Kto-Kogo: Putin vs. COVID-19

May 07, 2020
Thomas Graham

How long will Vladimir Putin rule Russia? Until recently, the prevailing view in the United States was for life. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price collapse, commentators see a more dire future that could erode his power or end his presidency. It’s not that simple. With the skill he has shown, and the luck that has favored him, since he rose to power twenty year ago, Putin could emerge from this crisis even stronger.

As was true for his tsarist and communist predecessors, Putin’s power in Russia’s elite-based political system is ultimately grounded in a three-part bargain with those very elites.  He must protect them from external enemies, and first of all the United States at this point. He must protect them from the people (narod) by preventing the eruption of mass social unrest that could destabilize the system. And he must protect the elites from themselves. He must ensure that their fierce competition does not spin out of control, while guaranteeing that those who play by the rules are never forced out of the game even if they lose. If the elites lose confidence that Putin can uphold this bargain, they will begin to look for alternatives. 

Putin quickly demonstrated his ability to provide that protection after he assumed power over twenty years ago. Helped by rising oil prices that filled state coffers, he restored order by taming Yeltsin-era oligarchs and regional barons and eased popular discontent by paying pensions and wages on time. He engineered a rapid economic recovery, almost doubling the country’s GDP in 1999-2008. He began to reassert Russia on the global stage, often in defiance of the United States. By 2008, it had already long been Putin’s Russia, even if he ceded the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev out of ostensible respect for constitutionally-mandated term limits.  

Russia’s fortunes—and Putin’s standing—took a turn for the worse with the global financial crisis of 2008/2009. The economy has never quite recovered. Declining growth rates (from 4.5 percent in 2010 to 1.8 percent in 2013) ended in stagnation by the end of the 2010s (1.3 percent in 2019; before the pandemic hit, the World Bank forecast growth of 1.6-1.8 percent for 2020 and 2021). Unable to base his legitimacy on rising economic fortunes, Putin turned to patriotism after he returned to the Kremlin in 2012. Initially, it worked well beyond expectations. Masterful hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, in the face of skeptical and derisive Western commentary, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the daring intervention in Syria in 2015, raised public morale. In 2014, Putin’s approval rating soared 25-30 points into the eightieth percentile and stayed there for four years.

By the end of 2019, however, the luster had worn off. When Putin embraced in the summer of 2018 widely unpopular pension reforms, which among other things raised the retirement age, his rating plunged into the sixties, never to recover. In fact, the latest poll by state-owned VTSIOM shows that the share of Russians who would entrust Putin with solving important state problems fell in March 2020 to its lowest level in 14 years: 28.3 percent. His Ukraine and Syria policies looked increasingly less successful as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the Syria crisis dragged on without resolution. Patriotism could no longer compensate for declining economic fortunes, while the diminishing economic pie sharpened elite competition. Putin himself seemed aloof, removed from the day-to-day running of the country. And the question that exercised the elites, the so-called 2024 question—what would Putin do when he ran up against the constitutional ban on a further presidential term?—also accustomed people to thinking about the post-Putin era.  

Putin’s goal this year was to reassert his authority. In January, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Putin promised to jump-start the economy and raise living standards, in large part by accelerating the implementation of thirteen “National Projects” designed to raise the quality of life and economic performance. To carry out these projects, Putin then reshuffled the government, replacing the ineffective Medevdev with Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the tax administration known for producing results. The reshuffle also sent an unsubtle reminder to those who might have forgotten that Putin still controlled the personal fates of members of the elites. 

He also proposed constitutional amendments to redistribute power at the top of the political system. These amendments, ultimately revised to enhance presidential power and allow Putin to serve at least two additional six-year terms as president, were to be ratified in a national plebiscite on April 22, thereby underscoring Putin’s mastery of domestic politics. The crowing event was then to come on May 9 with Putin, flanked by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron, overseeing a massive military parade on Red Square to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany and pay homage to Russia’s—and Putin’s—global power.

In March, COVID-19 intervened to upset those plans.  It forced the postponement of the plebiscite and the May 9 celebration indefinitely. The country-wide partial shutdown to contain the pandemic, and the accompanying sharp decline in oil prices, foreshadowed a recession. The IMF forecasts a 5.5 percent decline in GDP this year. After a small respite in 2018 and 2019, real disposable income will continue the fall that began in 2014. The Ministry of Finance is no longer boasting that Russia could cope with oil at $25-30 a barrel for up to ten years, as this year’s projected budget deficit explodes. 

Putin’s own conduct has exacerbated the challenge. His assurances into April that Russia had the COVID-19 crisis under control now look far off the mark as the number of cases soars past 160,000.  He arguably mismanaged negotiations with OPEC+ in early March in an effort to force cutbacks in U.S. shale oil production, producing volatility in markets and driving prices lower than would otherwise have been the case as the pandemic and lockdowns spread across the globe. Instead of taking control of the response to the pandemic, he has delegated responsibility to regional leaders, most notably Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who has become the great truth-teller about the depths of the crisis. 

In short, Putin has faltered in carrying out his bargain with the elites. But it is far too early to predict a significant erosion of his power, let alone his demise. Much will depend on how the situation evolves over the next several months, and the comparison with Western leaders will be critical. If Russia weathers the pandemic much better than Western countries, Putin will be able to tout his leadership at a time of supreme national crisis. So far, he looks good by comparison:  Russia has 3-4 times fewer confirmed cases per capita than the United States and a mere fraction of the deaths. (Critics claim that those figures grossly understate the real situation, but so far they have produced little hard evidence.) There is a reason official Russian media have focused on America’s mishandling of the crisis. Similarly, if oil prices begin to recover by the second half of this year, as most observers expect, Putin’s mismanagement will likely be forgotten. Meanwhile, the plebiscite on the constitutional amendments, if held after conditions improve, could still produce the overwhelming support Putin seeks. Putin would then end the year stronger than he began it.    

Of course, the situation could evolve in a bleaker direction, eroding Putin’s authority and enticing elites to consider alternatives, such as blocking Putin’s bid for reelection in 2024. But, for the past twenty years, Putin has been a skillful and a lucky leader. That has kept him at the top of the system. This year will tell whether his skill or his luck—or both—have run out.


Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as the senior expert on Russia on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration.

Photo by kremlin.ru.