Can Putin weather COVID?

Can Putin weather COVID?

This is not the 2020 that Vladimir Putin had in mind.

As the year started, Russia's president was crafting plans for changes to the constitution that would permit him to stay in power for (at least) another 16 years. A rubber stamp public referendum was to be held in April. Then, in May, he was to welcome foreign leaders to Moscow for a grand celebration (parades, concerts, fireworks, and a reviewing stand atop Lenin's Mausoleum) marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union's triumph over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War.


Instead, the coronavirus crisis barged in and wrecked those nice, late-stage authoritarian plans.

Early in the pandemic, seeing unusually low numbers in Russia, Putin claimed that things were "under control." But even after he changed tack and declared a "national paid vacation" (that's Russian for "lockdown") in March, Russia now has the second highest number of confirmed cases in the world, after the United States. And the official stats are so at odds with what health workers are reporting that it looks like officials are covering up the true extent of the disease's spread.

The anniversary ceremony was cancelled, of course. And the referendum has been postponed indefinitely. Putin will have to think carefully about whether holding the vote in the middle of this crisis is really a good idea.

The economy is set to shrink by more than 5 percent, the largest contraction since the financial crisis of 2009. A collapsing oil price may force the Russian government to reach deep into its (sizable) cash reserves to bail out businesses, send pensions, and pay the salaries of state workers. (30% of Russian workers are paid, directly or indirectly, by the state.)

His approval rating, meanwhile, has now fallen to 59% — its lowest point since 2000, the first year of his presidency. By comparison, after his widely adored invasion of Ukraine in 2014, his rating shot up to the mid 80s. A botched pension reform last year already took some of the stuffing out of that number.

Putin has weathered crises before terrorist attacks in the early 2000s and the 2009 economic collapse come to mind. He has also shrewdly turned them to his advantage, as he did by stoking trouble in Ukraine.

Is his system built for this? Putin has shaped a deeply corrupt and uncertain system in which power flows from the top down — officials look mainly to please their bosses rather than their constituents. And he has carefully cultivated an almost cinematic image of himself as a man-of-action, defending Russia's interests, and making it "great again," you might say. Smart economic policies mean that the government always has a huge rainy day fund to keep the wheels spinning.

But managing a public health crisis requires more than just cash, yes-men, and photo-ops. It demands competent bureaucrats capable of making sound decisions on their own, a reliable flow of accurate information, and a responsive leadership. So far in this crisis, Putin has looked at best uninformed and at worst impotent. And it's hard for him to blame the usual suspects (the Americans) for this mess, try as he might.

If the death rates that people can see – as opposed to the ones reported in suspect numbers – continue to rise, Putin may have a much bigger problem on his hands than reshuffling his agenda for 2020.

And this just in…Ramzan Kadyrov, the eccentrically cruel warlord who runs Chechnya for Putin, has been flown to a hospital in Moscow after developing COVID-19 symptoms. If Kadyrov, who has been called "Putin's dragon," were to leave the scene, the brutal peace that he has imposed on Chechnya could come apart fast, with big consequences for Russia more broadly.

The impact of Covid-19 is being felt in every household, changing the way we live our lives. The pandemic continues to reinforce the drive for cooperation between communities, governments and businesses in order to combat the threat.

Microsoft responded to the pandemic in its home state through efforts like donating protective equipment, making boxed lunches for families and using technology to better understand the spread of the virus over the last year. Now, we're sharing six ways Microsoft is pulling together with the community to lend a hand to fellow Washingtonians in 2021 including helping with vaccination efforts. To read more, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

One of the world's most famous political dissidents may die in a Russian prison this week.

Alexei Navalny has been on a hunger strike since March 31 over the authorities' refusal to let his own medical team examine him after he developed signs of tuberculosis. Now, one of his aides says Navalny is "close to death."

The fate of Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic — who was poisoned last summer, allegedly by state officials, treated in Germany, and then jailed upon his return to Russia — is being closely watched both inside and outside the country.

More Show less

The Biden administration's much ballyhooed Earth Day Summit this week promises to be revealing. We're going to learn a little about what additional action a few dozen of the world's largest emitters are willing to take on climate change, and a lot more about which countries are willing to take such action at the behest of the United States.

Call it a situational assessment of the status of American power just shy of Biden's 100th day in office.

More Show less

How bad is the climate crisis? Every year, the UN's Emissions Gap Report shows a large gap between the trajectory we're on and the trajectory we ought to be on, explains climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. "Every decade now is warmer than the decade before. And we're seeing the damage pile up," says Kolbert, whose latest book is Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future. "We saw the tremendous wildfire season in California last fall. The hurricane season in the Gulf. These are all connected to climate change, and we're just going to keep seeing more of that." She spoke with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 16. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

Ian Bremmer and Bill Maher discussed the global leadership of the United States compared to that of China on a recent episode of Real Time. "The level of corruption in China, the level of corruption in China, even the buildings and the rails you talk about - the average building the Chinese build lasts for 20, 25 years. In the United States, it lasts for 40 to 50. There's a reason why we are still the world's most powerful country," Ian argued. "I'm just saying China's not eating our lunch - that's all."

More Show less

As the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed in recent months, so has the amount of energy that procuring it hogs. Research shows that Bitcoin "mining" now uses 80 percent more energy than at the start of 2020. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently sounded the alarm on crypto, saying that he would not invest in Bitcoin because mining for the digital currency requires huge amounts of energy, much of which is powered by fossil fuels that harm the environment. So where does Bitcoin rank in electricity consumption compared to nations?

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

More Show less

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

The climate crisis: how screwed are we?

GZERO World Clips