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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.

Carbon has a bad rep, but did you know it's a building block of life? As atoms evolved, carbon trapped in CO2 was freed, giving way to the creation of complex molecules that use photosynthesis to convert carbon to food. Soon after, plants, herbivores, and carnivores began populating the earth and the cycle of life began.

Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

As we enter the homestretch of the US presidential election — which is set to be the most contentious, and possibly contested, in generations — Americans are also voting on 35 seats up for grabs in a battle for the control of the Senate. The 100-member body is currently held 53-47 by the Republican Party, but many individual races are wide open, and the Democrats are confident they can flip the upper chamber of Congress.

Either way, the result will have a profound impact not only on domestic policy, but also on US foreign relations and other issues with global reach. Here are a few areas where what US senators decide reverberates well beyond American shores.

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On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Jon Lieber, who leads Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, offers insights on the Supreme Court vacancy:

Will Senate Republicans, who stopped a Supreme Court nomination in 2016, because it was too close to an election, pay a political price for the change in tactics this time around?

Not only do I think they won't pay a political price, I think in many cases, they're going to benefit. Changing the balance of power on the Supreme Court has been a career-long quest for many conservatives and many Republicans. And that's why you've seen so many of them fall in line behind the President's nomination before we even know who it is.

At this point, do Senate Democrats have any hope of stopping President Trump from filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court?

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In a special GZERO Media livestream on global response and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media president Ian Bremmer discussed the difference between Europe's unified approach to economic stimulus and the deeply divided and political nature of the current conversation in the US. While initial stimulus support was bipartisan, there is little chance of Democrats and Republicans coming together again ahead of the November 3 presidential election. "It's red state versus blue state. President Trump's saying that coronavirus isn't so bad if you take the blue states out. He's president of the blue states, you can't take the blue states out," Bremmer told moderator Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

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Panel: How will the world recover from COVID-19?

UNGA Livestream