When the novel coronavirus pandemic began, President Vladimir Putin tried to use the crisis to burnish his reputation as a stronger leader and Russia as an effective state. At first, the Russian leader boasted that his country had escaped the worst, implicitly citing this success as yet more evidence of his own forceful leadership. State-controlled media outlets trumpeted Russia’s success while gloating over American failures. With great fanfare, including media coverage of Russian planes landing in the United States, the Kremlin declared that it had more than enough excess capacity to provide humanitarian assistance to the struggling American state. (We learned later that Putin did not give, but rather sold, this “humanitarian assistance” to American recipients. And then even more embarrassingly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency returned to Russia dozens of ventilators that are a similar model to those linked to several deadly hospital fires in St. Petersburg and Moscow.)
Stories of Russia’s powerful state capacity have long been central to Putin’s image as a strong leader. Since he first became president in 2000, Putin has promised to provide decisive individual leadership, not constrained by parliament, media, oligarchs or civil society, and to rebuild the Russian state, which had crumbled in the 1990s. At the beginning of his reign, Putin implicitly asked Russian citizens to accept a social pact. He would rebuild the state and grow the economy if Russians would agree to forgo their democratic institutions and human rights and allow him greater power. Putin also promised to return Russia to the international stage as a “great power.” The image of Putin as a strong leader and Russia as a strong state — both at home and abroad — has played a key role in Putin’s mystique. Putin is a “statist.” There is even a precise word in the Russian language for this ideological orientation: gosudarstvennik.
And that’s why Russia’s recent travails with containing the coronavirus threaten Putin and his autocracy. Globally, Russia now is second only to the United States in the number of citizens infected, and many suspect underreporting, especially regarding mortality rates, in official statistics.
The reality is that Putin has failed to build an efficient state in the service of Russian people over the past 20 years. He has put tremendous resources into modernizing Russia’s nuclear weapons, intelligence capabilities, conventional and police forces, and Olympic facilities, but invested far less into roads, schools or hospitals, especially outside of Moscow. Covid-19 is now exposing these lapses in state-building.
Putin also personally has not stepped forward during this crisis. He has been absent for days at a time, deferring to governors to make their own decisions. He has seemed disengaged and sometimes even uninterested in leading his government’s response to the pandemic. Moreover, Russia’s minister of culture and minister of housing have both tested positive, while Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin have even been hospitalized. That doesn’t look like strength.
Russians are noticing. It’s hard to conduct accurate polling in autocracies (especially when most of the polling firms are loyal to the regime and most know the tremendous intelligence capabilities of the Russian regime for tapping phones). Yet, even under these conditions, polls show that Putin’s approval rating has fallen to its lowest level — 59 percent in April 2020 — since he rose to power in 1999. The same month, only 27 percent of Russians said they trusted Putin to solve important issues. Fissures between federal and local officials — especially between the Moscow mayor and the federal government — are starting to show, as well as divides between the Kremlin’s technocrats and more ideological statists from Putin’s past and present circle of intelligence officer friends.
Not all democracies have performed well against the coronavirus. South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand and Germany have done much better than Italy, France, Britain, Brazil or the United States. But democracies have a built-in mechanism for allowing citizens to express their preferences about state performance. In the United States, voters in November will have the opportunity to evaluate Trump’s performance (provided, that is, we put in place the necessary conditions to conduct a healthy, free and fair election — a challenging metric of American state capacity).
Autocracies do not. Covid-19 has exposed the myth of Russia as a strong state and Putin as a strong leader. Without free and fair elections to allow peaceful, orderly expression of citizen attitudes about Russia’s ineffective response to the virus, only two other options are available — regime change or greater repression. While neglecting hospitals, roads, and schools, Putin has increased the state’s capacity in one area: control through coercion. Tragically, therefore, that option is most likely.
Michael McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University and a contributing columnist to The Post. He is the author of "From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia."