Putin's plan to exploit coronavirus

28 March 2020

8:00 PM

28 March 2020

8:00 PM

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.

Putin has long believed that democracy is not the sunny uplands which the West professes it to be. True, Russia is, according to its constitution, a democracy with democratic institutions. And Putin, like other authoritarian leaders, has embraced democracy because he craves the legitimacy it confers – hence why he continues to hold elections. But Russia mocks and mimics democracy, and its institutions and elections are Potemkin. Putin’s former aide Vladislav Surkov described Russia’s political system as ‘managed democracy’, and it is more managed than democratic.

In the current crisis, the world’s democracies appear to be no more effective than its autocracies in stemming the spread of coronavirus. Not only this, but across the West as a whole, the powers of the state have expanded. The UK is in virtual lockdown. Italy is in lockdown. Some countries have gone further. Israel has enacted an emergence decree that allows the prime minister to postpone the start of his own criminal trial and that prevents the Parliament (in which the opposition has a majority) from convening.

In contrast to the early post-Cold War period when many believed that Russia would become more like the West, in the coronavirus crisis the West has become more like Russia.

Seen from the Kremlin, as the West has become more illiberal, the rules-based international order has receded. The World Health Organisation appeared to take declarations and denials made by the Chinese Communist party about the initial outbreak in Wuhan at face value. The WHO, one of the organisations which was created to uphold this order, has shown itself to be ineffective.

For its part, Russia believes that the rules-based international order is unnatural. Instead, it has a nineteenth century view of the world, in which powerful countries impose their will on weaker ones. The globe is divided into ‘spheres of influence’, and everything is zero-sum.

As multinational organisations have failed, nation-states have reasserted their primacy in intentional affairs. This is especially true with the European Union, which has struggled to coordinate a response and which has seen border controls re-introduced between members. Moscow believes that the EU is weak and ill-equipped to cope with the challenges of the twenty-first century. This is a view that was solidified after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.

None of the above is to agree with how the Kremlin sees the world, but it is an attempt to understand how it sees it. Russia’s authorities are likely to interpret the coronavirus pandemic as confirming their view that nationalism ultimately trumps globalism and that countries are driven by their self-interests. With the West’s vulnerabilities clear for all to see, the Kremlin will seek to take advantage by exploiting societal divisions, sowing confusion, and undermining democratic cohesion.

This should worry the West once the pandemic has passed. Not because Russia poses a serious long-term threat to our interests; it doesn’t, although Putin would prefer us to think that his shrivelled realm does. But because Russia is not the only authoritarian state seeking to learn lessons from the current crisis which could be used in a future conflict.

Dr Andrew Foxall is director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society

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