By Chris Riehl, Contributing Writer

COVID-19 is a tough test for nearly every world leader. The virus shines a bright light on the deficiencies of public health infrastructures, individual leadership, and public policy decision-making by reactive governments across the world. The situation is no different for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is struggling to contain the spread of the virus, and its central bank estimates that the country’s GDP will contract between four and six percent in 2020. As of May 27, Russia has 371,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths, but experts have pointed out that Russia has the lowest mortality rate by far among countries worst hit by COVID-19, suggesting that the Kremlin is under reporting fatalities.

COVID-19’s Effect on Putin’s Approval Rating

Given the scope of the crisis in Russia, it was almost inevitable that Putin’s approval rating would decline. Indeed, recent polling by the Levada Center, a well-respected, independent public opinion polling institution in Russia, shows that Putin’s approval rating declined from 63% in March to 59% in April. Russia observers quickly pointed out that Putin’s approval rating had fallen to a “historic low” and accurately emphasized that it is Putin’s worst rating since he came to power in 2000. However, as this article will demonstrate, the four percent drop is not the seismic event which the “historic low” language implies, even though it is technically correct. Additionally, while some analysts view COVID-19 as “Putin’s greatest challenge,” it could also be one of the Russian President’s greatest opportunities to deflect blame from a regime with few ideas on how to kickstart the nation’s economy.

First, it is important to note a methodological caveat to the Levada Center’s data. Denis Volkov, Levada Center’s Director, told Reuters that since the latest poll was conducted over the phone as opposed to Levada Center’s normal face-to-face method, it is possible that the new method itself is responsible for shaving one to two percentage points off Putin’s approval rating. If that did occur, then the revised approval rating would be 61%. While still notable and clearly an indication that Putin is losing some degree of credibility due to COVID-19, it is a more moderate decline in approval and within the 60-70% approval rating range Putin has maintained since July 2018.

While COVID-19 is the topic on everyone’s minds, the true seismic shift in Putin’s approval rating occurred in summer 2018 when the Russian government announced its intention to pursue a deeply unpopular pension reform initiative against the wishes of the majority of the Russian public. To put this in perspective, Putin enjoyed an 82% approval rating in April 2018, riding the wave of the “Crimean Consensus,” a swell in Putin’s approval rating in Russia as a result of the country’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. However, by July, Putin’s rating had dropped to 67%. That is a historical drop, and pension reform is more responsible for Putin’s historically low ratings than COVID-19, at least for the time being. Of course, this could change if COVID-19 proliferates in Russia even further, eventually culminating in a much larger reduction in approval of the Russian President. At present, however, the downward trend in approval is manageable for Putin.

COVID-19 Presents a New Narrative to the Kremlin

Additionally, there is increasing belief that COVID-19 is Putin’s “greatest challenge yet.” While that may be correct, it is important to also understand that the pandemic presents opportunities for Putin to deflect blame and point fingers elsewhere. For example, Putin routinely uses Western sanctions and low oil prices to explain Russia’s economic slowdown and deflect blame away from the system of kleptocracy his regime fosters. This strategy largely worked. From March 2014 to February 2018, his approval ratings remained above 80%, showing that Russians either bought Putin’s explanation or accepted the economic costs of annexing Crimea as worthwhile. Crucially, public approval remained high even though the economic sanctions were a direct result of Putin’s actions on the international stage. Now, Putin can credibly argue in coming months and years that poor economic results in 2020 (and beyond) were inevitable and driven by external factors completely out of his control. To a large degree, he is correct. He is genuinely not responsible for COVID-19, and he can point to mass unemployment in the United States to demonstrate that even the strongest economies are suffering greatly. 

This is helpful for Putin since World Bank estimates from December 2019 show that the Russian economy would likely grow under two percent annually in 2020 and 2021. Now, COVID-19 and the subsequent worldwide recession hands Putin a new explanation for Russia’s economic woes, replacing the increasingly stale narrative of sanctions and low oil prices. While COVID-19 is a serious threat to the regime’s legitimacy, it also is an opportunity for Putin to point fingers elsewhere and maintain some of his credibility. 

Risks Ahead for Putin

Of course, this argument does not aim to unduly minimize the risks COVID-19 presents to Putin’s regime moving forward. Putin’s reluctance to lead the country’s response to COVID-19 creates space for other political figures to demonstrate their governing ability, winning political capital they otherwise may not have acquired.  For example,  Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, the face of Russia’s pandemic response. Additionally, it could become increasingly difficult for the government to cover up the actual death rate as the crisis worsens, further eroding the regime’s approval. Relatedly, there is an acute risk that top Russian officials will continue to contract the virus. Dmitry Peskov, Russia’s Press Secretary, was hospitalized for COVID-19 on May 12 and Prime Minister Mishustin tested positive in late April. In a worst-case scenario, Russia’s government could be severely damaged like Iran’s, especially as Russians return to work after Putin ended the unified non-working period.

Lastly, COVID-19 threatens to undermine the unspoken social contract between the Russian state and the Russian people whereby citizens cede political freedoms in exchange for economic prosperity, stability, and predictability. Even if the economy worsens due to external factors like plummeting oil demand and partial closings of export markets, economic decline may still be construed as a breach of the contract. Moreover, this time around there is no great reward for economic hardship, unlike after the Crimea annexation.

Containing infection transmissions and engineering Russia’s economic recovery will be very difficult for Putin, and it is almost inevitable that his approval will suffer. However, it is important to contextualize approval rating statistics and understand that pension reform combined with the regime’s response to COVID-19 produced Putin’s current approval rating, not the pandemic alone. Relatedly, while COVID-19 is a major challenge for the Kremlin, it is also a unique opportunity to rejuvenate the regime’s tired explanations of Russia’s economic malaise, and Putin will use that to his advantage.

Chris Riehl is a master’s student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He studies international security and U.S. foreign policy thematically and Europe & Eurasia regionally. His work has appeared in the International Affairs Review and Columbia Journal of International Affairs.