COVID-19: Harming or Helping Putin?

Anet McClintock

Russian President Vladimir Putin has officially declared that the COVID-19 pandemic has passed its peak in Russia. Compared to other global leaders, it appears that he has shown little interest in how the pandemic is playing out on Russian soil. This is partly because international geopolitics and high-stakes diplomacy has always been Putin’s strong point, and partly because admitting that Russia has been badly impacted by the pandemic and would entail acknowledging the systemic problems in Russia’s domestic health and welfare systems.

Russia has reported relatively few deaths for a country of 144 million people. By mid-May, Russia had the second highest amount of recorded COVID-19 cases in the world, behind the United States (US). But despite this high infection number, the country has a shockingly low death rate of just over one per cent, in comparison to the US’ rate of 5.8 per cent and Italy’s rate of 14.4 per cent.

International groups analysing public data released from Moscow, have accused Russia of hiding the true toll of COVID-19. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that Russia’s approach to counting COVID-19 fatalities is legitimate.

On paper, the situation seems to be under control. But Russian health workers have increasingly been speaking out about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the strain on hospitals. These concerns are met with consistent assurances from the Kremlin that the COVID-19 is contained and the high infection numbers are merely due to thorough testing. The government are so desperate to deny the problem, that local groups of doctors have had to covertly smuggle PPE into hospitals.

Not only has the pandemic exposed the problems in the country’s health system, but has also significantly disrupted Putin’s political agenda. In mid-January, the 67-year old tabled a bill which would allow him to remain in power until 2036. The controversial proposed constitutional change would see Putin stay on far beyond 2024, when he is due to step down after a fourth term. The Prime Minister, along with the rest of the Russian government, resigned in opposition to the proposed amendment which would significantly shift the balance of power in the Russian government.

Russian citizens were scheduled to go to the polls to vote on the constitutional amendment on April 22. Fears that long lines at polling booths could spread COVID-19 led to the postponement of the vote to July 1.

Putin’s approval rating in April fell to 59 per cent, the lowest it has been in two decades. Surprisingly, Putin’s lowered personal approval rating does not seem to have impacted support for the proposed constitutional changes. In April, support for the changes rose to 47 per cent among Russian citizens.

Putin’s rating was with no doubt impacted by the fact that he was not able to exhibit his usual ‘strong-man’ displays while Russia was in lockdown. In April Russia was forced to postpone its Victory Day parade, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of Russia’s defeat over Nazi Germany in World War II. 15,000 Russian troops were expected to march across the Red Square, to show off Russia’s military strength and harking back to the might of the Soviet Era. A number of international leaders were also expected to attend, including French President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping and possibly even US President Trump. The Russian president instead had to resort to a muted celebration, simply laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Russia’s faltering economy also does not bode well for the president. A strong Russian economy is what allowed Putin to stare down ‘international cartels’ like OPEC, and won the president popularity at home. Already suffering from weak growth rate before the pandemic, Russia’s GDP is expected to shrink by five per cent this year, and economists are predicting it will take more than three years for Russia to get back to a pre-pandemic economy. Russian workers have been hit hard, with unemployment doubling to 1.4 million in May. The pandemic also hit just as oil prices were taking a nosedive in April, impacting the Russian economy, where oil and gas make up a significant amount of the country’s exports.

It is not surprising that Putin is eager to pull Russia out of lockdown. In mid-May, the president moved to ease the restrictions across the country. This announcement coincides with the biggest rise of cases in a single day. While Russia had managed to slow the spread, by early June, it still had the third highest amount of cases after the US and Brazil. COVID-19 has not been favourable to the president, and it is becoming clear that Putin is eager to get back to the bread and butter of his platform and what has always kept him popular; a strong domestic economy and an aggressive Russia on the international stage.


Anet McClintock is a recent graduate from the University of Melbourne, having completed a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and History and a Diploma of Languages in German.

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