Vladimir Putin has taken a backseat in tackling Russia’s coronavirus outbreak, working remotely from his residence in the Moscow suburbs and delegating powers that he has spent a generation mostly accumulating in the Kremlin.
Strict quarantine measures and border closures have been imposed by trusted lieutenants including the Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, and the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, with officials leading parallel efforts to contain the virus and its economic fallout.
Putin, meanwhile, has mainly focused on cushioning the financial blow to Russians during teleconferences or in televised speeches from an empty office, a difficult perch from which to appear to be managing a crisis that he has seemed keen to hand off.
It is an unusual state of affairs in Russia, where political decisions radiate out from the centre, and where ordinary Russians are also coming to terms with scant supplies of medical masks, mounting economic troubles and the simple monotony of life under quarantine. Businesses have clamoured for more government aid, including a release of Russia’s financial reserves.
“Stop waiting for some mythical Putin to come and save you,” said Yevgenia Albats, the editor of the independent New Times magazine, when asked about aid on the popular Echo of Moscow radio station this week. “Only you can do it,” she said.
Putin has avoided public gatherings since late March, days after donning a yellow safety suit to visit Moscow’s main hospital for coronavirus patients. While there, he shook hands and spoke with the head doctor later diagnosed with the disease. The Kremlin has said that Putin is not sick and is working remotely, but the encounter raised questions of whether Russia’s president was also self-isolating, following other leaders such as Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.
On Wednesday, Putin gave a publicly televised speech calling for bonuses for nurses and doctors caring for Covid-19 patients, and calling the next two to three weeks “decisive” in Russia’s battle with the disease.
Calling upon Russians to unite, Putin compared the country’s fight with coronavirus to battles with enemies from the 10th and 11th centuries, an eccentric choice that left many Russians searching the Internet.
“Dear friends!” he said. “Everything passes, and this too will pass. Our country has repeatedly passed through serious tests: the Pechenegs tormented it, and the Cumans too. Russia defeated all of them. We will also defeat this coronavirus infection. Together we will overcome everything.”
The appeal to unity came at an important moment, as Putin’s previous addresses had fallen flat. After he introduced a “non-working week” in late March, Russians flocked to barbecues in local parks, leading Moscow’s mayor to introduce a tough self-isolation regime, emphasising it was not a holiday.
Other Kremlin reports of Putin’s activities have been even stranger. After telling the press that Putin was working remotely and not shaking hands, the Kremlin released a video on Monday showing the president receiving two ministers at the Kremlin and kicking off the exchange with a hearty handshake. The three men did not mention the coronavirus once during the encounter, fuelling rumours it had been filmed earlier and then released this week. Oleg Kashin, a prominent Russian journalist, said it appeared to be “preserves”, the Russian term for pre-packaged content the Kremlin sometimes releases days or weeks after an event.
Putin’s televised appearance on Wednesday – where he made a direct call on regional heads to develop new measures to help Russians – may indicate he plans to take a more hands-on approach to the crisis.
Analysts have noted that Putin’s approach mirrored some other countries, where local officials are tasked with enforcing tough regulations and the central government delivers economic stimulus. The approach would limit Putin’s exposure to unpopular decisions and preserve his public support.
There was another possibility, wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst and head of the R.Politik analysis firm: Putin simply does not see tackling the virus as his job. Unfortunately, she added, the state machinery “has forgotten how to act independently”.
“The president expects efficiency from his subordinates, but they have gotten used to merely implementing decisions made by others, and have now forgotten how to generate their own,” she wrote in a piece published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.