With Russia now among the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, President Vladimir Putin faces a series of unexpected challenges: the forced postponement of a referendum on extending his tenure, the steep worldwide decline in oil prices, and a severe test of his crisis management skills.
Most assessments of Putin’s response have focused on his declining approval rating in polls, which is now the lowest of his presidency; on his increasingly frequent television appearances; and on the rise or fall of other political personalities. The latter includes Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (who has been very visible) and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (who has been in isolation since testing positive for the coronavirus disease, COVID-19), as well as regional governors, whom the president has directed to decide on steps to reopen the economy.
Putin’s supreme power position makes him the key to understanding the pandemic’s political impact. But its impact on the core institutions of the Russian state, especially the national security bureaucracy, is just as important. The “power ministries”—the intelligence services, the military, the police, and the defense-industrial establishment—are likely to shape the future of Russian politics.
Constitutional Changes on Hold
Uncertainty about Putin’s plan to stay on as president after 2024 does not affect the military-intelligence complex in the same way it affects Putin himself. His power and prestige could be undermined if he cannot get early ratification of constitutional amendments that would exempt him from term limits. But a diminished president might actually be good for some elements of Russia’s “deep state.” Putin could be less able to punish those who displease him or impose his preferences on rival arms of the bureaucracy. A lack of strong policy leadership can be bad for the system as a whole; individual agencies often welcome it. Putin has for years championed Russia’s power ministries. But the fact that his constitutional amendments are on hold is his problem, not theirs.
The dramatic drop in the global demand for oil could prove to be a greater problem for the national security bureaucracy. Under the best of circumstances, a revenue falloff would put serious pressure on the state budget, one-third of which comes from energy exports. The Russian government has been forced to abandon its fiscal conservatism for deficit spending—corporate bailouts, payments to the unemployed, emergency medical costs, and other measures to support the economy. But not all budgets will increase equally, and the power ministries will almost certainly be targets for belt-tightening. A scramble for resources will bring out divisions within Russia’s deep state. The security services and the armed forces could find themselves at odds over spending priorities. Within the military, procurement slowdowns will surely be weighed against reductions in manpower and operations.
Managing the Crisis
Russia is hardly the only country in which the pandemic has raised the issue of public order, but it stands out because of the size, influence, and multiplicity of its national security institutions. Crises often give the institutions of the so-called deep state a chance to increase their power. Many commentators explain Putin’s rise at the end of the 1990s in just these terms. Yet big problems also bring out bureaucratic rivalries. Already there have been credible reports of disputes—said to have annoyed Putin—between the Interior Ministry and the recently constituted Russian National Guard, which announced that it would enforce the May Day holiday lockdown in Moscow by deploying drones over the city. For now, Putin has chosen not to declare a federal state of emergency, instead signing legislation giving the prime minister the power to do so. Even so, Putin’s May 11 decision to begin reopening the economy—even as infections rise faster than ever—could make such a declaration harder to avoid.
In Russia, giving the prime minister the responsibility to address a problem is a way of saying it does not yet involve national security. One measure of the impact of the unfolding coronavirus crisis will be whether Putin sticks to this principle—or is obliged to give the power ministries a stronger hand in the response.