Russia: Pechenegs, Polovetzians and the coronavirus


President Vladimir Putin is facing the greatest challenge of his political career: the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in Russia is expected to peak in the next few weeks. Johannes Voswinkel, Head of our Moscow office, reports on timid action, an unexpected crisis manager and the fears of breaking into the reserves.

President Putin visiting a hospital in Moscow
Teaser Image Caption
President Putin visiting a hospital in Moscow

The videos showing long queues of ambulances waiting outside Moscow hospitals have given an extra air of menace to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Russia in recent days. Some patients have had to wait in ambulances for six hours or more before they could be admitted. Well over 12,000 patients have so far been treated in Moscow’s hospitals. Government officials fear the healthcare system is on the brink of collapse and have even expressed concerns at an “Italian scenario”: it is believed that the epidemic has not yet peaked in Russia and will do so in the next fortnight in Moscow and at least three weeks in the rest of the country.

Unrealistic patient numbers

For a long time, it looked like the virus had largely spared Russia. As late on 8 March, the health authorities reported just 17 cases. Admittedly, critics felt that these numbers were unrealistic and suggested that they had been embellished. The hope that Russia would turn out to be an island of stability soon died a death. Russia now has 32,008 cases (figures correct on 17 April) with a clear upward trend. In the last 24 hours alone, 4070 patients have been added to this number – a negative record – with 273 deaths and 2590 confirmed as recovered. This puts Russia into the group of the 15 most affected countries. All of Russia’s federal subjects are now affected, but the hotspot is Moscow, which has reported more than half of all infection cases. It remains to be seen whether the healthcare system is up to the challenge. A country-wide reform of the system between the years 2000 and 2015 led to the closure of more than 5000 hospitals in the name of “optimisation his character ”.

A surprisingly non-authoritarian response 

The 20th anniversary of Putin’s rise to become the most powerful man in Russia coincides with what could well be the greatest challenge of his political career. Initially, the Russian government reacted timidly to the threat posed by the pandemic. Anybody affecting the Kremlin to use the warning crisis to further expand its own political and societal power base through authoritarian measures was in for a surprise. It is likely that the main consideration was to ensure that the referendum scheduled for 22 April, which would potentially allow Putin to hang onto power until 2036, and the major celebrations on 9 May to mark the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, could still go ahead. Putin has since had to put both of those on ice.

Responsibility lies with the regions 

Putin has avoided using vocabulary such as quarantine or even state of emergency – possibly to place a cap on the already extensive influence of the security forces. For a long time, there was no talk of a comprehensive action plan and there were no dramatic appeals. Instead, Putin announced a week-long work closure and pushed the responsibility onto the regions. Moscow’s main aim was to avoid an excessive impact on the economic perspectives, to protect the budget and leave the unpleasant measures up to the regions. The President sees his role as much more one of global gestures among world leaders. The hermetic full-body suit that he wore to visit a special hospital for coronavirus patients cramped his style too much.

The Mayor of Moscow as senior crisis manager 

This gave one governor the opportunity to position himself as the senior crisis manager: the Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, who is often described by political scientists as one of the more liberal technocrats in Putin’s inner circles, brought in a quarantine regime for people travelling into the country from abroad and self-isolation for citizens, which many regions have since adopted. He ordered free hotel stays and taxi rides for doctors and medical staff. When the police controls under the new permit system for anyone driving through Moscow last Wednesday led to precisely the swarms of people outside Metro entrances that the measure aimed to prevent, the mayor ordered an end to the strict checks and promised an improved, automated control system. The coronavirus crisis has given Sobyanin political capital. Whether he will be able to make use of it at a later date remains to be seen. If Moscow descends into a coronavirus disaster, however, he is predestined for the role of scapegoat. 

A meagre rescue package for the economy 

When the image of the President came across as too pale after two television interviews full of warm words, his team of political technologists prescribed a live appearance in a video conference with the governors. Putin was able to dictate orders for them to write down in their notepads like a class of schoolchildren – that looked like leadership. Finally, he promised help for the people: generous bonus payments for hospital staff, relief such as deferred payments of social security contributions for small businesses, federal support for the regions. This was added to later with direct assistance to salary payments for at least 3 million workers and financial support for airlines. Despite all this, the Russian government’s planned rescue package for the economy, worth around 2.5% of gross domestic product, looks rather on the small side when compared internationally. Yet Russia has considerable financial reserves: there are $125 billion in the prosperity fund alone, plus $540 billion in state reserves. But these well-filled coffers are seen by many in the national government as the last resort in the fight against declining approval ratings and unrest in the country. This means that they would rather leave them untouched if at all possible.

Pechenegs and Polovetzians 

In the conclusion of his third address ‘n the coronavirus crisis, the President likened the virus to the mediaeval attacks of the nomadic Pecheneg and Polovetzian peoples and the Russian principalities. In so doing, he brought to life the age-old picture of Mother Russia, constantly under threat from external enemies. But societal consolidation in emergency situations no longer works as well as it once did. Compared to the heads of governments of other countries, Putin has been unable, according to current opinion polls, to make use of the momentum brought about by the crisis to increase his popularity. At the same time, society is marked by political apathy and a vague appetite for reform, with which the leadership elite of an ossified system is failing to comply. Not even the opposition offers any reasonable hopes for these desires for change: it is splintered and has lost all faith in itself.

Collapses in revenue, unpaid leave and rising unemployment 

The President needs to be particularly wary of the economic consequences that could find an outlet in social unrest. Estimates of the possible knock-on effects for Russia’s gross domestic product as a result of the coronavirus cover a wide range, between 1% and 7%. In the first week declared “work-free” by Putin at the end of March alone (for which businesses had to pick up the tab), the population’s expenditure on goods and services fell by more than 21%. Many business owners are taking their own measures to defend themselves: according to a study, some 30% of all businesses have forced their staff to take unpaid leave. More than 20% are reported to have given pay cuts and around 15% have let staff go.

The crisis throws the structural economic problems into sharp relief 

Members of the Economic Expert Group, which has long advised the Ministry of the Economy, have expressed concerns at a possible wave of insolvencies, high unemployment and rampant poverty if the government fails to fund a comprehensive support programme. For the crisis has thrown Russia’s structural problems into sharp relief: with its dependence on the oil price and in view of long-term changes in the global energy markets, the model of the resource-based economy has proven itself to be unsustainable.

The article was first published on in German. Translation by Alison Frankland.