Putin and the COVID Crisis: Instability as Opportunity

As COVID-19 ravages the world, forcing Moscow to declare a severe lockdown on March 29 with just four hours’ notice, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been proactive in making the best of the crisis and exploiting it to his own advantage both at home and abroad.

Domestic Maneuvers

At home, President Putin has chosen a time when the public sphere is dominated by the coronavirus to consolidate his authority and take steps that enable him to extend his time in office. While he was due to end his period as the country’s leader in 2024, when his current term concludes, he will now be able to remain president until 2036—the year in which he will turn 84 years old (as of 2017, life expectancy for men in Russia was 67 years old).

This was always going to be a controversial move, even if a long-anticipated one. Since the prospect of Putin retiring and relinquishing power was considered unlikely by all, the only question was how Putin would circumvent the constitutional requirement limiting his latest stint as president to two terms. Many commentators speculated he might accomplish this by uniting his country with Belarus, allowing him to set aside the current Russian constitution and replace it with a basic law for a new Russia-Belarus union. More recently, it seemed as though Putin might transfer power to the once-obscure State Council, which he would head, in a move similar to the last time his second consecutive term as president ended, in 2008, when he stepped into the role of prime minister.

But none of that turned out to be necessary. He simply handed his followers in the Russian parliament a set of constitutional amendments, and the Duma duly approved them. They will, however, need to be ratified in a referendum, which was initially scheduled for April 22 but has now been postponed because of the coronavirus. While there is an outside chance that, by changing the constitution when they had promised they would not, the Russian government loses credibility in the eyes of the population—bringing about exactly the sort of change Moscow does not want—the likelihood of such a backlash is hard to gauge in the midst of the pandemic.

The amendments to the Russian constitution are themselves fascinating, multifaceted, and go way beyond extending the term of the president; they also bolster presidential power considerably. For example, the new constitution gives the president the right to sack members of the 19-member Constitutional Court. This may seem unnecessary, since the constitutional judges are all appointed by the president anyway, but it staves off the possibility of some of them turning against the president in the years ahead.

The measures also strengthen the president’s control over the executive as the government will now report directly to him. Certain state officials will soon face a constitutional bar on owning property abroad and investing money overseas. This is expected to make it easier for the president to threaten the dismissal of civil servants—and thus secure even greater loyalty.

Finally, the constitutional amendments would move society in a conservative direction—it is likely some of these amendments were added to “sweeten” the deal and convince people to come out and vote “yes” on the referendum. They define marriage as solely between a man and a woman, elevate the status of the Russian Orthodox Church into the official religion, and limit the role of local governments.

Foreign Expeditions

Turning to foreign policy, the amendments approved by Putin at once rule out interference from abroad in Russia’s domestic affairs while encouraging Russia to “assist” other countries—a phrasing that tacitly licenses influence operations and other malign behavior.

To be sure, such behavior from Russia is not new. Russia has meddled abroad before, from attempted state-sponsored killings of Russian exiles in the United Kingdom to election interference throughout Europe and the United States and multiple other efforts to undermine the strength and credibility of Western democracies.

But the coronavirus has given Russian efforts a new impetus. Whereas Chinese disinformation efforts surrounding the virus have focused on censoring bad news for its own public or cleaning up China’s image in the eyes of the international community, Moscow’s disinformation efforts have been true to form in focusing on undermining Western countries.

Russian media has suggested (falsely) that a British facility created the coronavirus and deliberately planted it in China. Other Russian disinformation attempts have blamed the sources of the outbreak on U.S. and European elites and its spread on the United States’ military, in some cases amplifying lies from Beijing. Seeking to undermine support for NATO, Russia’s Twitter army suggested that DEFENDER 2020, a planned NATO exercise that has since been scaled back significantly, will spread the virus throughout the population of several member states. Since January, the European External Action Service has logged more than 110 cases of Russian disinformation. The stories, released in multiple languages, aim to exacerbate the crisis by sowing distrust in Western countries’ health care systems, leaders, and scientific experts. Learning from previous episodes, such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the Salisbury poisonings, Moscow has honed the tactic of pushing out multiple contradictory lines at once to sow maximum confusion. As the virus induces an ever-greater shock—social, economic, and political—to almost every country in the world, further malign untruths from Russia are anticipated.

In addition to these efforts in the disinformation space, Russia is using the fact that the United States and its European allies and partners are preoccupied in managing COVID-19 to exercise its conventional military capabilities. While some of these activities, such as the live-fire combat training Russia’s Northern Fleet held along the border with Norway earlier this month, were likely intended to counter planned exercises such as the Norwegian-led Cold Response (which has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis), other actions seem designed to take advantage of less-congested, and possibly less-contested, airspace in order to probe further than in the past. Three times in the week of March 7, Russia flew its T-160 strategic bombers over the Barents, Norwegian, and North Seas and its Tu-142 anti-submarine warfare aircraft from north of the Kola peninsula to south of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap. While the Russian jets were promptly met by Norwegian F-16 and F-35 aircraft or British Typhoons assigned to NATO’s Quick Reaction Alert, the flights probed farther south than past maneuvers. Such maneuvers are an irresponsible and unwelcome distraction at a time when national governments, including Russia’s, should be focused on managing COVID-19.

Economic Brinksmanship

A final area where Russia is trying to exploit a fragile global economic situation is in the oil market, where it broke from fellow oil supplier Saudi Arabia in refusing to restrict output in order to offset the collapse in demand from COVID-19. Russia’s hope is that by keeping the price of oil low, it can force some U.S. shale oil producers out of the market (as shale production is only profitable when prices are high) and regain some of its market share in Europe and elsewhere.

While Russia maintains that it has sufficient reserves to weather low oil prices for several years, this plan could backfire for Putin. It is unclear whether the market will respond to lower oil prices given the dearth in demand, and the recent crash in oil prices has hit the Russian ruble badly—it is down some 30 percent against the dollar since the start of 2020. This depreciation will likely depress the government’s tax earnings, increase the price of imported goods (damaging real household incomes), and accelerate inflation in the short term. Given that Moscow seems unwilling to deploy some of its half-trillion-dollar reserve to stabilize the currency, this will impact Russian living standards significantly.

Like so many authoritarian governments around the world, Putin draws much of his legitimacy from his perceived capacity to be strong and effective, and to get things done. If his presidency is seen to fail in keeping Russia afloat economically or in its response to the coronavirus crisis, new questions about his grip on power may well arise.

Yet for now, it looks as though Putin has successfully given himself a further 12 years in office and is aggressively flexing Russia’s economic and military muscle to project influence and strength during this time of uncertainty. What this means for Russia’s polity and society, much less global stability, is far less clear.

Iain King is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Europe Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Rachel Ellehuus

Iain King