Russia’s Response to Covid-19
Although delayed compared to outbreaks in other countries, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken hold in Russia. Faced with a somewhat haphazard federal response, regional governments have pursued varying strategies for combating the virus. Russia has also provided aid to several foreign countries, which has led to accusations that it is using aid for propaganda purposes. The eventual severity of the outbreak in Russia and the impact of the steps taken by Moscow and regional governments is yet to be fully known, but despite the virus appearing comparatively late, it is now clear that the disease is spreading rapidly across Russia.
Q1: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on Russia?
A1: Compared to elsewhere in Europe and Asia, the impact of Covid-19 in Russia was delayed. While major European countries reported dozens of cases in February, apart from a Chinese national treated in Siberia, no other cases were reported on Russian soil that month, although several Russian nationals contracted the virus abroad. The first Russian national was diagnosed on February 17 by Japanese doctors aboard the Diamond Princess, the British cruise liner that experienced many of the world’s early cases. All of these early cases recovered fully, leading to early optimism that Russia would be spared the worst of the crisis. On March 1, President Vladimir Putin declared that the situation in Russia was “entirely under control.”
Illusions of Russia’s invulnerability dissipated over the month of March. The situation has turned very serious over the past few weeks, with the number of confirmed cases exploding from just 495 on March 24 to 10,131 as of April 9. Moscow, as Russia’s most-populous city and economic center, accounts for the vast majority of cases. The number of new daily cases is growing exponentially, suggesting the worst of crisis is still to come. After the first death, a 79-year-old pensioner, the death count has risen to 76 as of April 9. The virus could prove especially lethal in Russia, given the country’s demographics, which skew heavily toward the elderly. Furthermore, there is a concern that the Russian government is underreporting fatalities, with several elderly victims of the virus having their cause of death officially attributed to other ailments.
Going forward, the situation will challenge Russia’s society and government. As Putin offers aid to bolster its international image, domestic health services struggle with growing infection rates. The virus has already delayed the constitutional referendum scheduled for April 22 that would have allowed Putin to extend his rule. If the situation continues to deteriorate, Putin and the ruling United Russia Party could suffer a loss in public support; Putin’s approval already took a hit in 2019 after the retirement age was raised. Opinion polling suggests that a majority of Russians do not have confidence in the ability of the health care system to cope with the crisis.
The virus is also poised to destabilize Russia’s economy by causing a dramatic drop in global hydrocarbon demand at a time when oil prices have already been plummeting because of the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The virus is already disrupting Russian markets, contributing to stock market and ruble volatility. Russia has noteworthy economic safeguards, including significant reserves of hard currency and a strong budget surplus, but its effectiveness in mitigating an economic downturn remains to be seen.
Q2: How is the government responding to the outbreak?
A2: At the federal level, the response has been varied, but it has been generally late and inconsistent. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the creation of a coronavirus taskforce on January 29. Following nation-specific restrictions, the entry of all foreign nationals was barred on March 18, and a “high alert status” was introduced nationwide the following day. On March 31, the State Duma adopted legislation allowing Mishustin to declare a state of emergency during which citizens would face stiff penalties for violating quarantine or knowingly spreading false information.
After being largely absent during the early stages of the crisis, Putin has now given two national addresses. On March 27, he declared a week-long nationwide work “holiday” (now extended) and introduced measures, such as tax deferments for small- and medium-sized businesses and an increase in maternity capital for eligible families. In a second speech on April 2, Putin extended the national holiday until April 30, representing the most significant federal action taken to date. The speech struck a sterner tone, urging Russians to heed the advice of doctors and the government to follow social distancing guidelines while encouraging regional governments to do more to manage the outbreak locally.
The federal government has also recently taken steps to ameliorate the economic consequences of the pandemic, including boosting pay for medical workers, eliminating import duty on “socially important goods,” and helping businesses restructure loans. The International Monetary Fund estimates these measures could cost up to 0.3 percent of GDP. In addition, on April 2, Mishustin announced that the cabinet will allocate $32.9 million from the federal budget to support small- and medium-sized businesses. A further $63.2 million will be given to credit-providing organizations.
The initial lack of clear direction from the Kremlin resulted in a stronger response at the regional and municipal level. So far, around 20 regions have adopted mandatory isolation measures. The first to do so was Chechnya, whose president, Ramzan Kadyrov, ordered “crowded places” to be closed on March 24 (adding that people who violated these restrictions should be killed). The Kremlin has since called the closure of regional borders, as Chechnya did, “excessive.” Mishustin has also called these measures “unacceptable.”
The city of Moscow and the surrounding Moscow Oblast have been at the forefront of the local-level response. On February 21, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced that 2,500 people arriving from China had been placed under quarantine and would be monitored by the city’s facial recognition system. Restrictions on mass gatherings were introduced March 11 and extended to Moscow Oblast the following day. Sobyanin urged employers to allow Muscovites to work from home on March 18, and then on March 30, citywide quarantines were imposed in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. This measure, which had been ruled out as late as March 22, was implemented with little warning. The restrictions are quite severe, allowing people to go outside only to “seek emergency medical care, shop for food or medicine, go to work, walk pets, or take out the garbage.” Other cities and regions have gone even further. Nizhny Novgorod adopted measures requiring residents to download QR codes that authorities can use to keep tabs on their movement before leaving the house. Sobyanin confirmed Moscow was developing a similar system, but currently has no plans to use it.
