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Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a flower-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Victory Day in Moscow.

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The fact that ventilators made at a factory rushing to meet vastly increased demand imposed by the coronavirus apparently caused fires that killed six COVID-19 patients at Russian hospitals is a tragedy.

The fact that several of the ventilators Russia sent to the United States as part of a controversial shipment that has compounded questions about Moscow’s motives in dispatching what it calls humanitarian aid abroad is, of course, a coincidence.

Taken together, they seem like striking reflections of some of the most fundamental problems that have long faced Russia at home and hobbled its efforts to project a more positive image abroad -- and are now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestically, the deadly fires in Moscow and St. Petersburg accentuated the same old hurdles that have hampered post-Soviet Russia and slowed its path to prosperity: The corner-cutting, corruption, and negligence that have led to countless avoidable deaths or aggravated the human toll of disasters from the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000 to the 2018 fire at a Kemerovo mall to a nursing-home blaze -- apparently unrelated to COVID-19 -- that killed 11 people outside the capital this week.

A system already under pressure has been pushed to the breaking point -- or past it, in the case of the ventilator fires -- by the advent of COVID-19.

Flawed Model?

The effects of the virus on Russia have also undermined President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cast his country as a go-to source of support -- whether in the form of humanitarian aid or economic -- and an alternative to the United States.

The fires, meanwhile, also set back what may have been two goals of the decision to send a shipment of 45 ventilators and other medical supplies to the United States: showing solidarity with Washington, while simultaneously suggesting that Americans need help from Russia.

The number of deaths due to the coronavirus has been questioned in Russia.
The number of deaths due to the coronavirus has been questioned in Russia.

The shipment was seen by observers as a way for Putin to say: We’ve avoided a hard hit and we’re coming to the aid of others including the United States, Moscow’s Cold War foe.

That may have been the case when the shipment was sent: It arrived in New York on April 1, when that city was being slammed by COVID-19 while Russia had reported a total of 2,337 confirmed infections nationwide and 17 deaths.

Six weeks later, Russia is second only to the United States in terms of cases, with more than 262,000 as of May 15, and 2,418 deaths.

Numbers Game

But doubts about the accuracy of the official Russian numbers persist -- deepened, among other things, by mounting evidence that the death toll excludes a large number of patients who also had other diseases when they passed away.

After several media outlets published articles based on official Russian data that raised major questions about the official fatality figures in Moscow, Russia lashed out -- in London and New York.

The Foreign Ministry accused the Financial Times and The New York Times of disseminating “disinformation” and demanded they retract the reports. Without being specific, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested that news articles about the numbers were “another sensational anti-Russian fake.”

A lawmaker from the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party urged the ministry to strip reporters at the newspapers of their accreditation, which would prevent them from doing their jobs legally in Russia, and Zakharova said further steps would depend on whether they retracted the articles. Both papers stood by their reports.

Poison Plot?

Withdrawing accreditation from reporters with two of the most prominent newspapers in what Russian officials sometimes call the “Anglo-Saxon” world is a move that would be likely to draw substantial condemnation from the West.

The dispute comes amid acrimony over media reports in the Czech Republic citing unnamed security sources as saying that a Russian with diplomatic status brought a suitcase containing the deadly toxin ricin to Prague on a flight from Moscow in mid-March on a mission to poison three senior municipal officials whose actions had angered the Kremlin.

The Prague officials and members of their families were swiftly placed under police protection. Moscow has sought to dismiss the reports and -- in a move that one Central Europe-based journalist said marked a “new level in the art of reciprocity trolling” -- has asked for police protection for the Russian at the center of the scandal.

The diplomatic dispute is rooted in the bitter soil of World War II and the decades of Soviet dominance that followed: One of the Prague district chiefs allegedly targeted was involved in the removal of a monument to Ivan Konev, a Red Army marshal associated with both the liberation of parts of Europe from Nazi forces and Moscow’s long, drab, deadly hegemony.

The report of the ricin plot came ahead of Russia’s May 9 celebrations of Victory Day, when Moscow marks the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, and amid charges that Putin has been conducting a campaign to rewrite history in a way that hands the Soviet Union glory while sweeping negative aspects of its role in the war and its aftermath under the rug.

Selective Signals

But when May 9 arrived and the ceremonies were curtailed by the coronavirus, Putin seemed to pull his rhetorical punches. In a speech delivered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier instead of before the bristling bayonets of a Red Square military parade, he avoided giving the Soviet Union’s Western Allies any credit for Germany’s defeat.

That’s par for the course these days. But on the other hand, he also made no insinuation -- as he has some years -- that decades after World War II, the United States was now the power seeking to subjugate nations and impose its will on the world.

And he did mention contributions from the other Allies in May 8 messages to U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron -- also accentuating the theme of cooperation in a phone call with Trump the day before that.

Few Russian people may have heard about those messages -- unlike the May 9 speech, they were not televised live. So it seems like a matter less of mixed signals from the Kremlin than of selective signaling: seeking to tailor each message to its specific audience.

In the case of the Western leaders, Putin’s goal may have been to make relatively nice at a time when the coronavirus has hit the Russian economy hard, undermined his standing with the Russian people, and clouded plans that include a now-postponed constitutional amendment giving him the option of seeking to remain president until 2036.

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