The scope of the epidemiological disaster unfolding in China has dawned on Russia remarkably late. Last Wednesday (January 29), President Vladimir Putin called a small meeting to check national readiness for a possible spread of the coronavirus, first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and expressed confidence in the sufficiency of Russian precautions. Yet, by Friday, he held a special meeting of the Security Council and announced a broad range of extraordinary measures, including a near-complete interruption of air, rail and road connections with China and the evacuation of Russian citizens (an estimated 650 people) from Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei Province. Later that same day, two cases of infection were reported in eastern Siberia. No new cases were registered over the weekend.
True to form, the Russian leadership delayed until the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. In the weeks prior to this announcement, officials argued that the new respiratory illness was no more dangerous than the common flu, and quasi-experts were given prime coverage to speculate that China was on the receiving end of a new US biological weapons attack. This rhetoric was intended to demonstrate Russia’s loyalty as a strategic partner to Beijing; but it is now becoming more and more difficult for the Kremlin to hide the fact that the Chinese authorities are responsible for denying the outbreak of an increasingly international epidemic or that the Chinese response has been “too little, too late”.
Russians tend to accept annual influenza epidemics as a minor inconvenience and profoundly distrust official statements and data related to public health. Putin did announce additional measures for checking the decline of Russia’s population in his annual address to the Federal Assembly (January 15), but none of those measures addressed Russia’s abnormally high mortality levels. Underfunding and neglect of the medical care system is a major driver of public discontent, and the replacement of the minister of health in the course of the ongoing cabinet reshuffle is highly unlikely to make much difference on this score. Meanwhile, widespread anxiety about the degradation of basic health care in Russia is exacerbated by a growing awareness of environmental problems, which Russian public opinion now perceives as a greater threat than terrorism.
The fundamental source of public discontent and the main cause of problems related to medical services is Russia’s protracted economic stagnation. However, Putin’s instruction to the newly appointed Prime Minister Mikhail Mushustin to ensure stronger growth can be fulfilled only by manipulating statistics. Rampant corruption is the bane of the Russian business sector, and Mishustin has already been exposed as a “normal” embezzler with criminal connections. His start in the new job is certainly derailed by the disaster of the coronavirus epidemic, which is set to have global economic repercussions and will hit the Russian economy harder than most. One immediate impact is the postponement of the traditional Sochi forum for foreign investors, in which Chinese companies were usually represented en masse, even if they were by no means keen to invest in Russian natural resources or infrastructure.
The sudden disruption to trade with China has spotlighted the depth of dependency of Russia’s economy on the increasingly unequal deals with its large southern neighbor. It is not only Western sanctions that have caused this reorientation but also the decline in European demand for Russian natural gas, which makes the politically prescribed investments in constructing new western-oriented pipelines economically senseless. The price of oil continues to be the key determinant of Russia’s economic performance. But the drop in Chinese demand drives the price down more forcefully than Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) can compensate for with their OPEC+ production cuts. Moscow cannot hope to harvest nice profits even from arms exports, since China is expanding fast in these markets while showing less interest in purchasing modern weapons systems from Russia.
Russian elites, perturbed as they are by Putin’s sudden opening of the constitution for incoherent revisions, grow increasingly uncomfortable with China’s assertive behavior. Mainstream pundits warn that Beijing may become less inclined to take into account Russian interests and will start executing a “tougher policy”. The criticism from the opposition is much sharper and hits a nerve in the Kremlin, which is indeed afraid to utter any word that Beijing might interpret as disloyalty.
This fear overlaps with the urge to prove to the inscrutable Chinese leadership Russia’s unique value as a strategic partner. Putin’s proposal to gather a summit of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council was a step to this end, and Beijing actually expressed support for the idea, which is certain to upset India and Japan. A more direct way to prove Russia’s value is to dispatch mercenaries to overseas conflict areas where China has important economic interests, for instance Libya, from which Beijing had to evacuate some 35,000 workers and personnel in 2011. However, the problem with this deniable power projection is the conflict of interest with Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan persists in shipping reinforcements to his chosen belligerent in the Libyan war and blames Russia for breaking the deal to discontinue attacks on the rebel-held Idlib province in Syria.
China is a difficult partner for Russia, and the emergency situation caused by the still-accelerating spread of coronavirus has only revealed more hidden tensions. On Friday, Putin sent a message of support to President Xi Jinping; however, the two leaders, who often try to demonstrate friendly feelings, have not talked since the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Brazil last November. Russia cannot even offer symbolic support to China, because even something as simple as sending face masks depends entirely upon keeping trade flows open. Economic shocks from the epidemic could transform Russian stagnation into a recession, but perhaps the worst outcome may be to demonstrate the ineptitude and rot within Russia’s corrupt state bureaucracy in comparison with the brutal efficiency of the Chinese dictatorship. Whether or not the virus largely spares Russia, it will certainly add to public angst and mistrust in the state’s self-serving officialdom.