How Kremlin (mis)handles COVID-19 at home and abroad

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Pandemic as a Leverage

Pandemic, the scale of which is likely concealed, has given Kremlin an opportunity to:

  • Introduce changes to electoral legislation that make it easier to steal elections
  • Nullify Putin’s presidential terms
  • Further suppress freedom of speech

As Vladimir Putin signed the bill that enables “remote electronic voting”, concerns rise over the potential abuse of the system that can be transparent and effective in democratic states such as Estonia – but that can also be easily mishandled. Considering that Putin’s regime did not have fair elections for many years* and that state-linked actors have been caught red-handed in numerous cases of cybercrimes worldwide, the perspective of massive vote rigging is not surprising. 

Adopted by Federation Council on May 20 and signed by Putin on May 23, the law (initially developed by Presidential Administration) which potentially eliminates secrecy of the ballot and is likely to create problems for observers was introduced as a step to protect public health. The official justification is to adapt voting procedure to the uncertain epidemiologic situation – but the underlying concerns seem to be less humanitarian and more political. The first beneficiary in this case would be United Russia, which is getting ready for the upcoming 2021 State Duma elections in advance. Presidential party has been suffering from dwindling approval ratings, and changes to legislation provide yet another opportunity to preserve status quo.

Yet this case is far from only example of how Kremlin attempts to use the pandemic for its own political needs. COVID-19 has also enabled the crudest possible solution for regime preservation – nullification of Putin’s presidential terms in March, which essentially allows him to stay in power until 2036.  And while governments worldwide recognize the necessity to counter the fake news infodemic accompanying coronavirus, in Russia criminalization of related disinformation is misused to further suppress freedom of speech.

It is a traditional attempt, autocratic and clumsy, to suppress potential chaos at home that Kremlin so consistently incites abroad. Suspicion that actual death toll from COVID-19 is much higher than the official statistics insist, is shared both abroad and at home.  In Dagestan, one of the republics, local Minister of Healthcare has admitted that the actual statistics were much worse: when official number of patients with COVID-19 was 3280, the actual one was 13 697.

Economic Side-Effects of COVID-19

Given that Russia now ranks 3rd in the world with the overall number of cases, the real situation might be dire indeed – and under no circumstances must be made public. Recognizing the scale of crisis would undermine support for the government that faces public dissatisfaction with declining economic situation

In his addresses – the preferred form of communication chosen by Putin, who remains distinctly distant from the crisis, – Russian president repeatedly emphasizes the necessity to support population financially in dire economic circumstances. Yet, due to the large-scale corruption and ineffectiveness of bureaucratic machine many medical servants did not receive the help that was promised. Situation is particularly complicated in the hospitals that were not formally refocused to working solely with COVID-19 patients, but, given the scale of the outbreak, still have to do this job.   Traditionally, Moscow is in the better place than the regions. 

Yet there is another, more important reason for hiding the truth about the actual number of COVID-19 victims, even if it endangers lives. It would inflict a heavy blow to the very idea that lies at the foundation of Putin’s rule – that autocracy is more capable of protecting its citizens from external threats than constantly criticized Western democracies are. 

Not All Quiet on the Western Front

While Kremlin does a bad job at dealing with crisis at home, it is focused on aggravating the situation aboard, working to lift the sanctions and further destabilizing efforts in Georgia and Ukraine. 

They, in turn, remain a target of massive disinformation campaigns. In addition to undermining healthcare systems and polarizing societies, Kremlin works tirelessly to lift the sanctions under the pretense of uniting against a common threat, with Italy and the USA being at the frontlines of this battle. The story of “humanitarian aid” to Italy, coordinated by Ministry of Defense and largely useless, got its expected continuation with the letter from MP Leonid Slutsky, calling Rome to pressure Brussels into cancelation of sanctions. Washington was reportedly tricked into violating its own limitations by purchasing ventilators from a Russian company under sanctions – hardly a coincidence. 

Moscow has not missed the chance to use the pandemic for illegal borderization in Georgia and promotion of anti-Georgian conspiracy theories in the occupied territories. Parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea remain under similar attacks, while Kremlin’s agents of influence continue destabilizing the state with the “Quarantine Maidan” operation, promoting default, spreading anti-Western messages and, again, working to lift the sanctions. Attacks on the frontline have not lost their relentlessness – more than 50 Ukrainian soldiers have died since the beginning of 2020, and Joint Forces Operation reports almost daily ceasefire violations. 

As Kyiv is dealing with both the disease and the crisis inflicted by limitation measures, its resilience capabilities are lower, both on the level of government and society, which is prone to panic carefully supported by disinformation campaigns. Moreover, Western partners are understandably more focused on internal problems for now, which gives Moscow additional opportunity to undermine Ukraine with less chances to get caught with a smoking gun. This is precisely why the occupying forces in ORDLO have used pandemic as a pretext to block the work of OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, refusing them access to checkpoints. 

All of these might first seem like a strange choice of focus for a state that has more than 371,000 COVID-19 cases. Infection has deeply penetrated Russian political elite, affecting prime minister, president’s spokesperson, first deputy chief of staff at Presidential Administration, 3 ministers and, reportedly, notorious ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov – who is supposedly getting treatment in Moscow, violating his own decision to shut the region’s borders completely. Nevertheless, while for democratic states pandemic is a crisis that demands facing many new challenges at once, autocracies perceive it as an opportunity to further solidify their power. 

*OSCE criticized 2018 presidential elections. 2012 were also subject of criticism. Recent constitutional amendments nullifying Putin’s presidential terms and allowing him to stay in power have also raised wide concerns