Pandemic and Protests: Key Drivers of Russia’s Increased Threat Perception

This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
The year 2020 has ruined many people’s plans but none more so than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. This was supposed to be his year: a coronation year filled with pageantry and celebration, a time to shore up his domestic constituency after a couple of years of flagging approval ratings. There was a plan: shake up the government, keep the elites off-balance, install a new Prime Minister, execute the nationwide constitution referendum vote, and begin to look at what comes next in 2024.  Meanwhile, on the international stage, use the 75th anniversary of the Russian (and Allied) victory in World War II as an occasion to revamp Putin’s international image and remind the world of Russia’s rightful place as an indispensable global actor. And with any luck: finally wrap up Syria and move into a successful UNSC presidency in October 2020 coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter. There was a plan . . .
But as the summer winds down, Putin feels more insecure than ever as a result of three factors: Covid-19 and the multitude of uncertainties and challenges unfolding both domestically and abroad from the pandemic; wide-scale protests in Khabarovsk following the arrest of Governor, Sergei Furgal, of the “systemic opposition” party Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR); and, as if that wasn’t enough, the largest protests ever in Belarus and a Belarusian regime that is teetering on the brink of survival. These three events aren’t just bad news: they have elevated Russia’s threat perception in ways that the United States and Europe must understand to avoid a costly confrontation.

Pandemic Uncertainty

Russia was quick to close its border with China in February, resulting in only a minor diplomatic spat, as it postured against the impending pandemic. But as winter faded to spring and the pandemic continued to spiral, senior Russian leadership appeared to have been genuinely caught off guard by how quickly the situation deteriorated, with perhaps one exception—Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. And as the pandemic began to spread in Russia, first in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and more slowly out the regions, Putin found himself in the truly unprecedented situation of devolving the COVID response out to regional authorities. Far from being a vote of confidence in regional leadership, this looked more like an abdication of responsibility from the center—if we succeed, we succeed together; but if you fail, you fail alone.
At the same time Covid-19 really began to take hold, Russia severely overplayed its hand with OPEC+, bolstering the argument that senior Russian leadership had misjudged the severity of the pandemic. Throughout March and into early April, Moscow and Riyadh failed to come to an agreement on pricing and production and as oil prices tanked, the ruble fell 7 percent against the dollar. Even with a large sovereign wealth fund that could be tapped into, a Russian budget estimated to be pegged $40 a barrel was looking less stable as oil continued to tumble. Markets eventually stabilized following the April 9 agreement to cut production, and have largely rebounded to early Covid-19 pricing, but that does not mean Russia is out of the woods yet economically. On July 13, Putin announced that as a result of Covid-19, the National Projects would be delayed at least six years.
Before the pandemic, a heavy focus on domestic spending and implementation of the National Projects was a cornerstone of the government shakeup and the impetus for installing technocratic former head of the tax service Mikhail Mishustin as Prime Minister back in January. These moves were designed to help shore up Putin’s domestic constituencies, who had been less than pleased with socio-economic missteps, such as pension reform, in Putin’s fourth term. But instead, Putin’s already slumping approval ratings continued to fall.
By May, as the Kremlin continued to grapple with Covid-19, Putin’s approval ratings had fallen to a historic low. At only 59 percent, according independent Levada Center polling, it was the lowest approval rating for Putin’s since September of 1999, when he had first been appointed Prime Minister. By July, his approval rating had only rebounded by one point. Meanwhile, Levada Center polling showed that society’s view of direction Russia was heading had fallen from 53 percent believing Russia was heading in the right direction in March to 42 percent holding the same belief by July. Not exactly where Putin was hoping to find himself heading to a nationwide constitutional referendum vote.

