It was an unusually somber meeting. Less than a month ago, Putin had radiated confidence about his government’s response to a growing global crisis, reassuring his citizens that the situation was “under control” thanks to early intervention measures. A few weeks later, Putin played the role of international rescuer, dispatching a planeload of medical supplies to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
How quickly things can change in the time of coronavirus. In his Monday videoconference, Putin took stock of a worsening situation.
“We have a lot of problems,” Putin said. “There is nothing to boast about, and we must not let our guard down, because in general, as you and your specialists say, we have not passed the peak of the epidemic yet.”
The trendline speaks for itself. While Russia has comparatively few cases compared with the United States or the hardest-hit European countries, the number of confirmed cases has surged in recent days. On Monday, Russia reported a record one-day rise in cases, with 2,558 confirmed over the previous 24 hours.
On Tuesday, Russia hit a fresh record: 2,774 confirmed cases. And Putin is coming in for serious criticism over his handling of the crisis.
In a recent essay, Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center said the coronavirus pandemic had underscored Putin’s isolation from ordinary Russians.
“One of the main topics today is why Putin is almost imperceptible in the coronavirus situation,” she wrote. “He only addressed the nation briefly twice and went to the [coronavirus] hospital in Kommunarka, but he neither gave his own assessments of the crisis nor proposed a plan of action, but limited himself to scattered measures and general words. No drama, empathy or attempts to mobilize.”
Putin, Stanovaya argued, does not wish to be associated with harsh or unpopular measures, leaving such chores to local subordinates. In the case of the coronavirus, the task of rolling out some of the most heavy-handed restrictions has fallen to Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow.
The Russian capital has been the hardest hit by the virus. Officially, Russia has 21,102 cases, according to the government’s official tracking website, and the death toll has reached 170. Around half of the country’s recorded cases — 11,513 — are in Moscow, and 82 Muscovites have died.
Sobyanin has taken the lead in enforcing lockdown measures, including the introduction of a controversial digital tracking system designed to keep residents indoors.
A recent outbreak in China has also underscored the severity of the situation in Russia. Health authorities in Shanghai recently reported a surge in imported cases, tracing dozens of cases to a single flight that arrived in Shanghai from Moscow on April 10. Chinese authorities are also fighting an outbreak in city of Suifenhe, on the border with Russia’s Far East, a wave of cases attributed in large part to Chinese nationals returning from Russia.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday deflected questions about the planeload of coronavirus cases that arrived in China, referring reporters to other agencies. But the spike in cases imported to China from Russia has raised a larger question: The reliability of Russian official statistics.
The Russian government says it has carried out over 1.4 million tests for Covid-19. But Moscow doctors have recently begun diagnosing patients as positive based on lung scans because of questions over the accuracy of the tests.
In his Monday videoconference, Putin said the next few weeks would be critical for determining whether Russia is able to effectively flatten the curve and reduce the spread of coronavirus. And he said that the Russian military “can and should be deployed here, if necessary.”
The next two or three weeks may be critical for another reason. The Kremlin is still planning for an important date: the May 9 Victory Day parade, a major celebration to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
The Kremlin says plans are still underway to hold the event, which centers around an impressive display of military hardware rumbling through Red Square. Officials are reviewing plans amid coronavirus. But this prestigious event — on a holiday that is an occasion for near-religious reverence in Russia — presents a hard deadline, and a hard problem, for Putin’s anti-coronavirus campaign.