Russia exploits COVID-19 for its own ends, but the virus could be the end of Putin’s era
RIGA, (BM) – The world is changing – the coronavirus has affected not only the everyday lives of every citizen, but also political and economic processes. In addition, political processes are directly and indirectly affected by the economy. It’s hard to predict whether a winner nation will emerge from the global fight against COVID-19, but at the moment it is becoming evident that there will be some big losers, and Russia is one of them.
Up until now, Russian President Vladimir Putin did as he pleased, and because of this he has found himself in a perilous situation – a situation that won’t be solved even by the constitutional amendments. I will try to explain why.
Let’s start with the fact that Russia ignored the COVID-19 threat. At least it did so publicly. It’s true that the Kremlin did everything in its power to convince the Russian public that that the new coronavirus has been made up by some external forces. However, there are Russians who since the Soviet era have learned to read and listen between the lines and keep their eyes open. So, it is no wonder that they stormed their shops as well. But let’s switch to the global situation.
Economic development has been – to put it mildly – slowed by COVID-19. Each and every country has been forced to review their budgets in order to come to the aid of both entrepreneurs and citizens. That is why the financial aspect of the crisis is important.
An unexpectedly sharp blow for the Kremlin and Putin came in the form of decreased Brent oil price, which slumped below 25 dollars per barrel. This will markedly affect the course of the ruble and the budget of Russia as a whole.
Accordingly, it was no surprise that on 26 March during the G20 extraordinary summit Putin urged to ease the sanctions imposed against Moscow for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Russian president did not specify, which countries should lift the sanctions, but he did stress that it is a matter of life and death. You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to determine which country is most affected by sanctions, because it is exactly Russia. I think it’s time for the international community to say loudly and clearly – sure, we will cancel the sanctions, but only if you fix the reason they were imposed in the first place. And then, Putin will have to choose between the lesser of two evils, i.e. he can finally admit to the Russian population and the international community that Crimea was, in fact, occupied and should be returned to Ukraine. This would lift the sanctions and see the economy of Russia improve, but in the eyes of Russians…Let’s just say Putin would stop being so great.
The second option is to maintain his fierce dedication to communism and say nothing – this way, the sanctions would remain in place, while Russian citizens would be thrown in a rather unpleasant situation. And neither would this bode well for Putin’s popularity. Putin is forced to choose between a rock and a hard place. He could also remain idle for some time, waiting and hoping that oil prices will return to their former state. To this, I would say that right now no one, except Russia, is willing to wait.
I know that some will say that Russia did show its goodwill by helping other countries to fight the new coronavirus, mentioning Russia’s aid to Italy which was widely covered by the media, and now the US as well. On the first glance, this would seem true, but there are a couple of facts that suggest not everything is as it seems – at least when it comes to the case of Italy.
To outline a brief history: on 21 March, Putin had a telephone conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Afterwards, Russia sent nine Il-76 aircraft with humanitarian aid along with roughly 100 military epidemiologists, mobile disinfection systems and laboratories. This event gained wide attention in media outlets, particularly those in Russia.
Naturally, this move was perceived by Italians positively. But not long after it was realized that approximately 80% of the aid sent by Russia “has absolutely no use, or its use is insignificant,” as reported by an anonymous source to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. The newspaper noted the fact that all of the specialists sent by Russia were soldiers with high military ranks, not medical personnel.
“In other words, the aid was an excuse,” the source said. The sent items contained, for instance, bacterial disinfection equipment and field sterilization laboratories, not breathing aids or protective equipment, i.e. things that Italy at the moment so direly needs. That’s not all – these specialists were sent by the Russian Ministry of Defense, not the Ministry of Health. Many of these people are officers in the Russian Armed Forces’ medical wing, not actual doctors that are able to provide help in such a crisis, La Stampa reported.
The Russian officers are located in the Bergamo region of Italy, where they, according to the Russian ambassador, will disinfect the overfilled retirement homes. Located a two-hour drive away is a large US military base in Vicenza, and now the Russian officers are on “NATO roads”.
Of course, all of this didn’t take place without scandals. On 23 March, Russian senator Alexey Pushkov tweeted that Warsaw refusing to allow Russian humanitarian aid through its airspace is “baseness on the governmental level”, because Poland and Italy are both NATO allies. He added that from now on Russia “must not cooperate with Poland on any issue”.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Russia had not asked Warsaw for permission to cross the airspace of Poland in order to deliver humanitarian aid to Italy, therefore Poland couldn’t even refuse, because no requests were made. Pushkov later deleted his tweet, but that was the only thing he did.
So, what is the “harsh” conclusion of this aid? All that happened was loud announcements made, the help turned out to be 80% useless and Russia got closer to a US military base, which wouldn’t be so easy in any other situation. The rest we can conclude ourselves.
What concerns aid sent to the US – can you really imagine that Russian aid to US would have any real impact in the fight against COVID-19? The aid from Russia to the US was sent by a An-124-100 airplane, which can carry 120 tons. To compare, Russia sent nine Il-76 to Italy, and each aircraft is able to transport 50 tons. Russia sends an airplane with 120 tons of aid to the US, while Italy receives nine airplanes containing 450 tons of aid.
These 120 tons will not help the US in any way, but Russia will not hesitate to use this move for its propaganda and to argue that the sanctions imposed against it should now be lifted.
I have already written about Russia’s attempts to further its political capital using a wide array of means, including dubious ones, now let’s look at how the current economic situation will affect Russia in certain aspects.
The price of Russian Ural oil dropped to 10.54 dollar per barrel, which is at the level of 1999, when the price was at its lowest point.
During the period from January to March, Russia exported 77% less oil to Belarus when compared to 2019.
We should mention that in Russia this is seen as a critical situation. It is forecast that Russia’s GDP will drop by 10-12%, and this was expressed even by Russian officials and as we know they like to somewhat “polish” any negative information. To conclude, it seems that Putin’s grip on power is becoming threatened, because it is exactly during this crisis that people will see that Russia is unable to take care of its citizens. As we all know, Russia profits mostly from exporting energy resources. The situation is made even worse by the fact that Russia has made energy exports a geopolitical weapon. If in peacetime this yielded results, then now it is creating losses for Russia.
We shouldn’t forget that currently the sanctions imposed against Russia can be detrimental to its ability to handle the crisis, therefore it is understandable that one of Russia’s main priorities is to lessen or lift the sanctions. As harsh as it sounds, maintaining these sanctions could play a crucial role if we want to shake up Putin’s influence in Russia.
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