The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin has just made two huge mistakes — and his timing couldn’t be worse

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Emergencies Minister Yevgeny Zinichev attend a meeting at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on April 27. (Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin Pool/Sputnik/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Michael Carpenter is managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a well-earned reputation as an astute tactician and a steely decision-maker. Yet over the past few weeks he has mismanaged Russia’s responses to two major crises: the collapse of the oil market and the coronavirus pandemic. Now he is facing one of the most acute challenges to his rule right at the moment when he had thought it safe to extend his term through a constitutional referendum.

The Kremlin’s first mistake came in early March, when it reacted to falling oil prices by rejecting Saudi entreaties to cut production. The Russian decision to push for an oil glut proved to be singularly mistimed.

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Putin had likely hoped that a sudden drop in prices would bankrupt the many independent U.S. shale producers who operate on thin margins. And since the Russian budget balances at around $40 per barrel, while Saudi Arabia targets a price that is roughly twice that, the Kremlin no doubt figured it could stick it to the Saudis while absorbing a short-term fall in revenue.

What Putin planned as a knockout punch turned out to be more of an own goal. While the U.S. shale industry has indeed taken a hit, a recent round of consolidation has made it more adaptable than it might have been otherwise. By April, when the bottom had fallen out of the oil market and negative prices were being posted, it was President Trump who threw Putin a lifeline by brokering an agreement to cut production with the Saudis. Many in the Russian energy sector saw this as a humiliating climbdown.

Yet it’s not just Russia’s reputation as a market player that’s at stake. Oil prices are an existential issue for Putin’s petro-state, where budget and currency are closely tied to global hydrocarbon markets. Russia’s economic forecast appears correspondingly bleak. Though the Kremlin currently sits on a foreign currency reserve of about $430 billion, budgetary support for struggling businesses in the months ahead could blow through that cushion rather quickly. Worse still, the government could continue to mandate paid leave for workers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic without providing the necessary financial support to struggling companies, forcing many to resort to dubious tactics to force workers off their payrolls or drastically reduce wages. This could easily result in a nationwide surge in unemployment and a wave of bankruptcies.

The Kremlin’s second big mistake was to allow its propaganda machine to project an aura of invincibility even as the covid-19 tsunami was spreading across Russia. The Kremlin closed part, but not all, of its 2,600-mile border with China on Jan. 31, leading to a false sense of security that was compounded by willful ignorance. Demonstrating both its hubris and ignorance, the military thus went forward with a large-scale exercise on Ukraine’s border in late March, long after NATO had pulled the plug on its “Defender Europe” drill.

Testing throughout February and most of March was handled by a single lab in Siberia, meaning that most covid-19 cases across Russia’s 11 time zones were being wrongly classified as pneumonia, bronchitis, flu, etc. It didn’t help that authorities criminalized the spread of “false information” or that they arrested a prominent doctor for challenging official statistics as she tried to deliver masks to an impoverished rural hospital.

Now, as social media users are sharing videos of ambulances lined up for miles waiting to deposit patients in overcrowded Moscow hospitals, it’s no longer possible to claim that all is under control. The Russian health-care system was already struggling with a number of chronic health conditions (tuberculosis, heart disease, alcoholism, etc.) and many public health experts worry that the pandemic might bring matters to a breaking point. Russia is also one of the rare countries that’s simultaneously coping with low life expectancy and a graying population, making it particularly vulnerable to covid-19. Putin’s tendency to delegate decisions on pandemic policy to regional governors might help insulate him from political fallout in the near term, but it is unlikely to lead to a well-managed policy over the longer term.

All of this jeopardizes Putin’s plan to change the constitution to allow him to serve two more terms as president, allowing him to stay in office until 2036 (when he will turn 84). Although parliament had already rubber-stamped the changes, Putin had also intended to put them to a referendum, originally scheduled for April 22 but now postponed indefinitely.

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Even before the pandemic hit, the referendum was a dangerous gamble. In March, a Levada Center poll showed support for the changes at just 48 percent. That number is likely to fall significantly in the coming months. (A poll released this week reveals that citizens’ trust in Putin has fallen to a 14-year low.) On April 20, 500 people in Vladikavkaz violated a local lockdown order to protest against the lack of reliable information on the spread of covid-19, and protests have also taken place in Rostov and smaller cities that do not typically register big opposition demonstrations.

What happens next is hard to predict with any certainty, but one thing is clear: The legitimacy of the Putin regime will be tested as never before.

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