World

With cases still rising, why is Vladimir Putin pushing Russia out of its COVID lockdown?

Vladimir Putin has freed Russians from their coronavirus lockdown. But that liberation has only added to their confusion over the dangers of COVID-19, writes Chris Brown.

Coronavirus response challenges 'myth of Putin,' says one analyst

Grave diggers wearing protective suits carry a coffin during the burial of a victim of COVID-19 on the outskirts of Moscow on May 15. (Kirill Zykov/Moscow News Agency/handout via Reuters)

Vladimir Putin has liberated his nation from its six-week coronavirus lockdown, but many Russians appear unsure what that means or if it's even prudent to exercise their newfound freedoms given that the country likely hasn't hit a peak in infections.

"I don't know what to think," Christa Ivanovo told CBC on her way to the grocery store in Moscow, her one-year-old in tow. 

"If the rest of the world is under strict isolation … it makes sense we should [continue], too." Out of an abundance of caution, Ivanovo plans to maintain the self-isolation regime Muscovites have been living under for the past month and a half. 

"I'm waiting to see what happens next week."

With Russia's economy crushed by the combination of COVID-19 shutdowns and record-low oil prices, Putin's patience with the lockdown appeared to run out last week. 

He unexpectedly announced an end to Russia's national "non-working days" and said workers in construction, manufacturing and other industries should head back to work as soon as possible.

The costs of quarantine

While in theory Putin left it to regional authorities to make the final call on ending lockdowns, by the end of the week the return of heavier traffic to Moscow indicated the president's directive was having an effect.

Aeroflot and Rossiya Airlines planes sit idle at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow, a sign of the economic cost of the COVID-19 lockdowns. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Russia's top-tier soccer league has announced plans to restart in a month's time, albeit with no fans in attendance. The country's largest budget airline, Pobeda, said it would soon start flying again and the national transportation agency says international arrivals could start landing at Russian airports by July.

"If this so-called quarantine continued, the need for financial support would quickly rise, because it's a very long time for people not to be working," said Moscow political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, by way of explanation for Putin's thinking. "But this way, he solves several problems."

Worryingly, however, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Russia has now exceeded 280,000 — second in the world only to the United States.  While the number of new infections appears to have levelled off, new cases have still been increasing by 9000-10,000 per day for the past two weeks.

Infections spreading

The virus has also struck at the heart of the Kremlin.

Six senior members of Putin's government — including his press secretary, the prime minister and most recently Russia's education minister — have all confirmed they tested positive for the virus.

The official national death count of 2,600 people is low by global standards, which is why Western experts have questioned the methodology by which Russian doctors count those deaths, suggesting the actual number may be significantly higher.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, right, recently tested positive for coronavirus. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)

Beyond the total numbers, the Moscow Times reported more than 1,500 Russian health-care workers have been stricken by the infection themselves, with an entire hospital in Saint Petersburg set aside to deal with cases.

Additionally, five people were killed in a fire in a Saint Petersburg hospital that authorities believe was started by faulty ventilators.

Lockdown frustrations

While lifting the lockdown too soon carries the risk of another spike in infections, several people near a Moscow metro station told CBC they felt the risk was worth taking.

"We are just tired of it now," said Tatiana Petrova. "We really want to go to the hairdressers, and then to our dacha."

Still, having heard some of the hospital horror stories, she cautioned the government shouldn't rush too quickly.

"You see all the nightmares they show [on TV]," Petrova said.

Russia easing lockdown measures despite high number of COVID-19 cases

World

11 months ago
1:51
Reactions on the street are mixed as Russia begins easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions. 1:51

The contradictions in Russia's response to COVID stem in part from Putin's overarching role in the country's political system, said Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College in London.

"[The government] wanted to project that he was in control, but because they didn't know what the effective solutions were going to be, they didn't want to tie him and the Kremlin too closely to those solutions," Greene said in a podcast organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

The result was a series of confusing messages, Greene said. 

As the virus was infecting people in Europe by the tens of thousands, Putin said Russia had the COVID epidemic "under control." Then he faded into the background as nationwide lockdowns were imposed.

Greene believes the result is that many Russians have lost trust in Putin's administration.

"In a situation like COVID-19, safety requires not just you obeying the rules, it requires other people obeying the rules," Greene said. "So there's a question of how much do you trust the system and society."

The 'myth of Putin'

Pavlovsky said that one of the effects of COVID-19 is that "the myth of Putin has suffered."

"Everyone was waiting [for him] to come out and loudly tell everyone what to do. But Putin said, 'You have governors, let them figure it out.'"

The biggest beneficiary of Putin's missteps has likely been the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobanyin.

The 61-year-old has been mayor for the past decade and before that served as Putin's chief of staff. Sobyanin has been praised for his bluntly worded public statements about the severity of the crisis and by imposing one of the stiffest lockdowns anywhere in the world — and for getting people to adhere to it. 

Moscow residents require special passes to leave their homes, as part of one of the most restrictive COVID-19 lockdown guidelines in the world. (Alexey Sergeev/CBC)

Earlier this month, the mayor said publicly that he believes the actual number of people who've contracted the virus in the capital could be well over 300,000 — three times higher than the official numbers.

"Sobyanin has risen to quite the figure," said Pavlovsky. 

He noted that while Sobyanin may have no designs on the president's job, Putin loyalists may nonetheless exact revenge on him after the crisis is over for upstaging his ultimate boss.

Sobyanin "is violating one of the main principles of this system — that no one should stand in the way of Putin and make decisions."

Pavlovsky believes the Kremlin "has lost touch with reality" but believes Putin will emerge from the crisis still firmly in control of the apparatus of Russia's government.

Still, if Sobyanin feels threatened in anyway by the pushback, it's not evident. 

Sobyanin has announced plans to test hundreds of thousands of Moscow residents for COVID-19 antibodies that could pave the way for all restrictions on movement to be lifted.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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