COVID-19 and Russia: What to expect from the regime of tomorrow
Type into your search engine ‘Russian coronavirus opinion’ from anywhere in the UK and you will likely see a stream of articles critiquing the Russian government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Pieces from POLITICO, The Guardian and The Moscow Times paint a stark picture of the Russian reality. At the heart of these articles lie criticisms of President Vladimir Putin himself, and particularly the raging debate around the official numbers of coronavirus deaths. According to these articles, as pressure continues to mount so the Russian leader’s popularity shrinks. But that does not mean change for the better is on the horizon. With Putin determined to hold onto power by any means necessary, the Russia of today is transforming and governments around the world have begun to wonder what to expect from the Russia of tomorrow.
We could spend hours discussing the debates around discrepancies in coronavirus numbers, perhaps comparing the number of Russian deaths to those of Brazil. Maybe we should try to analyse the truth in Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s comments that the real number of coronavirus cases in the capital may be as high as 2 to 2.5% of the city’s population (a staggering 300,000 people). Or what about delving into poignant articles, such as a piece by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, that reveal the criticisms of the Russian leadership by its medical community? The truth is, the details of what is being argued about in Russian and Western medias does not matter. It is not the numerical discrepancies or even the emotional front-line reports we need to focus on. It is the very existence of these criticisms, for their presence will do a lot more to impact the future Russian regime than any virus might.
So the multi-million dollar question is: will all the negative media at home and abroad have a lasting legacy for Russia and its politics?
Image of Vladimir Putin, 8 July 2017,
For some at least, the short answer is a cautious “yes”. The coronavirus pandemic has opened the door for outspoken disapproval of Putin and his regime. There is a growing sense of unease among ordinary Russians and increasing doubts surrounding the man that has served the Russian people for 20 years. A survey conducted by the independent Levada Center revealed a drop in Putin’s approval rating from 69% in February 2020 to 59% in April of the same year. Similar condemnations of Putin can be found on the political stage. Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician, openly criticised the growing disinformation present in Russia. At a round table organised by the Atlantic Council Research Center he stated that ‘“[t]he authorities use all means to suppress the dissemination of real information…”.’ Does all of this mean that Russia is entering a new era of political openness?
Unfortunately not. Such frankness is unlikely to be a lasting trend in Russian politics. Already in an effort to combat these, Putin has increased restrictions on the press and used the pandemic as a mechanism to limit protests. As Arkady Ostrovsky of The Economist surmised, ‘in his bid to shore up his power, there’s a risk Putin will become more repressive and this will have consequences that will stretch far beyond the pandemic.’ Vladimir Putin is set to introduce a bill in July that would give him the authority to remain in power until the end of his life. He will not risk losing this opportunity and is not afraid of securing his lasting influence by any means necessary. Ostrovsky’s predictions may be realised in the not-too-distant future.
Those in charge are also exploiting COVID-19 and the media focus surrounding it as a political opportunity. If manipulated correctly, the pandemic will strengthen the regime rather than undermine it. With the threat of unemployment in Russia rising to 8 million people and migrant workers continuing to be imported from abroad, politicians have developed a plan to use virus as an opportunity to expel excess foreign labour. These suggestions are voiced, according a EurAsia Daily opinion article, not only on political talk shows, but also on federal television channels and find a multitude of support on social networks. Politicians are enthusiastic that, by freeing up jobs and relieving the social tension often found in migrant hotspots, the authorities will improve their ratings and the job opportunities of Russians at home. The othering of these migrants could be a key political move for President Putin. One only has to look at the othering of the Mexican people by Donald Trump to know that this is a successful political tactic, and may turn any discontent among the unemployed masses back into stringent regime supporters.
The most dangerous legacy of the negative press that we should expect moving forward is the strengthening of the relationship between China and Russia. China and Russia forged a special relationship following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the fallout from the pandemic could prove disastrous for relations with the West. President Trump’s controversial accusations that the virus was manufactured in China, along with repeated criticisms of China and Russia’s handlings of outbreak, could work to encourage the development of an impenetrable and united front against Western allies. Articles on the spread of disinformation by both China and Russia are starting to come to the fore, hinting at the beginnings of this solidarity. There are real dangers attached to this disinformation and the anti-Western conspiracy theories that seem to come with them. Scrolling through the YouTube comments section of a China Global Television Network (CGTN) video on Russia supposedly carrying out 3 million tests, you get a sense of these feelings.
CGTN, ‘Russia carries out over three million COVID-19 tests’, 28 April 2020,
Ideas like this hardly create a pleasant backdrop for international relations. Now more than ever China and Russia are in need of their allies and, by supporting to each other, the two powers may find fewer reasons to garner and build good relationships with the West. The era of the global community may well be coming to its end.
At the end of the day we can only speculate about the future, but I caution you not to expect the pandemic to lead to a new and open Russia. We will have to watch and wait to see what becomes of the largest country in the world, and what that future means for Western powers. I, for one, hope my predictions are wrong.
At the time of writing, Fran Carroll is an MA offer holder at King's College London. Her interests are global security networks and intelligence on the international stage.