Putin, Russia’s Man of Action, Is Passive, Even Bored, in the Coronavirus Era
The pandemic has derailed Vladimir V. Putin’s plans for a big military parade and a referendum extending his rule — and now knocked out his prime minister — as the Russian leader struggles to find his stride.
MOSCOW — This was supposed to be a moment of triumph for President Vladimir V. Putin, a celebration of his grand successes in restoring the Russian state to a place of pride in the world and consolidating his grip on power, all topped off by a glorious military parade in Red Square on May 9, the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany.
But the coronavirus has changed all that.
Now, having bowed to the inevitable and canceled the parade, Mr. Putin seems less a can-do executive than a bored monarch cooped up in a palace, checking his watch during televised video conferences with his underlings about the pandemic as his popularity ratings dip.
For 20 years, Mr. Putin has made his mark as a man of action, a hyperactive leader ever ready to face down the Kremlin’s foes at home and abroad, and even wild tigers in remote Russian forests. Confronted with the coronavirus, however, a leader who was re-elected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote and who faces no serious threats to his power has been oddly passive.
“He is afraid — afraid for his ratings and for the system he has spent 20 years creating,” said Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a disenchanted former Kremlin adviser. Faced with a viral enemy that he cannot easily vanquish, “Putin understands that the best thing to do is stand to the side,” Mr. Pavlovsky added.
Doing that became more difficult on Thursday, however, when Russia’s prime minister, Mikhail V. Mishustin, 54 — who was named just three months ago to give some new energy to the government — told Mr. Putin during a videoconference broadcast on national television that he had tested positive for the virus.
Mr. Putin, 67, responded by praising him as “a very active person,” and said “what is happening to you could happen to anyone.”
To add to Mr. Putin’s troubles, the collapse of oil prices has removed a major stream of revenue for social programs, while Russia’s oil- and gas-dependent economy is expected to shrink by 6 percent this year.
But turmoil in the global oil market, unlike the health crisis, at least plays to Mr. Putin’s strong suits of geopolitics and high-stakes diplomacy. His joint efforts with President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have done little to lift the market, but they have showcased Mr. Putin doing what he likes most: demonstrating Russia’s indispensable voice in global affairs.
By contrast, the pandemic has only highlighted what has always been Mr. Putin’s biggest vulnerability: a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty and years of falling real incomes
Adding to the gloom, an April 22 referendum on constitutional amendments had to be canceled because of the virus. The amendments, already approved by Russia’s legislature, allow Mr. Putin to crash through term limits and stay in power until 2036.
After lying low when the coronavirus first surfaced in Russia in late February and early March, Mr. Putin has this month appeared almost daily on television, holding teleconferences from his country residence outside Moscow. But his heart does not seem to be in it.
“He gives an impression of being tired, even bored,” said Yekaterina Schulmann, a former member of the Kremlin’s advisory council for civil society and human rights.
Dressed in a black suit and dark tie, a somber Mr. Putin on Tuesday again appeared on television, this time to announce that a “nonworking period” first declared in March would be extended until May 11. “We cannot relax. The situation is still very difficult,” with the peak of the outbreak still ahead, he said.
Seeking to salvage something from the wreckage of his May 9 Victory Day extravaganza, Mr. Putin said that a military parade would still be held at some point and that, on the day itself, “modern warplanes and helicopters will take to the Russian skies to fly in formation in honor of our heroes.”
Yet, having staked so much of his popularity on the revival of Russia as a great power, Mr. Putin has fallen out of step with a public “that is fast losing interest in foreign policy” and that has stopped viewing the machinations of the West “as an excuse for everything that has gone wrong at home,” Ms. Schulmann said.
Mr. Putin’s approval rating, which stood at 69 percent in February, slipped to 63 percent in March, according to the Levada Center, a Moscow-based independent polling organization. Most leaders in Europe have seen their ratings soar during coronavirus lockdowns.
Russia’s “public mood is very volatile. People are scared of the virus and also for the economy,” Ms. Schulmann said. Mr. Putin “cannot find a tone that resonates” with the public, she added.
Also scrambled by the coronavirus, however, are the calculations of Mr. Putin’s opponents, including Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, who has veered from denouncing the Kremlin for building a corrupt police state to demanding a state of emergency, something only Mr. Putin can declare.
Such a move would strengthen already intrusive security services, but would also force the government to pay compensation to businesses hit by lockdowns and free them from having to pay rent to landlords and interest to banks. Mr. Putin has so far offered only piecemeal assistance.
The last time Russia had a full state of emergency was in 1993 under President Boris N. Yeltsin. Mr. Putin has so far shown no interest in reviving that traumatic precedent. It would not only cost the state a lot of money but would puncture one of his proudest boasts — that Russia, thanks to his firm hand, has escaped the turmoil of the 1990s.
Cushioned by bulging financial reserves estimated at around $600 billion, Russia has more room to maneuver than many countries. It also has reported relatively few coronavirus cases so far — a total of nearly 100,000 as of Wednesday, compared with about a million in the United States, and a low death toll of 972, compared with the American figure of more than 58,000.
But the epidemic started later in Russia and is still worsening. And the economic damage has been severe, with workers outside a state sector that provides Mr. Putin’s most solid base of support hit particularly hard as restaurants, hair salons and many other private businesses shut down because of lockdowns.
Unable to organize street protests because of stay-at-home orders, desperate businesspeople, workers who have lost their incomes and political activists habitually opposed to the Kremlin have fumed online and resorted to staging digital demonstrations, using navigation apps to “gather” outside government buildings.
There have also been a few scattered attempts at real protests, but these have all been quickly broken up by the riot police. The biggest of these was an anti-lockdown march on April 20 in Vladikavkaz, a city on the edge of the Caucasus Mountains.
For Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert and author of a book about Mr. Putin, the biggest virus-induced threat to the Kremlin is not popular unrest — “people are not going to rise up in revolt,” he said — but a “decay of legitimacy.”
Mr. Putin, he said, had created a “hyperpresidential system” in which all important decisions were ultimately taken in the Kremlin. But he “has himself become less and less presidential,” Mr. Galeotti noted, leaving others to announce restrictions on movement and other painful measures aimed at combating the virus.
By placing more and more responsibility on local officials without surrendering any of his own powers, Mr. Galeotti added, Mr. Putin has “violated a fundamental contract with governors and bureaucrats — the state’s middle management — who actually keep the system running.”
Faced in 2014 with a similarly grave threat to Russian interests created by the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president, Mr. Putin seized the moment by grabbing Crimea. When, two years later, it looked as if Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, might also fall, Mr. Putin jumped in to reverse the tide of Syria’s civil war by sending Russian warplanes and soldiers.
The coronavirus, however, has often left him looking flat-footed. In March, he tried to replay the action man stunts that have shaped his image in the past, like flying in a fighter jet, pursuing tigers in the Russian Far East and descending into the Baltic Sea in a bathysphere.
But his display of machismo before the advancing pandemic did not work out quite as planned: He visited infected patients at a new Moscow hospital dressed in a canary yellow hazmat suit, only to find out a few days later that the head doctor who showed him around and gave him a long fleshy handshake had tested positive for the virus.
Since then, Mr. Putin has been sheltering at his country villa. It was from there, warmed by gentle flames from a fireplace in a cozy-looking living room, that he on April 19 delivered a what-me-worry Orthodox Easter message to the nation.
“The situation,” he said, “is under total control.”