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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.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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