical work reports. Soon we are likely to see a speedy surge of vaccinations despite reports on the lack of vaccine and its growing export abroad. Rumors that the popular Sputnik V vaccine is being substituted with other medications, which people are less likely to trust, have already emerged.

In my opinion, the main reason for what is happening in Russia right now is that over the last two decades, the government came to the conclusion that it flourishes best in an environment that allows it to freeze the situation for an indefinite period of time, rather than provide solutions to difficult challenges. “Taking the situation under control” remains the ideal bureaucratic euphemism, which does not mean that the problem is solved. The Kremlin benefits from maintaining “manageable instability” in the post-Soviet republics: rather than allowing people to become more affluent by developing their own businesses, it prefers spoon-feeding them through various subsidies; infrastructure projects go on for years and decades, and the longer they take, the more they are savored by the government (unfulfilled plans for new gas lines serve as a bright example). 

When it came to the coronavirus, the Russian government realized that fighting it would demand too-decisive action, that maintaining the threat of the virus is useful for a number of political objectives, and that the pandemic is yet another opportunity to emphasize Russia’s “uniqueness.” Unlike leaders in other countries, the Russian government doesn’t perceive the pandemic as an absolute evil. It doesn’t threaten the Kremlin’s manufactured “stability”; therefore, the fact that the Kremlin didn’t merely allow the third COVID-19 wave to emerge in Russia, but also isn’t bothering to try and fight it, should surprise no one.

 

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.

Russia under Putin

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