Crisis? What Crisis?

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.

supertramp

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?

12 thoughts on “Crisis? What Crisis?”

  1. Ben Judah is nothing special, with the same appearing likewise with Andrew Foxall and Richard Lourie.

    Offhand, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford seems to always have a glum on air look, to go along with her highlighting the negatives, whether accurate or exaggerated.

    Her colleague Steve Rosenberg, doesn’t offer a noticeably different slant.

    A whatboutism observation notes that there’re plenty of American based fitness owners and members with some critically choice words on how Covid-19 is being handled in the US.

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  2. ‘“Russia is Doomed”

    I am (just) old enough to remember the Cuban revolution. The Castro regime was going to collapse any day….

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  3. Thanks for the Starobin article, it’s a good one.
    Of many sentiments it may evoke, there is one that’s hard to understand unless you lived in Russia through 1990’s and early 00’s. I’ll call it “hindsight horror”.

    All Strobin’s matter-of-fact statements, like “Russia still matters” and “Russia isn’t going anywhere”, ring as true today as they did in 2014… but deep inside we know this isn’t a given. Things might have turned out very differently… almost did. But around came certain remarkable guy whose initials mean “GDP” in Russian.

    What if we had more Yeltsin-esque clowns instead? “A gas station masquerading as a country” would’ve been an apt description then (that is, if the country in question still existed).

    Anyway… I have just watched Andrei Vandenko interview that remarkable guy (https://putin.tass.ru). There was a question re. post-2024.

    And you know what, I am all for limiting presidential terms and stuff, but thinking of post-2024 gives me the same shiver as thinking of “alternative” post-90’s. Is it trauma? Is it “slave mentality”? Is it lack of trust in the wisdom my people? I wish to god I didn’t feel that way, it’s SUCH an uncomfortable feeling. But I do.

    Call me a coward, but (quoting Stolypin) I’ll take great Russia over great shocks any day. Actually, a solid mid-range Russia would do. Just no great shocks please.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not wanting a return of chaos is not slave mentality. The example of the neighbouring Ukraine with its endless “makhnovishchina” is very instructive for already anarchy-averse Russians. If that’s where “love for freedom” gets you, than no thanks. (The US really needs to do something about it’s post-Soviet client states, Ukraine and Georgia are pathetically bad advertisements for the colour revolutions model.)

      Russians have been taught lessons throughout history of what happens to weak Russia, the ’90s were just the latest instalment. No wonder the idea of something that may weaken the country makes them feel unsafe. That said, Putin can’t stick around forever, some sort of power transition is necessary. Unfortunately, there is the perennial Russian problem of looking at the available opposition and going “putting these people in charge of the country, really?” At best they don’t appear to have a clue, at worst they are dead set on pulling the house down and then maybe attempting to build something on the ruins. Makes one think in terms of “lesser evils”.

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  4. “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”

    Not only them. As the popular in RuNet colloquial expression goes – “весна покажет, кто где срал”. And just like that, this pestilence-ridden Spring indeed proved to be a great litmus test for the “Respectable Russia Watchers”. Here you go:

    Mr. Putin’s nationwide address on the corona virus epidemic. Quotes:

    “I return here to my standing recommendation that the President move to create a government of national unity by bringing leading figures from the Duma opposition parties into the cabinet, starting with the position of Minister of Labor.”

    “One might better ask why the Russian government and Aeroflot are doing so much to repatriate the 50,000 or so Russians stuck abroad on vacations which they took when the gravity of the global epidemic was already clear. These insouciant egoists are the greatest threat to Russian public health as they now return home at government expense. ”

    “In both the ‘corporate flair’ of the presidential administration and in the shortcomings of imagination at the Duma, we see that Putin’s command of the situation is faltering. ”

    Kremlinology 2.0: is Vladimir Putin still in charge in the Kremlin?. Quotes:

    “[T]here may well be a power struggle going on in the Kremlin today which Vladimir Vladimirovich no longer controls. Indeed, it appears he is receiving his script now from the stronger of the contenders around him and is not comfortable with his lines”

    “Twice in the past four years, spokesmen for the Russian government have asked who is in charge in Washington, the elected President or the Deep State. In Russian parlance, the Deep State means the intelligence services, the military, those who in Moscow are called the siloviki, or ‘power ministries.’…

    “Now, as I said at the outset, the shoe is on the other foot: we can ask the same about Russia: who is really in charge in the Kremlin.”

