Back in 2014, Paul Starobin wrote an excellent article analyzing what he called the ‘“Russia is Doomed” syndrome’, which is manifested in persistent claims that Russia is on the verge of collapse. This perspective, said Starobin, ‘is grounded in unreality. Russia isn’t going anywhere. Critics tend to exaggerate its ailments or fail to place them in proper context.’ One should add to this that the ‘Russia is doomed’ narrative applies not just to Russia as a whole, but also to the system of government and the person of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. They are all perpetually on the edge of extinction.
You can get a flavour of this from titles of books published by Western journalists this past decade, such as Ben Judah’s ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin’ (embarrassingly published just before Putin’s ratings rose to record highs following the annexation of Crimea), and Richard Lourie’s ‘Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash’ (neither of which has yet come about). Whenever anything happens which suggests that everything is not going 100% swimmingly well in Russia, then out come the keyboard warriors to flog another screed telling us all how the end is nigh, Putin’s popularity is tumbling, and regime change is just around the corner.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the global COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for the Western media to once again engage in speculation that the Putin regime has suffered a terrible blow from which it will struggle to recover. ‘The Coronavirus Could Imperil Putin’s Presidency’ screamed a headline in The Washington Post on 23 April, after which writer Leon Aron informed readers that, ‘COVID-19 has exacerbated tensions and exposed political and economic inadequacies, testing the strength and legitimacy of institutions as well as confidence in national leadership.’
The Washington Post is not alone. Using the normal trick of soliciting quotes from Kremlin critics, a 24 April article in Time magazine tells us that, ‘The looming economic collapse spells bad news for Russia’s leader.’ Time concludes: ‘Putin’s lackluster response so far has “zeroed his political capital,” says Petrov, of the Chatham house think tank. “No more can he count on – what many Russians see as – achievements like the annexation of Crimea. He needs to prove he’s effective in power now. But he’s completely out of touch.’
Not wanting to left out, the BBC jumped on the bandwagon too. ‘Coronavirus crisis tests Putin’s grip on power in Russia’, said a headline a week ago. Correspondent Sarah Rainsford then wheeled out some disaffected Russians to prove the point. ‘Some sense problems ahead for the president’, Rainsford declared, ‘“The paternalistic Russian state … can’t implement their promises. They can’t help people, can’t help business,” argued Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank. … “I can’t predict a catastrophe for this regime [but] it’s a serious challenge to Putin,” Mr Kolesnikov suggested.’ ‘There are already some signs of that frustration spreading to Russia’s regions’, says Rainsford. Citing a fitness club owner in Yekaterinburg, she recounts, ‘“The government measures are nowhere near enough, they won’t save us,” the businessman told the BBC. “I think they’re showing their incompetence”.’
Finally, to round it all off, today The Spectator (once a good magazine when Boris was editor and I was writing for it!) brings in the big guns in the form of Andrew Foxall of the perpetually Russia-bashing, neoconservative Henry Jackson Society. ‘COVID-19 Is Testing Putin’s Regime’ says the title, after which Foxall announces that ‘Russia is in crisis’, adding that,
Russia isn’t unique in struggling to respond to Covid-19, but the political consequences are much greater for a highly personalised regime. … Putin has consistently argued that authoritarianism is better than democracy at providing for and protecting his citizens. … As the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases grows, the pandemic is tarnishing Putin’s aura of invincibility. … This isn’t to suggest that Putin’s regime is on the verge of collapse, but it is to say that Covid-19 presents him with the biggest crisis of his two decades in power – and his traditional ways of dealing with crises won’t work. The situation in Russia is bad, and likely to get worse.
Actually, it’s not true that ‘Putin has consistently argued that authoritarianism is better than democracy at providing for and protecting his citizens.’ What he actually says is that Russia needs democracy, but it has to be of a specific sort – one with strong presidential power. In my in depth studies of his speeches, I’ve never once come across him using the word ‘authoritarianism’. But whatever, my real gripe isn’t that. It’s the thing Starobin complained about – the tendency to ‘exaggerate ailments or fail to place them in proper context.’
Yes, it’s true that ‘Russia is in crisis’ as a result of COVID-19. But so is just about every other country in the world, and there’s no evidence to suggest that the crisis is particularly severe in Russia. For while it is true that Russia currently has the 8th largest number of infections in the world, its death rate from these infections is quite low compared to most Western European states or the USA. Russia’s performance in dealing with the pandemic is somewhat middling by international standards – ‘We don’t have anything especially to brag about’, as Putin put it, but at the same time Russians so far seem to be managing rather better than the Italians, the Brits, the Spanish, and a bunch of other people.
Of course, the economic impact of the pandemic will be bad. But it’s going to be bad everywhere. I’ve yet to see any evidence to show that it will be noticeably worse in Russia. Indeed, some commentators have pointed out that Russia is relatively well placed to cope economically, given that it has a very large amount of cash stashed away in the bank and almost no debt, unlike Western states which generally have few cash reserves and massive debt. Writing a series of articles saying ‘Russia is in crisis due to COVID’ seems rather silly given the context.
Which brings us to the political consequences. Will COVID-19 fatally undermine Putin’s reputation? It’s possible, of course, just as it’s possible for every leader everywhere. To date Putin hasn’t won massive accolades like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, but on the other hand he hasn’t come off as a total buffoon like Donald Trump (disinfectant, anyone?) or Boris Johnson (remember ‘herd immunity’?). Putin’s approval rating is still around 63%, lower than before, it is true, but as even Andrew Foxall has to admit, at a level that ‘would be the envy of Western leaders.’
As for the Russian government, from my observations, the main figures involved, Prime Minister Misushtin and Mayor Sobyanin, appear to give off an air of quiet technocratic competence. Polls suggest that most Russians support the lockdown measures. All we can say is that time will tell – maybe the government’s reputation will suffer, but then again maybe not. So far it’s not looking like the foundations of the social contract are being unduly stressed. As Starobin wrote, ‘Russia isn’t going anywhere’, and it strikes me as foolish to imagine otherwise.
‘I hear only what I want to hear. But I have to believe in something. Have to believe just one thing.’ So sang Supertramp on a 1975 hit album. These words could easily apply to many of our so-called Russia ‘experts’. They have to believe that Russia is doomed, and so hear only what they want to hear about it. The name of the Supertramp album, by the way, was Crisis? What Crisis? It’s kind of appropriate, don’t you think?