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As Russian coronavirus cases rise, Putin delegates tough action to Moscow mayor

Moscow police officers wearing face masks patrol an empty Red square. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Muscovites got four hours' notice Sunday night on a sweeping quarantine that will keep them inside their homes unless they are walking a pet, taking out the trash or visiting the nearest grocery store. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin's decree did not take effect until midnight, but the confusion was immediate.

Within an hour, prominent Russian lawmaker Andrei Klishas questioned the legality of Sobyanin’s order, arguing that only federal authorities could impose such restrictions. While some state media said there was no curfew for the Moscow region, video of police announcing one from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. circulated on social media.

It capped a week of mixed messaging from Russian authorities on the coronavirus pandemic, as President Vladimir Putin has delegated the enacting of tough measures to others.

With Moscow declaring a stricter quarantine than most European cities, one blogger for the popular Echo of Moscow independent radio station wondered whether Sobyanin is now making the key decisions for Russia.

“It’s a natural separation of responsibilities for Putin, who is the czar and the father of the nation, who can contribute only the good news,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, chairman of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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For a country spanning two continents ravaged by the pandemic, Russia has a relatively low number of confirmed cases: 1,836. But the number of new cases per day has been steadily increasing, with Monday’s 302 new diagnoses setting another high.

In a televised speech Wednesday, Putin addressed the country’s response to the novel coronavirus for the first time, postponing a vote on constitutional amendments and declaring paid time off this week for the whole country. But he stopped short of mandatory commercial closures or stay-at-home orders, prompting many Russians to book travel to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

That led to several clarifications from various officials, but not Putin. Sobyanin ordered all parks, restaurants, spas and other nonessential businesses closed for the week — a restriction that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin then extended to the entire country — while presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russians should work or study remotely rather than treat the week like a holiday.

A day after Putin’s address, Peskov also declared, “We have no epidemic” in Russia, undermining Sobyanin’s tough talk. Then, in a televised meeting with his envoys Monday afternoon, Putin backed Sobyanin in his first public comments about the quarantine.

“It’s necessary to undertake every measure required in this situation, even if they may look excessive for Russia today,” the president said.

Analysts said the disjointed and often contradictory messaging from government officials on the coronavirus pandemic has been uncharacteristic, given the typically unified front.

I think the problem is that within the Kremlin, in a way, they have gotten so used to the idea that in some ways they can define the narrative and the narrative will shape reality,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “Of course, this is a different way around. This is actually a reality that has to shape the narrative.”

Moscow's central shopping mall TSUM provided employees with masks so the boutique shop assistants stay protected while looking stylish. (Video: Reuters)

In a poll conducted earlier this month by the independent Levada Center, just 16 percent of Russian respondents said they “fully” trusted the country’s official coronavirus data. Even Sobyanin doesn’t trust it; he told Putin in a televised meeting that the number of actual cases is probably “significantly” higher because there hasn’t been enough testing.

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Roughly two-thirds of Russia’s confirmed cases of the coronavirus are in Moscow, so Sobyanin, a technocrat who was tapped to head Russia’s coronavirus task force, has taken on the “bad cop” burden for Putin, Galeotti said. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R. Politik think tank, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Sobyanin “has turned out to be Russia’s biggest European” by imposing strict measures similar to those in France, Italy and Spain.

Even Mishustin has seemingly been following Sobyanin’s lead. A pattern has emerged in the past week of Sobyanin first announcing restrictions for Moscow and Mishustin then applying them to the rest of the country.

But while Putin has been largely — and conspicuously — silent, analysts said there is little doubt that he has had the final say behind the scenes. If the coronavirus pandemic turns catastrophic in Russia, Putin will not be able to shift blame solely to Sobyanin, Carnegie’s Kolesnikov said, pointing to Putin’s already slumping approval ratings. A March poll by the Levada Center put his latest rating at 63 percent, nearing his 2013 low of 61 percent.

“Everyone understands that this is the same power,” Kolesni­kov said. “I think that an average Russian citizen doesn’t separate Putin from Mishustin or Mishustin from Sobyanin. Nevertheless, Putin is the main responsible person.”

Russia’s official coronavirus numbers are relatively low. Even Moscow’s mayor is questioning the count.

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