    “Moscow gossips speak of a power struggle between the premier Mishustin and the mayor of Moscow Sobyanin. Sobyanin it appears has been given extraordinary powers to deal with the coronavirus threat…

    “…And in the background we are told there is a deep divide in opinion of Kremlin elites over the oil production and pricing war being waged against Saudi Arabia at the initiative of Rosneft boss, Putin ally Igor Sechin. Does this explain the fade-out from media coverage of both Gazprom’s Alexei Miller and Minister of Energy Alexander Novak?”

    “In light of these troubles around him, is it any wonder that the body language of Vladimir Putin during his speech on the 25th indicated to the Russian speaking analysts among us that he did not like the script he had been given to read and was possibly losing his grip.”

    >body language of Vladimir Putin.

    Let us all give a slow, veeeery slow applause to Mr. Doctorow, a long-time agent of the international capital (no, like – for real), who’s been hob-nobbing with dem-schiza and Berezovsky since the “best time” of the Holy 90s, but who now reinvented himself as an “expert” on all things Russia related… And who did NOT know, up till this year, that in Russia State Duma, in fact, does not form the Cabinet.

    Indeed, blessed be this Spring of Our Discontent! Hopefully, these new revelations and auguries will be remembered forever – as well as their authors.

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    1. Doctorow:
      … and to the extreme caution and prudence of its fiscal and monetary management over the past decade dealing with a sequence of ‘stress tests’ by which I mean sanctions. …

      I have to admit, I like this type of verbal creativity. Patrick Armstrong devoted quite a little attention to the larger economic context in his regular sitrep’s. While I, the outsider, admittedly, wouldn’t be more then just pleased if this tool out of the ancient educational ‘punishment vs reward’ tool box would fail. Or better still works in Russia’s longterm interests. 😉

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  5. What really irritates me is that the private sector keeps the profit in good times and does everything it can to avoid paying fair tax.

    In the UK we have business wanting government bailouts when their bosses live in tax exile in the Virgin Islands or Monaco!!!

    The public have objected to this and it remains to be seen whether they will get public money via the government.

    Same with the fitness business guy quoted in the article – why didn’t he save money – as we the ordinary public are told to save for rainy days???

    The private sector always comes to the government to bail them out just as in 2008 with the banks here in the UK!!! Now in 2020 the public need help and it’s the minimum help given; the public will have to pay back in the long run with higher taxes and austerity.

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    1. “The private sector always comes to the government to bail them out just as in 2008 with the banks here in the UK!!!”

      Relevant:

      Sir Henry Baskerville: “What’s this horrible howling coming from the moors, Barrymore?”
      Barrymore: “These are Atlases, Sir. For some reason, they are no longer shrugging and ask for the state support instead”.

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  6. >We don’t have anything especially to brag about

    Putin is being modest here. We do have something to brag about – the second highest number of tests in the world (in absolute numbers). I don’t think our government’s performance is middling by the world’s standarts – is significantly higher.

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  7. Babbling alert:
    Andrew Foxall of the perpetually Russia-bashing, neoconservative Henry Jackson Society.

    I found the graphic Putin image heading the article interesting. How sad those applied artists aren’t acknowledged. … name wise …

    Mental meanderings Jackson Society and/or the Euston Manifesto? Influences …

    Anyway, to return to my artistic preference, don’t you feel he is portrayed as some type of ascetic monk? One of those one would expect to wear orange, but here he wears red. Which it feels serves to link him to … well what … it isn’t visually as easy as that? Politically speaking, considering shifting long term red – blue – red symbolism in politics in the present democratic leader US? To leave out the even more complicated party history. …

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_colour#Red

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