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Russia's Coronavirus Man Of The Moment? For Now, It Looks Like It's Moscow's Mayor

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin attending a cabinet meeting with Russian Prime Minister in Moscow on March 30.

There he was, riding down the escalator at one of Russia's leading infectious disease hospitals alongside Vladimir Putin as the president toured the facility and its preparations for the coronavirus epidemic.

There he was, announcing sweeping new restrictions for Russia's capital on March 30, catching Moscow's 12 million residents off-guard and sending them scrambling to run errands before being all but confined to their homes.

And there he was, visiting another Moscow hospital on April 1, ordering reconstruction work to be quickened, and more beds added.

"We are mobilizing all our efforts in the fight against the coronavirus," Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said during the visit. "The reconstruction of these locations, the logistics, equipping them with the necessary equipment is vital. Such work is carried out around the clock. Thousands of people are on the job."

Sobyanin is the head of Russia's largest and most important city, and the location of the majority of Russia's coronavirus cases.

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He's also frequently the face, and signature, of some of the increasingly restrictive orders that the government has imposed in an effort to curtail the disease's spread. As of April 2, nearly 70 percent of the country's 3,548 confirmed cases were in Moscow.

Sobyanin was the first, and most prominent, government official to be shown issuing a dire warning -- publicly -- about how serious a threat COVID-19 was.

"The fact is that the testing volume is very low, and the true one in the world knows," he told Putin on March 24.

And Sobyanin has been the official pushing out some of the more controversial and draconian measures aimed at curtailing the disease's spread: first ordering cafes and restaurants closed; then, a few days later, ordering a virtual Moscow lockdown, including a restriction on how far you can go outside to walk your dog.

Putin gave public approval to the lockdown -- calling it "justified and necessary." Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, meanwhile, was relegated to following Sobyanin's lead, calling on regional authorities around the country to implement similar orders to keep people at home.

It's a prominent perch for Sobyanin at a time when the Russian government is in flux.

In January, Putin surprised many Kremlin watchers by pushing out his longtime protege Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister and replacing him with Mishustin, who was the well-regarded, but largely obscure head of the Federal Tax Service.

'Trusted By Putin'

The uncertainty was also due to the proposed constitutional amendments Putin called for. Among the amendments, which were to be voted on this month, was one that would open the door for Putin staying in office until 2036.

"Sobyanin has a unique position," said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "He is trusted by Putin, highly experienced, and knows how the system works. It's hard to see who else could step up for Putin. Mishustin is new to the PM role and not well known."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (right) and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (left), tours a new coronavirus information center in Moscow on March 17.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (right) and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (left), tours a new coronavirus information center in Moscow on March 17.

To be sure, Putin still commands Russia's political stage, particularly in a crisis. And the country, be it the political elite or average Russian, still watches him for instructions and guidance.

On April 2, in his second major televised speech since the coronavirus exploded into a major national crisis, Putin repeated a warning about the dangers of an outbreak and called for extending a national work holiday until the end of the month. He also said he would grant regional authorities more legal powers to impose anti-coronavirus measures.

At the same time, Mishustin’s press service announced a multimillion-dollar fund to compensate small and midsized businesses for their coronavirus-related losses.

Some observers have argued that Putin's response has been uneven and sporadic. His visit along with Sobyanin to the Kommunarka infectious disease hospital, widely publicized by state media, was followed by his televised speech a day later.

Images of Putin appearing in a yellow, full-body hazmat suit, while lauded by state TV, was met with derision in other places.

"Sobyanin is more visible as a virus fighter than the president and prime minister," Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst for the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a commentary. "The head of state, who is accustomed to dressing up in public relations clothing of various kinds (naval officer, deep sea diver, eco-tourists, etc.), received a powerful counterattack to his image when he put on a costume to fight the virus. It caused nothing but ridicule."

Gould-Davies said there have been two surprises in the Kremlin's public coronavirus response.

First, he said, was that Putin had all but dropped out of sight following the hospital visit, and the speech that followed. Second was that many of the measures being taken -- for example, stay-at-home orders -- are being taken at the region level, not the national.

"Absent leadership carries risks: if not a 'Chernobyl moment' then a 'Kursk moment,'" he said, referring to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the 2000 sinking of the Kursk submarine.

Both events are seen by many historians and political scientists as critical leadership failures: by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, and Putin himself in 2000.

From Tyumen To Moscow

Prior to becoming mayor, Sobyanin, 61, was governor of the Siberian region of Tyumen, and then rose to top positions in previous governments. He was chief of staff for Putin's administration from 2005 to 2008, and became deputy prime minister when Putin shifted to become prime minister in 2008.

He was tapped to run Russia's capital city in 2010, after its longtime mayor, Yury Luzhkov, was pushed out by Medvedev amid a behind-the-scenes power struggle.

A doctor observes through a glass window the condition of a coronavirus patient in Moscow's Sklifosovsky emergency hospital on March 25.
A doctor observes through a glass window the condition of a coronavirus patient in Moscow's Sklifosovsky emergency hospital on March 25.

It made sense that Sobyanin would become the face of the government's coronavirus response, given Moscow's importance, politically and economically, said Vladimir Gelman, a political scientist and professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki.

Gelman drew a parallel to the United States, where the governor of New York State -- the hardest-hit U.S. state -- has taken a prominent public role in the coronavirus response.

But Gelman said there appeared to be a deeper political calculation at work here: a way to insulate Putin, and the Kremlin, from potentially unpopular moves -- for example, declaring an outright state of emergency; or measures to halt the economic swoon the country is facing.

"Neither the president nor the prime minister would like to take responsibility for the coronavirus response," Gelman said.

"Putin may worry that harsher [measures] will harm his ratings, and so better to let others be the public face of coronavirus policy," Gould-Davies said.

Historically, the position of Moscow's head has also been a springboard to national political office. Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin, for example, both went on to become the country's leaders. Luzhkov also aspired to national office.

Sobyanin "is considered one of the likely successors of Vladimir Putin as president, if [Putin] decides to abandon the regime of personal power," said Ivan Priobrazhensky, a Russian political scientist and commentator now based in the Czech Republic.

"It can be predicted that the power and influence of Sobyanin in this situation will only increase," he said.

Even if Russia's virus containment is successful, the country will still have to reckon with the economic fallout. On April 1, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said Russia's economy could contract by as much as 8 percent this year.

"Most probably, it could be a kind of switch of responsibility not only in terms of combating the virus but also in terms of responsibility for economic security," Gelman said. "Why don't you switch the blame to Mr. Sobyanin?"

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.