20 years under Putin: a timeline

As of April 15, Russia has counted almost twenty-five thousand coronavirus cases, with the official death toll reaching 198 people. The country has virtually been under quarantine for three weeks, and its healthcare system is increasingly under stress. Amidst this national crisis, in a classic feat of his crisis-management style, Vladimir Putin has stayed largely out of sight, deferring responsibility for tackling COVID-19 to regional leaders.

 

On March 24, Vladimir Putin took part in his only, so far, photo-op at a Moscow hospital treating COVID-19 patients. Photo: kremlin.ru.

 

Few national leaders are earning praise for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic; leaders in Italy, Spain, England, and the United States have been criticized for doing too little too late to protect public health. In Russia, the government’s response to the emergency has been similarly slow, even though the first COVID-19 cases in Russia were reported on January 31. Although the border with China was closed early, the virus seemed to spread—especially in Moscow—after holidaymakers returned from European vacations. Isolation measures were poorly enforced and testing remained limited during February and March. Suspicions that the government was covering up the real spread of the virus grew after reports emerged that Russia had an unusually high number of fatal pneumonia cases in March.

Throughout the unfolding crisis, Vladimir Putin has remained largely absent from the public eye. While other leaders give daily briefings about the progress of the pandemic, Putin has participated in one photo-op at a hospital treating COVID-19 patients and delivered four* short television addresses to the nation. The TV speeches dealt mostly with postponing the referendum on constitutional reforms, delivering economic aid to needy citizens—such as pensioners, large families, and, more recently, bonuses for healthcare workers—and first introducing, and then expanding, quarantine measures. In general, Putin has delegated the management of the crisis to the prime minister, the mayor of Moscow, and regional leaders.

Putin’s absence has surprised some observers and has been cited as evidence of a whole host of problems, including the brittleness of Russia’s political regime, Putin’s aversion to being associated with unpopular policies, and Putin’s indifference to domestic issues.

There is perhaps good reason to expect the president to be the public face of Russia’s response to one of the most dangerous emergencies facing the world today. After all, Putin’s holds a unique and central role in Russia’s political system, the spirit of which was captured in 2014 by the words of Vyacheslav Volodin, then the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff: “There is no Russia without Putin.” Putin’s recent campaign to reform the Constitution so that he may remain president until 2036 seems to only confirm his indispensability. And surveys of Russian voters routinely show that Putin overshadows all others on the political landscape.

The established methods for exercising political power in Russia—the power vertical and manual control (ruchnoye upravleniye)—also lead us to expect a “hands-on” approach to crisis management by Putin. Over the course of 20 years, Russia’s political system has become more centralized, with decision-making concentrated in the Kremlin, and less able to tolerate independent initiative. The result is a structure in which everyone awaits decisions from the top before addressing problems because they fear the reaction of their immediate superiors rather than the reaction of their constituents. In illustrative example of this system at work was the regional executive’s reaction to a fire in a shopping center in Kemerovo that killed 60 people, among them over 40 children, in 2018. Not only did the region’s long-serving governor not visit the scene of the blaze for days, but he also apologized to Putin for what had happened on “his territory.” 

Putin has rarely appeared eager to actively engage in emergency management or to address the emotional and psychological aftermath of a national tragedy.

In spite of the nature of the political system and the symbolic role the president plays within it, over the last 20 years Putin has taken few opportunities to be the nation’s chief emergency responder.

The sinking of the Kursk submarine was one of the first major tragedies to happen during Putin’s presidential career. A training torpedo exploded onboard the nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000. After he was informed of the accident, Putin chose to remain on vacation in Sochi for another five days. It took another four days for him to visit the port city where the rescue operation was being coordinated and meet with the families of the submariners. In his meeting with the families, Putin emphasized the crumbling state of the military and navy and talked about the “hard truths” that needed to be accepted. In his public remarks, made over a week after the initial accident, Putin blamed the independent media for “discrediting the country” and offered vague comments about attempts to rescue the crew.

In 2004, when terrorists took hostage more than eleven hundred people on the first day of school in the town of Beslan, in North Ossetia, Putin cut short his summer holiday but still waited until the second day of the crisis to make a public statement during a meeting with the king of Jordan. More than 330 people—half of them children—were killed in the storming of the school the next day by special forces. Television channels quickly ended their broadcasts of the unfolding hostage situation when the siege began. Putin, along with most other government officials, remained silent, leading a prominent Russia expert, Lilia Shevtsova, to observe: “The president is hiding. The government is hiding.” In a brief televised statement a day after the end of the siege, Putin blamed the collapse of the Soviet Union for leaving Russia vulnerable to terrorism. “We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten,” he said.

Over time, Putin’s responses to emergencies and crises have become more timely. Last year, he expressed his condolences to the families of men killed aboard a scientific submarine only hours after the accident was announced. In 2010, when wildfires and a deadly heatwave were affecting many regions of Russia, Putin publicly called for the resignation of regional leaders in his capacity as prime minister.

But by and large, Putin has rarely appeared eager to actively engage in emergency management or to address the emotional and psychological aftermath of a national tragedy. His handling of the pandemic seems no different. In his latest speech about the coronavirus, Putin chose a reference to Russia’s victory over medieval invaders in the 10th to 13th centuries as a way to reassure people facing a modern-day public-health and economic crisis. The remarks seemed to soothe few and instead provoked an avalanche of memes.

In addition to provoking some online derision, Putin’s backseat crisis-management style during this global emergency might be costly in the long run. Writing for Forbes Russia, Alexander Kynеv, an expert in Russian regional politics, argues that Putin has allowed the image of a decisive and strong leader to erode, signaling the appearance of a “void” of responsibility and leadership at the center of Russia’s political system. This is potentially dangerous for a system that—according to political scientist Vladimir Gelman and other prominent scholars—depends on “visible mass support” often demonstrated through sky-high approval ratings. So far, Putin’s approval rating has declined only modestly over the course of March: from 69 to 63 percent. The ongoing crisis, which poses a unique challenge to Russia’s overly centralized and bureaucratic state, may yet have serious consequences for Putin’s popularity and, by extension, the stability of the system that depends on his central role.

 

* updated on April 15, 2020.

Anna Williams is a political scientist based in New York.

Russia under Putin

IMR would like to announce a new vacancy position in the capacity of president of the organization. The potential candidates should have at least 10 years of relevant experience, profound knowledge of Russian politics, and understanding of the current US media and political landscape. Please refer to the full job description here.

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.