Vladimir Putin knows a thing or two about a crisis, having caused a number of them over recent years. And he now appears, belatedly, to be beginning to confront the latest: the coronavirus pandemic. After claiming last week that the situation in Russia was ‘under control’, Putin used a live televised address this week to announce a series of emergency measures to limit the spread of the virus, including a nationwide week-long holiday. Russia’s authorities now admit there have been four deaths and at least 1,036 confirmed cases, in a country of 144 million.
The pandemic will no doubt pose challenges to a country which over recent decades has preferred to wage wars with its neighbours rather than invest in its public health system. Despite this, the Kremlin is likely to conclude that the coronavirus crisis validates key aspects of its anti-Western worldview: the weakness of democracy, the primacy of the nation-state, and the futility of multinational organisations.
Russia acted decisively in the early stages of pandemic, shutting down its 2,600-mile or so border with China on 30 January. But since then its response has been weak. The Kremlin was slow to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak. Russia’s authorities attempted to stifle domestic discussion about coronavirus, with doctors accusing authorities of underreporting cases.
But while Russia has not performed well, neither have Western governments. The Trump Administration fumbled its initial response, with the US president referring to coronavirus as a ‘hoax’ in February. Here in the UK, the government initially pursued a strategy of ‘herd immunity’ before suddenly reversing course and introducing social distancing measures. Such incoherence is grist to Putin’s mill, because he does not argue that Russia is as good as the West, but instead that the West is as bad as Russia.