Coronavirus: Not Putin’s kind of crisis

With no heroes to laud or foes to lambast, Putin is not having a good crisis. But don’t write him off just yet.

It has become fashionable to say that the coronavirus does not discriminate between democracies and autocracies. And it is true that each have provided both good and bad examples of how to handle the pandemic. However, the coronavirus does seem to discriminate between different types of leadership. It favours calm, patient types with a scientific mindset and an eye for detail. It leaves exposed those that habitually rely on eloquence or spin. But worst of all are those – let’s call them ‘romantic’ types – who have modelled themselves after political heroes or the concept of glory of bygone times. Even if they do eloquence as well as detail, such leaders still look out of sorts right now. There are several representatives of this breed to be found in Europe, but Vladimir Putin is by far the most prominent. 

Last week saw Putin’s popularity drop to a historic low, which for him is 59 percent. This is not – at least yet – because of how he has handled the pandemic. Russia’s infection rate stands at a worrying 242,271. But the death toll, at 2,212, remains modest. More importantly, the Russian government’s faltering handling of the coronavirus thus far was in a way already ‘priced in’: no recent civilian crisis, whether floods, forest fires, or other disasters, has been handled well by the Russian authorities. The population likely did not expect anything impressive when it came to covid-19. 

Nor is Putin’s popularity suffering because of the combination of the low oil price and economic fallout from the coronavirus – again, at least not yet. With reserves equalling 10-12 percent of GDP (in pre-pandemic, pre-oil price fall terms), Russia is in fact better prepared to counter the economic shock than many other countries – though the administrative task of getting the money to the needy, as opposed to the well connected, will be as tricky as ever. No, Putin’s popularity is dropping because the coronavirus is not his kind of a crisis. It does not cause him to thrive, but leaves him looking out of place: on the sidelines, uninspired and uninspiring. To his people, all this is plainly obvious.

A product of Soviet patriotic upbringing

Deep down, Putin is a fairly pure and style-true exemplar of Soviet hagiography. And he makes no effort to conceal this: “With no exaggeration, I could be regarded as a successful product of patriotic upbringing of a Soviet citizen,” he said in one of his early interviews, describing how the Soviet spy book “Shield and Sword” stoked his imagination and shaped his life choices.

The Soviet canon of glory is all about effort, mobilisation, and heroism, collective as well as individual. This theme penetrated the young Putin’s mind so deeply that it became a permanent feature of his worldview, an evident silver thread from his earliest interviews to his latest speeches. Consider just a few (fairly random) examples: “The Red Army … triumphantly ended the most violent battle in history. It was a just, heroic and selfless battle for the entire Soviet nation”; “The morale of our Armed Forces is held up by traditions, by a living connection to history, by the examples of bravery and selflessness of our heroes”; “Sports is only then sports when it is connected to sweat, blood and hard work”; “How one person can achieve what whole armies cannot. One spy determined the fates of thousands of people …”. Well, you get it

This mindset has helped Putin thrive in crises that involve a well-defined (even if sometimes wrongly defined) enemy. Crushing separatism in Chechnya, cleansing Russia of oligarchic influence, annexing Crimea, delivering Syria to Assad via war – these were Putin’s kind of crisis, where he was in his element.

Putin compared covid-19 with the Pecheneg and Cuman tribes that attacked Russia early in the second millennium – but the result was resounding laughter all over the Russian internet

The wrong kind of crisis

The coronavirus, though, is different. It does not lend itself to Soviet-Putinist concepts of glory and heroism. Firstly, there is no proper enemy. The virus lacks a subject that could possess ill will and enact evil designs. Last month Putin tried to get around this problem by comparing covid-19 with the Pecheneg and Cuman tribes that attacked Russia early in the second millennium – but the result was resounding laughter all over the Russian internet.

Secondly, there is no mobilisation to speak of – the opposite, in fact. Unlike your regular battles and wars, fighting the coronavirus is about extreme demobilisation – life coming to a standstill; a form of paralysis. And, for Putin, paralysis is reminiscent of the days of Soviet collapse, not least the occasion seared in his brain when a crowd of East Germans gathered around the Soviet mission in Dresden where he was stationed. Soviet troops on the ground made no move to disperse the protestors because no orders came from Moscow. “That deadly, incurable disease under the name of paralysis,” said Putin later. “Paralysis of power.” 

Thirdly, in a battle with the coronavirus, there is no obvious hero. Or, where there could be heroes, they do not fit properly into the usual portrait of a Soviet myth. True – there are medics, scientists, engineers; and Russian ones are definitely no worse than those elsewhere. But in true Soviet hagiography, such people always had supporting roles. Scientists and engineers designed and made weapons for heroes; medics healed their wounds. They were heroes by extension only, serving ‘real fighters’, whose absence leaves an awkward hole for anyone wishing to paint this portrait in Soviet colours.

And what now?

None of the above, however, means the end of Putin’s regime is imminent, or that Putin’s handling of this crisis is much different, or even worse, from what we have seen on some earlier occasions. Commentators have identified Putin’s absence from the scene and his delegation of covid-19 handling to regional governors as signs of helplessness. This is not necessarily so. Putin has been absent before, starting with the sinking of the Kursk in 2000. It does not mean that he is afraid of a complicated situation. Rather, it may mean that he does not see a suitable role for himself – given how he always tends to stay away from administrative nitty-gritty, even if it is turbocharged by emergency.

One may also point to the vagueness of his economic plan to suggest this is the beginning of the end for Putin. But, again, his apparent lack of ideas on this front is nothing new. For instance, in December 2014, when the rouble was in freefall, Putin gave a press conference, where he spoke in amazing detail about the situation around the frontlines in Donbas. When asked about the economy, however, his message turned hazy, and he effectively promised things would sort themselves out. And, in a way, he was right: while the Russian economy did not miraculously diversify and address its structural flaws, it nevertheless managed to adapt, stabilise, and continue functioning. Today, the economy is suffering from the coronavirus and the oil price drop, but Russia’s reserves are huge. Putin may rationally expect them to last until the situation changes, and then congratulate himself on accumulating them in the first place.  

The combined coronavirus-oil shock is of course a huge challenge for Russia. But if we break the crisis and its handling down into its constituent elements – a civilian crisis, a mediocre government response, low oil prices, vagueness on the economy, and Putin taking a back seat on all of them – then we have seen it all before, and Putin has survived it all before. On previous occasions, similar things have resulted in a temporary blip in his popularity, but overall, he has smoothly got away with any mismanagement. He might again – although, undoubtedly, for a leader who is visibly out of place and failing to capture his people’s imagination, this will be a lot harder.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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