COVID-19 and the Limits of Putin’s Power
COVID-19 has become a pretext for autocratic rulers around the world to grab more power. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and Jordan’s Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz all expanded their authorities due to the COVID-19 crisis. They can now rule by decree, impose curfews, deploy troops to the streets, and interfere in the private sector, among other things. In many liberal democracies like Germany, France, and Denmark, leaders also took center stage and used their power to employ harsh measures in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be doing quite the opposite — He has withdrawn from policymaking and expanded the authorities of Russia’s regional officials. This unusual development signals that the Kremlin has reached the limits of its power at home. While not suggesting that Putin is weak, his approach to the pandemic indicates that the Russian president is only as strong as his current system allows.
Putin’s Pandemic Response
Russia’s reaction to COVID-19 started with closing the border with China in late January, even before Russia had its first confirmed cases. Measures included deporting Chinese and other foreign citizens, and introducing sporadic body temperature checks at airports and in the Moscow subway. In mid-March, Russia banned entry of foreign nationals, and all Russian regions cancelled school classes and restricted public gatherings. Throughout this period, Putin has remained largely absent from the frontlines of the pandemic.
Some experts suggest that Putin withdrew from managing the coronavirus crisis to make the pandemic someone else’s problem, and to avoid reputational damage if the government’s response was ineffective. This explanation points to a much bigger issue: The attempts to avoid responsibility for the crisis signal that Putin understands that the Russian system is unable to sustain a test by COVID-19. Leading the emergency response from Moscow would require state-wide coordination across Russia’s regions and institutions, which would likely fail. From this perspective, any attempt to apply or further extend Putin’s prerogatives under the pretense of the novel coronavirus — similar to the dynamics in other authoritarian regimes — would mean giving orders that will not be implemented. Doing so would expose Putin’s weakness instead of contributing to his strength.
Indeed, the reluctance of the Kremlin to take control of the situation became apparent as early as February. While Putin discussed the coronavirus threat at Russia’s Security Council meeting on February 14, it took him a month to initiate a special working group, giving Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, the authority to manage the crisis. The Russian president first addressed the nation on March 25 — a month after Russia had its first confirmed coronavirus case. Putin announced a week of “non-working days” — a new Russian euphemism for quarantine. However, the term does not necessarily imply self-isolation. This irresolute formulation allowed many Russians to interpret the “non-working days” as holidays, and many took the opportunity to gather for a barbecue and enjoy the warm weather. Doing so defeated the purpose of the government’s ambiguous policy and contributed to the spread of the virus.
Later, Moscow announced church closures across Russia during the Orthodox Easter. Nevertheless, this fell flat as many parishes outside the capital remained open. Patriarch Kirill, who ordered the closure of the churches, is not simply a cleric but also a powerful member of Putin’s elite, expected to be an effective manager of one of the pillars of the Russian statehood (and Putin’s regime) — the Orthodoxy. Therefore, the failure of the Moscow Patriarchy to close churches due to the novel coronavirus not only signifies the weakness of the clergy, but also points to the impotence of one of the critical joints of Putin’s power.
After the initial blunder, Putin decided to delegate responsibility for managing the crisis to the regional governors, granting them special authority to decide what measures would be appropriate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Kremlin’s decision to grant so much autonomy to the periphery in managing the state-wide crisis goes in stark contrast to its usual preference for centralization and consolidation of power. Such a change in the balance of responsibility resulted in the immediate resignation of three governors not willing to take on the challenge. At the same time, the head of the Chechen Republic — Ramzan Kadyrov — used this opportunity to increase his control in the republic and seal off its borders with the rest of Russia. This unprecedented move immediately sparked conflict between Kadyrov and recently appointed Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who reminded the regional leaders that closing internal boundaries goes beyond their prerogatives. Kadyrov doubled down, saying that if there is anything wrong with his approach, then federal law enforcement should have intervened — and they did not. Both the resignations of the governors as well as the disregard for the central authority by regional leaders show the limits of the Kremlin’s control over the regions.
Another explanation for Putin’s relative passivity concerning the coronavirus pandemic is that a domestic threat from the novel virus lies beyond the president’s agenda — one that primarily focuses on foreign policy. However, such a view is not consistent with Putin’s previous behavior. During his famous hours-long call-in sessions, the Russian president allocated a significant amount of time to engage with many down-to-earth domestic concerns of the population, ranging from solid waste recycling to subsidized flights to Russia’s Far East. Of course, it does not mean that Putin genuinely cares, for example, about the milk yield of cows or the quality of water pipes in the most remote Russian villages. Nevertheless, he consistently sought to portray himself as a leader in touch with the problems of the people and able to reach the most distant corners of the country to fix them. While this could be more of a public relations strategy than actual engagement with domestic problems, it is puzzling why Putin would not use the “opportunity” of a global pandemic the way Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan or Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have in order to strengthen his domestic position.
Now more than ever, Putin should be interested in improving his ratings at home, since the Russian public was not very enthusiastic about the constitutional changes allowing him to rule until 2036. Moreover, survey data from the Levada Center shows that Russians’ belief that Putin can successfully and adequately solve the country’s problems dropped from 36 percent in October 2015 to 23 percent in March 2020. Therefore, posturing as a capable leader in a nationwide struggle against the pandemic could have been an exceptional opportunity for Putin to galvanize popular support. Instead, sources in the Kremlin connect Putin’s indecisive COVID-19 response with the fear of losing the approval he already has. The fact that the Russian president chose to forego an opportunity to increase his public appeal when it is much needed, and instead delegated policymaking responsibilities to other actors suggests that his substantial power is bounded.
Putin’s decision to delegate the pandemic response to lower-level officials and not use it as a much-needed public relations opportunity suggests that he understands that his control over domestic politics is insufficient to lead a successful anti-COVID-19 effort from Moscow. This observation raises important questions about what Putin’s rule after 2024 — the end of his current presidential term — might look like. In particular, it suggests that to preserve the veneer of authority while dealing with numerous domestic challenges, the Russian president might have to increase his reliance on regional officials. In fact, most recent polls indicate that Russian people already support granting more executive power to the governors. Therefore, paradoxically, prolonging Putin’s stay in power until 2036 — as new constitutional changes allow — might require sacrificing its scope.
The recent coronavirus crisis demonstrates that the Kremlin seems to have reached its capacity of power. Indeed, attempts to grab more power would likely undermine Moscow’s authority. In other words, Putin already controls what the current system allows him to control, and to deal with anything else (e.g., the pandemic), he has no choice but to delegate. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that instead of taking the opportunity to strengthen its authoritarian grip (as many other governments have during the pandemic), the Kremlin instead has relaxed its control. While supposedly employed as a face-saving measure, this behavior suggests that Putin has reached the limits of his power at home — and he knows it.
Polina Beliakova (@Beliakova_P) is a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and 2019-2020 Minerva Peace Scholar at the U.S. Institute for Peace. Her research focuses on international security, governance, and civil-military relations in Russia, Ukraine, and Israel. She has published on insurgency and terrorism and corruption in the Russian defense sector.
Image: Russian Kremlin