Vladmir Putin conducts a videoconference with his cabinet. The Russian president has been distant as Covid-19 rages across his country. Photo: AFP

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, unusual behavior is being seen in the Kremlin, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has uncharacteristically loosened his grip on the nation’s helm.

From the outset of the crisis, Putin, widely known nationally and globally for his hands-on, strong-man leadership style, has taken on a low profile. He also seems to have underplayed the threat. In addresses to the nation, he has refrained from announcing lockdowns, only announcing a “month-long holiday” to last until the end of April. 

Lacking clear direction from the top, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin – who replaced Putin’s scandal-struck, long-term number two Dmitri Medvedev in January – has also shied away from implementing nationwide quarantine measures.

That pushes authority out to the periphery. Before entering seclusion in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, Putin delegated the responsibility for handling the crisis to regional governors. 

Some have already failed the challenge, but one has taken the opportunity to push back against a surprisingly non-assertive center.

‘You’re in charge!’

“They must determine a concrete set of preventative measures that are optimal for their territories from the point of view of ensuring the health and safety of people, as well as the stability of the economy and key infrastructure,” Putin said. 

Putin’s delegation of authority comes as a surprise, as it contradicts the Kremlin policy of years, based on highly centralized control over Russia’s vast landmass. It also comes as matters across the world’s largest physical country look increasingly grave.

Russians should be prepared to face “complex and extraordinary” circumstances as the pandemic spreads, Putin said in a video conference call with his cabinet on Monday. The situation “is changing every day – and, unfortunately, not for the better,” he added. 

In late March, as the death toll surged across the West, Russia seemed to be living a charmed existence, seeing new daily cases of only 100 per day.

No longer. Now, thousands of new infections are being detected every day, suggesting that far from flattening its curve, Russia’s medical facilities could be overwhelmed. Moscow is the epicenter – and a peak in infections, authorities say, is not yet in sight. 

So what explains Putin’s absence?

Some analysts suggest he is worried that unpopular lock-down measures could impact his approval ratings, which this year dropped to 63% – their lowest point since 2013. 

“When all the possible solutions to a given problem entail too high a risk, Putin prefers to limit his own role to a minimum and delegate to others the responsibility to take action,” said Grigory Golosov, a professor of comparative politics at the European University of Saint Petersburg. 

But not all agree.

Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes Putin’s minimal involvement in crisis-response measures is unconnected with concerns over his popularity. Instead, he doesn’t consider managing a health crisis part of presidential duties, but rather as “non-political, routine tasks.”

“To Putin, deciding what sort of lockdown measures to implement, what the fines should be for violating those measures, which businesses should halt their activities – these aren’t tasks befitting an official of his rank,” she said. 

Governors in the hot seat 

The lack of clear instructions from the Kremlin puts regional governors in a doubly tight spot.

First, they must choose between imposing strict lockdown measure at the expense of local businesses, or keeping their regions open and risking a surge in infections. Secondly, they will have to answer to the president if things go wrong. Governors who don’t cope could face criminal charges, Putin warned. 

“The strategy of the federal government consists of dumping the responsibility for all failures in the fight with coronavirus to the regional authorities, while taking all merit in case of success,” said Golosov. 

The political body count is already mounting. Governors unequal to the task in Arkhangelsk, Kamchatka, Yamalo-Nenets and Komi have all resigned in recent weeks. 

All governors’ eyes are now directed upon Moscow, where Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is emerging as a leading national figurehead in the fight against Covid-19.

In the early stages of the pandemic, he warned Putin that the Covid-19 threat was being underestimated, and was the first local official to impose self-isolation measures in his jurisdiction. Sobyanin’s bold decision was quickly endorsed by Mishustin and followed by other governors.

Against this backdrop, one of the most high-profile and controversial governors in Russia has put his unique stamp on affairs.

Iconoclastic Chechnya

So far, the strictest measures have been taken in the Republic of Chechnya.

There, local hardman and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov has imposed a curfew. It was reportedly being enforced by police officers with blunt weapons who were menacing people who refused to stay home. 

And in a sterner challenge to centralized authority, Kadyrov has gone as far as shutting off his republic’s borders – triggering a dispute with Mishustin, who reminded governors “not to confuse regional powers with federal ones.” 

Used to answering only to Putin himself, the Chechen leader brushed off Mishustin’s comments, replying that his borders remain open for the transit of essential goods. However, ordinary citizens are not permitted to enter or leave Chechnya.

Rhetorically, Kadyrov – noted for his populist grandstanding as well as macho posturing – rose to the prime minister’s challenge in bombastic style. “I am ready to break all laws in order to save my peoples’ lives.” he declared. 

Defiance of federal authority is no novelty in Chechnya.

Not only was it famously restive as far back as Czarist times, it was the scene of two exceptionally brutal separatist wars in the 1990s and 2000s that saw much of the republic flattened by Russian air- and firepower. After being lavishly rebuilt from the ground up, the republic has essentially been run by Kadyrov – who succeeded his assassinated father, a former regional warlord – as a personal fiefdom. 

“In Chechnya, there has always been an informal regime which doesn’t fit into the legal framework of Russia,” said Stanovaya. “This crisis has only intensified this feature even more.”

Putin’s possibilities 

While Putin’s delegation strategy might take the heat off his leadership in the short term, he will be unable to ignore the long-term impact of the crisis.

The pandemic hit Russia at a delicate moment for the president. It has forced him to postpone a national referendum on constitutional change. The change Putin seeks would lift a limit on presidential terms, enabling him to run for the job yet again in 2024, and possibly retain power until 2036. 

A delay means the referendum could take place at a riskier time. The Russian economy, already strained by the crash of oil prices last month, is now spiraling into what is expected to be a deep recession. 

Critics say the relief measures announced so far by the central government to support the economy are insufficient – they correspond to a mere 1.5% to 2% of the country’s GDP. This is unfavorably compared to 10% in the US and similar amounts in most European countries, and a whopping 20% in the world’s number three economy, Japan. 

According to Andrey Kolesnikov, senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Putin risks losing the support of the small-and-medium enterprise entrepreneurial class, which is being hit hardest by the crisis.

“The social contract, ‘I feed you and you vote for me,’ is being eroded,” Kolesnikov pointed out in a column for Russian newspaper Gazeta.ru.  

Yet regardless of the severity of the health and economic crises looming, Putin can count on a powerful and undeniable Russian reality. According to Stanovaya, the country suffers from a near-total lack of viable candidates for the country’s top job.

“Unless there is a prolonged crisis in which the state does not pay pensions and salaries for months, the [current leadership] will still be able to secure victory in elections,” she said. “Regardless of Putin’s low approval ratings.”