Is a Perfect Storm Brewing for Putin’s Russia?

(aangeboden aan The Moscow Times op 23 oktober 2020)

It’s an understatement to say that 2020 is a turbulent year. In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic the world is witnessing popular revolts in countries as diverse as Belarus, Thailand, Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan. Not to mention large scale demonstrations in numerous other countries, not in the least in the USA. Revolts and demonstrations that if not caused by, often can be related to the ongoing, and even worsening, global health crisis. With its resulting increasing levels of poverty everywhere.
What does this – alarming – situation actually mean for Russia?    

Numerous news reports and interviews coming from Russia clearly indicate the following trends.
First of all rising numbers of Covid-19 infections, currently setting daily new records. Clearly Russia, like many countries, is being hit by the notorious ‘second wave’. Reports about hospitals almost reaching maximum capacity are frequent, and worrying.

At the same time a new trend seems to be Pandemic Fatigue, illustrated by the lavish birthday party that Kremlin spokesperson Dimitri Peshkov, who has recovered from the virus himself, recently organised. Any respect for basic Covid-19 precaution measures seemed completely absent on the (deliberately) published video of the dancing party.

Also in Russia, like elsewhere, poverty has risen because of the pandemic, as jobs have been lost. But unlike many other countries, the Russian government has mostly abstained from large-scale financial compensation for hurt businesses and individuals.  One can imagine what this will mean for the population during a second wave, and the government may reconsider its policies. Lack of money cannot be a reason in resource rich Russia, with its healthy reserve funds.

Worrying for the Kremlin are developments in neighbouring Belarus. Despite its efforts to back up Lukashenko, it’s still conceivable that in the not so distant future the Belarus dictator will have to leave to stage because of the massive opposition in the country, that shows no sign of abiding. A revolt, as can be clearly seen, at least partly caused by an obvious mismanagement of the pandemic by the now self-proclaimed President. In combination with widespread dissatisfaction with the deteriorating living standards. One can argue that such developments in Russia are not imaginary.

Furthermore in Russia itself there are the continuous and persistent demonstrations in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, that also show no signs of ending soon. While starting as a protest against the removal of the popular governor, the protesters more and more direct their anger to Putin himself. Interestingly, some protesters in both Belarus and Khabarovsk support each other’s causes.

Finally, opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning has made him more visible for ordinary Russians. He will not standby in the next months to merely see what will be happening in his native Russia, even when residing in Germany temporarily.

However there’s a big and worrying X-factor for the Kremlin hanging above all of this. And that has to do with – inevitably – the Pandemic. Russia has touted not one but already two government approved Covid-19 vaccines, with a third one to come soon. This is unprecedented in the whole world. Vaccines that had not even finished their testing procedures and that as a result have been met with worldwide scepticism. At the least it can be said that apparently Russia (i.e. Putin) attaches much value to be being considered a frontrunner, if not the frontrunner, in the development of such an important vaccine. At this time it is not possible to conclude whether these propaganda efforts are justified, or based on overanxiety, not to say bluff. But the stakes are high and within a few months the moment of truth will arrive. With a domestic audience that is, to say the least, anxious. Why should this make the Kremlin worrying?

A report in The Moscow Times from September 11, 2020, mentioned that only 13,2% of the Russian people would definitely be willing to vaccinate, whilst 45,6% indicated they would definitely not. These numbers stem from a period that infections were much lower than today. One may assume – and hope – that the willingness to vaccinate has increased accordingly.
Still, these numbers indicate a large number of vaccine sceptics in the country.

Secondly, will the Russian people accept one of the Russian produced vaccines, provided they conclude their final and large-scale testing successfully? Russian distrust in its own authorities is well-known. How will this relate to the propaganda of using one of the domestically produced vaccines? When internationally approved foreign vaccines will enter the race, will Russians not prefer these, trusting them more? Will they be allowed to purchase foreign vaccines, or will they be obliged – at least the most critical groups and professions – to use the domestic vaccines? Being aware of the extraordinary publicity that the Russian State has sought with its early approval of domestic vaccines, stepping away from these and introducing foreign vaccines will be a huge loss of face. Especially if these vaccines are proven to be more successful and gain the trust of the majority of Russians.

This is all to say that 2021 could well be a critical year for the Russian people and for the Kremlin power structures. A pandemic that shows no signs of abiding, growing poverty among citizens and businesses plus an example of a popular revolt in neighbouring Belarus are an ominous sign. Putin is betting that his quickly approved vaccines can stem the pandemic and keep the population quiet. Does he know better, or is he bluffing? Will the Russian people, despite their present reluctance to take any Covid-19 vaccine, agree to use one of domestically produced ones? If not, and the pandemic cannot be controlled this way, the population may draw its conclusions and show its anger in unprecedented ferocity and numbers. Having seen how the Belarusians vented their frustration in massive street protests that may well happen. Is a perfect storm brewing for Putin’s Russia?