The measures taken thus far have not come without criticism. After Putin’s second speech, opposition politician Aleksey Navalny wrote, “I will explain Putin’s logic. It comes from the fact that almost the entire economy is the state. State employees, employees of state-owned companies and large ‘controlled’ companies will be paid their salaries. The rest - all sorts of designers, lawyers, taxi drivers, waiters, and so on can be sacrificed.” Civil society groups and activists are also worried about the potential introduction of a state of emergency as well as the use of technology to monitor compliance.
Q3: It is still unclear what resources Russia will need to combat the epidemic at home. Why is Russia sending assistance to other countries?
A3: While slow to get a handle on the situation inside the country, the Kremlin has delivered medical assistance to some hard-hit countries in a public relations gesture designed to highlight Russia as a reliable partner and public goods provider. So far, Russian assistance has focused on three countries: Italy, Serbia, and the United States. Russian military medical equipment first arrived in Italy on March 22 following a conversation between Putin and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte. In addition to medical supplies, over 100 Russian military personnel trained in biological, chemical, and nuclear decontamination are now present in the country for a campaign named “From Russia With Love.” The assistance comes as the Italian government has expressed frustration with the European Union and other European countries for their delayed, uncoordinated response to a crisis that has left thousands of Italians dead. As Italy’s commissioner for the coronavirus emergency pointed out, “France has given us 2 million masks, Germany has sent us a few dozen ventilators … planes from Russia . . . brought 180 doctors, nurses, ventilators, and masks.”
Russia has also sent military medics and medical equipment to Serbia. This assistance included 11 flights and 87 military medics. Russian state media has reported that personnel have now disinfected arenas, provided consultations, trained Serbian personnel, and “analyzed the epidemiological situation.”
More striking was Russia’s delivery of medical assistance to the United States. A Russian Air Force cargo plane landed in New York on April 1 carrying protective gear and ventilators. The nature of this delivery was described differently by the two countries: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that "Trump accepted this humanitarian aid with gratitude," but the State Department emphasized that the supplies were purchased. Either way, Russian assistance stands out amid the mutual recrimination that has characterized U.S.-Russia relations for the last several years. It also allows Moscow to call attention to Washington’s inadequate response to the pandemic and to reverse the longstanding portrayal of Russia as dependent on the West.
Russian aid has not come without criticism both about its effectiveness and about Moscow’s ulterior motives. The Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that 80 percent of what Russia provided to Italy is useless. Some observers have also questioned whether the presence of Russian military personnel in a NATO country could be used for intelligence purposes. Similar assessments on the quality of equipment provided to the United States have not yet been reported in the press; however, critics have been quick to charge that the aid is designed to sway U.S. opinion, including around sanctions, and is more about public relations than public health.
Q4: How does Russia use Covid-19 in its disinformation campaigns?
A4: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently identified Russia, Iran, and China as the prime culprits in spreading disinformation related to Covid-19. Russia’s objectives are twofold: (1) like China, Russia is concerned with protecting its image, having mismanaged the early crisis; and (2) Russia seeks to confuse international opinion and call into question the West’s response—even as it seizes the opportunity to garner good will by providing humanitarian assistance (including to the United States).
Russian virus-related disinformation targets both foreign and domestic audiences. A multitude of narratives are rapidly generated and disseminated in a manner reminiscent of what a report from the RAND Corporation calls a “firehose of falsehoods,” i.e., a stream of misleading claims so large and constant that it overwhelms efforts at debunking. Specific stories may even contradict each other. For example, Russia’s disinformation campaign has simultaneously alleged that the virus is a hoax and that it is man-made.
Reminiscent of disinformation campaigns from the Cold War, one prominent narrative alleges that the virus is a U.S.-made biological weapon. Several stories pushed by Russian media have pointed to the Tbilisi Lugar Lab, a U.S.-funded lab in the country of Georgia that tests infectious diseases and monitors pathogens, as the alleged source of the virus. Another story claims a broader conspiracy between the United Kingdom and the United States, describing the virus as an “Anglo-Saxon biological warning.” This tactic is a modern-day revival of the biological disinformation campaigns conducted by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the most notable of which accused the United States of developing AIDS. In Operation Denver, this fake story was initially spread by the KGB on fringe publications but was eventually picked up by mainstream publications and achieved mass reach. Its impact is still felt today, with some segments of the U.S. population believing the lie.
While the impact of Russian disinformation operations related to Covid-19 will not be known for some time, early indicators and past lessons suggest that virus-related disinformation can be particularly effective. As Operation Denver showed, the fear and uncertainty surrounding a pandemic makes societies especially vulnerable to the circulation and adoption of false beliefs. Research has shown how anxiety facilitates information seeking, which can leave individuals and societies more susceptible to believing disinformation and half-truths. In the United Kingdom, for example, several cell towers were burned in connection with a conspiracy about Covid-19 and 5G. Russian involvement is suspected, given past efforts at stoking fears about 5G technology.
Russian disinformation may endanger Russia itself. The very half-truths and conspiracies that Russia peddles risk being internalized by its own citizens. Russia expert Mark Galeotti notes that Russia’s own disinformation threatens “the serious and sober efforts to educate the population about the threat and to ensure buy-in for the public health campaigns at work.” In Moscow’s calculus, however, the rewards likely outweigh the risks. As the crisis develops, expect Russia to continue to take advantage of the situation, tailoring its disinformation to play to societal anxieties and institutional vulnerabilities abroad in an effort to undermine trust in governments it views as hostile.
William Heerdt is an intern with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Timothy Kostelancik is a research assistant with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. Jeffrey Mankoff is senior fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.
Critical Questions 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).
© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.