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The Week In Russia: How COVID-19 Is Changing The Landscape

A woman wearing a face mask during a coronavirus lockdown walks past a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile launcher displayed at the Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg.
A woman wearing a face mask during a coronavirus lockdown walks past a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile launcher displayed at the Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg.

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One of the questions people living in lockdown around the world are asking is this: Will anything ever be the same again?

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the answer is no, some analysts and observers say.

Whether Russia suffers less loss of life and economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic than other countries or more, they suggest that Putin and his government are facing a blow that will permanently bruise their standing with the people.

"One more victim of the coronavirus," was how the headline of a blog post by journalist and commentator Oleg Kashin put it. "The relationship between he authorities and society will never be what it was before."

Kashin starts with a reference to a big setback to Putin's image-making: the postponement of the Red Square military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II. It was to be the centerpiece of celebrations on Victory Day, May 9, but Putin -- conceding a key battle to COVID-19 -- announced on April 16 that it will be held on an unspecified date later this year.

Kashin suggested October 16 would be fitting. That was the day in 1941, he wrote, when the evacuation of the Soviet government to Kuibyshev -- a city 850 kilometers southeast of Moscow that is now called Samara again -- in the face of the German advance generated "rumors of Stalin's flight and the surrender of the city" and resulted in "what would be most accurately called the disappearance of Soviet power."

Soviet power returned, not to disappear for good until 50 years later, and the Nazis were defeated. "But that day in history -- it remains, it happened," he wrote -- it cannot be erased or unseen.

The point, or one of them, seems to be that an entire narrative -- a carefully structured, well-protected plotline of a movie, for example -- can be undermined by a single substantial misstep. And that members of the audience will have an unalterably different perspective as they walk out of the theater into the light, or into the night.

Putin's story may never be the same again, but it is far from over, of course. Kashin acknowledges that, over more than 20 years in power as president or prime minister, Putin has repeatedly recovered after slipping up badly in the past -- starting, perhaps, with the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in August 2000, which killed all 118 seamen aboard, three months after he first took office.

No Trains To This Vidyayevo

After the Kursk sank in the Barents Sea off Russia's northern coast, foreign assistance in efforts to save any survivors were initially rejected while Putin lingered in subtropical Sochi and waited 10 days to make the trip to meet with relatives in Vidyayevo, where the submarine was based and where he faced widows and other relatives whose grief was sharpened by anger at his perceived indifference and inaction.

"True, this is not [Putin's] first moment of the highest bewilderment in these 20 years, but in the previous cases everything happened almost instantly: He was bewildered, and then he was in Vidyayevo," Kashin wrote of the Kremlin response to the coronavirus. "But planes don't fly to this Vidyayevo, and trains don't go there."

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation during Orthodox Easter at his residence outside Moscow on April 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation during Orthodox Easter at his residence outside Moscow on April 19.

In other words: The COVID-19 crisis may be less susceptible to damage-control than many of the disasters of the past that have put pressure on Putin. And that means he may lack the tools to repair what some analysts say is already a severe hit to his reputation.

He is more accustomed to show than to substance, critics charge. And the big show on Victory Day was supposed to have followed an April 22 vote designed to put a stamp of popular approval on constitutional amendments that would enable him to seek to serve two more six-year terms after the current one expires in 2024.

"Putin had big plans for the spring" but the coronavirus "changed everything," Steven Pifer wrote in a summarizing tweet. "Instead of a referendum to affirm changes to #Russia's constitution that would allow him to remain president to 2036 & big VE Day celebration, he faces a health & economic crisis."

No Saint

So, possibly more than ever before, the future reputation of a leader often described as cultivating an action-man image depends more on action than image.

"The mounting political costs of COVID-19 for the Kremlin are beginning to reveal that its use of dramaturgy, patronage, and coercion to sanctify Putin's right to rule is decreasingly effective," the Center for European Policy Analysis wrote in a tweet describing an article by senior fellow Brian Whitmore headlined The Desanctification Of Putin.

Whether Putin is fully aware of the challenge is in doubt, according to critics and observers.

When he first seemed to acknowledge that COVID-19 posed a threat to Russia, after initially playing it down, Putin warned that the country -- the governors and the governed -- must not rely on luck to see it through the crisis.

But even as confirmed new cases rose by several thousand daily -- amid persistent suspicions that the official numbers are a substantial undercount -- Putin said in a fireside message to the country on Orthodox Easter on April 19 that the situation is "under complete control."

Four days later Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who heads a state "task force" appointed to combat COVID-19, warned that the outbreak in Russia had not yet reached a "plateau" or a peak. "We are not even halfway down the road to victory over the coronavirus," he said.

In a video posted on social media, the chief doctor at a Moscow hospital said that its emergency room was "under pressure. There's lots of patients, more & more each day," many of them aged around 40 and in bad condition.

Protests, both virtual and real, have erupted over lockdowns that have cost many people their livelihoods, at least temporarily.

'Operating Normally'

Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist and critic of the president, said that Putin's government may face more serious tests once the COVID-19 crisis appears to be abating, lockdowns are loosened, and Russians start to take stock of the longer-term economic damage they are confronted with.

At that point she suggested, anger and potential protests will be about "poverty" rather than movement restrictions.

The government thinks "that people have cushions and can cope with having no income for one or two months," Sergei Guriev, a prominent Russian economist who is a professor of economics at the Paris Institute Of Political Studies, told The Financial Times newspaper.

He was quoted in an article which pointed out that, while "Russia has a $165 billion cushion of savings built from its oil and gas wealth, the Kremlin has been reluctant to spend it."

That may be at least in part because it's unclear when world prices for oil, Russia's most lucrative export commodity, may recover from a collapse that Moscow helped precipitate when it rejected a Saudi Arabian proposal to cut production along with other countries.

"You really need a disaster to wake Putin up," Guriev said. "He seems to be operating normally, and that's scary."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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