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Putin, Russia’s man of action, is passive, even bored, in the coronavirus era

MOSCOW — This was supposed to be a moment of triumph for President Vladimir Putin, a celebration of his grand successes in restoring the Russian state to a place of pride in the world and consolidating his grip on power, all topped off by a glorious military parade in Red Square on May 9, the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany.

But the coronavirus has changed all that.

Now, having bowed to the inevitable and canceled the parade, Putin seems less a can-do executive than a bored monarch cooped up in a palace, checking his watch during televised conferences with his underlings about the pandemic as his popularity ratings dip.


For 20 years, Putin has made his mark as a man of action, a hyperactive leader ever ready to face down the Kremlin’s foes at home and abroad, and even wild tigers in remote Russian forests. Confronted with the coronavirus, however, a leader who was reelected in 2018 with nearly 80 percent of the vote and who faces no serious threats to his power has been oddly passive.

“He is afraid — afraid for his ratings and for the system he has spent 20 years creating,” said Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a disenchanted former Kremlin adviser. Faced with a viral enemy that he cannot easily vanquish, “Putin understands that the best thing to do is stand to the side,” Pavlovsky added.

Doing that became more difficult on Thursday, however, when Russia’s prime minister, Mikhail V. Mishustin, 54 — who was named just three months ago to give some new energy to the government — told Putin during a videoconference broadcast on national television that he had tested positive for the virus.

Putin, 67, responded by praising him as “a very active person,” and said “what is happening to you could happen to anyone.”


To add to Putin’s troubles, the collapse of oil prices removes a major stream of revenue for social programs, while Russia’s oil- and gas-dependent economy is expected to shrink by 6 percent this year.

But turmoil in the global oil market, unlike the health crisis, at least plays to Putin’s strong suits of geopolitics and high-stakes diplomacy. His joint efforts with President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have done little to lift the market, but they have showcased Putin doing what he likes most: demonstrating Russia’s indispensable voice in global affairs.

By contrast, the pandemic has only highlighted what has always been Putin’s biggest vulnerability: a pronounced lack of interest or success in tackling intractable domestic problems like dilapidated hospitals, pockets of entrenched poverty, and years of falling real incomes.

Adding to the gloom, an April 22 referendum on constitutional amendments had to be canceled because of the virus. The amendments, already approved by Russia’s legislature, allow Putin to crash through term limits and stay in power until 2036.

After lying low when the coronavirus first surfaced in Russia in late February and early March, Putin has this month appeared almost daily on television, holding teleconferences from his country residence outside Moscow. But his heart does not seem to be in it.

“He gives an impression of being tired, even bored,” said Yekaterina Schulmann, a former member of the Kremlin’s advisory council for civil society and human rights.

Putin’s approval rating, which stood at 69 percent in February, slipped to 63 percent in March, according to the Levada Center, a Moscow-based independent polling organization. Most leaders in Europe have seen their ratings soar during coronavirus lockdowns.


The coronavirus has often left him looking flat-footed.

In March, his display of machismo before the advancing pandemic did not work out quite as planned: He visited infected patients at a new Moscow hospital dressed in a canary yellow hazmat suit, only to find out a few days later that the head doctor who showed him around and gave him a long fleshy handshake had tested positive for the virus.

Since then Putin has been sheltering at his country villa. It was from there that he on April 19 delivered a what-me-worry Orthodox Easter message to the nation. “The situation,” he said, “is under total control.”