Khabarovsk Protests

Following the July 1 nationwide constitutional referendum vote, the Kremlin appeared emboldened to reassert its authority through the usual means such as crackdowns on opposition and arresting journalists. In one such instance, Sergei Furgal, the governor of Khabarovsk, was arrested on July 9 on charges of organizing multiple contract killings in 2004 and 2005, in a case that had previously been closed due to a lack of evidence. While it is not clear if new evidence emerged, what did change in the intervening years is that Furgal, a member of systemic opposition party LDPR, was elected governor in 2018 at the expense of a Kremlin-backed United Russia candidate. Moreover, his election—and genuine popularity—came against a backdrop of increased protests for social and economic issues across Russia.
In 2018, Russian protest movements experienced a turning point. Increasingly these protests took place outside of Moscow and often did not take on explicitly political stances or criticize the Kremlin. Instead, protests were aimed at fixing socio-economic grievances. The protests against the controversial and deeply unpopular 2018 pension reform gave way to the numerous other protests including, landfill protests near Arkhangelsk, the Ingushetia land swap protests, and the Yekaterinburg cathedral protests. In each of these instances, the Rosgvardiya (the National Guard) was ultimately deployed after they dragged on too long or the local police failed to adequately suppress them. And once the Rosgvardiya arrived, heavy-handed tactics were used, arrests and detentions ramped up, and protest activity died down.
In contrast, the current protests in Khabarovsk are entering a tenth consecutive week with no meaningful attempt by security services—local police or Rosgvardiya—to actually subdue them. Entering into the second week of September, organizers received permission for up to 70,000 people to attend the next planned rally on September 12, as protesters continue to call for the resignation of President Putin. Even as these protests have continued with an explicitly anti-Putin dimension, the Kremlin continues to appear unwilling to addresses them—perhaps a recognition that the usual default heavy handed response by Rosgvardiya may only serve to the galvanize demonstrations in the Far East. 


Which leaves the third factor increasing Moscow’s threat perception—the widespread protests currently gripping Belarus following the August 9 reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. When the official results were announced on August 14, Lukashenko was declared the winner with a staggering 80 percent of the vote, amid strong condemnation and accusations of voter fraud from the opposition. This kicked off the largest protests Belarus has ever seen, with up to an estimated 200,000 people gathering in Minsk alone that first weekend. Following the election, Lukashenko’s main opposition challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to flee to Lithuania where she has since declared herself the winner and called for continued peaceful protest. By mid-August, Lukashenko was frequently speaking with President Putin via phone,  claiming that NATO was seeking to intervene in Belarus, and that he was being targeted by a ‘color revolution’ orchestrated by the West.  
As of early September, protests in Belarus show no sign of abating as they enter a second month, despite a heavy-handed response from security services. Russia has come to Lukashenko’s aid in limited capacities, providing staff for Belarussian state TV after workers walked off in protests. But the Kremlin has been hesitant to get more involved. The protests for now have stayed solidly anti-Lukashenko, but any hint of anti-Russian sentiment would greatly increase Russia’s concerns. For Moscow, maintaining its perceived sphere of influence in the near abroad holds a place of near existential importance.

… And none of this was part of the plan

Putin and the other Kremlin senior leaders will continue watching the events unfolding in Khabarovsk and across Belarus very closely while seeking to mitigate the domestic challenges from Covid-19. But U.S. and European policymakers should understand that Russia’s threat perception is significantly elevated, with protests on two fronts and an undercurrent of domestic challenges. Nearly two decades of rhetoric painting a Western hand behind every political opposition movement and blaming the United States and Europe for trying to incite a ‘color revolution’ in Russia and the near abroad has only served to insulate the Kremlin in its own paranoia.
The United States and Europe need to carefully calibrate their responses to the Belarusian protest movement, centered on rhetoric for supporting the democratic process and the will of the Belarusian people, while avoiding the appearance of supporting regime change. It would be more important for the will of the people to play out, as too much western support could risk unintended escalation by Moscow, which has far more to lose than the West has to gain. Similarly, as the investigation into the poisoning of opposition leader and long-term thorn in the Kremlin’s side, Alexei Navalny, unfolds, the United States and Europe need to think carefully about what they are trying the achieve with their response and adjust accordingly. Perhaps most importantly, U.S. and European policymakers need to understand that the Kremlin is unlikely to look at Western actions or responses individually, but as coordinated with another ongoing or preplanned activity—even if that is not the case.
Kelsey King works with U.S. European Command, based in the United Kingdom. Prior to joining USEUCOM, Kelsey spent four years with the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, D.C. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or any other agency of the Federal Government. 
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).