Fortress Russia Begins to Show Cracks as Coronavirus Spreads

Russian officials once touted their success in holding off the virus. Now cases are rising as their statistics are being questioned.

Medical staff wearing protective suits
Medical staff wearing protective suits ride down an escalator at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on March 18. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

MOSCOW—As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, bringing nations to a halt and killing over 8,000 people in recent weeks around the globe, Russia emerged as a rare spot of calm—or perhaps indifference. 

Daily life largely continued as normal, with shops, workplaces, and schools still operating, while the authorities exuded confidence, pointing to only 147 confirmed cases and zero deaths, out of more than 116,000 tests for COVID-19 in the country of about 145 million people—one of the lowest ratios among infected nations in the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, started an oil price war with Saudi Arabia, the global economy be damned.

However, in less than 48 hours, that image has begun to crumble as the Russian government has kicked its response to COVID-19 into overdrive: shutting down its borders, limiting air travel, closing schools, and launching a large economic stimulus as medical experts have begun to question Russia’s official coronavirus statistics and the true efficacy of the response to limit its spread. 

Should the true scope of the virus prove to be higher than shown in official statistics, it would mean that the Russian government has missed its chance to slow the pandemic, leaving an already overstretched health care system and weakened economy to deal with the burden of a new national crisis. 

“Because the government now understands that infections could jump rapidly, we see new measures being employed to try and contain things very quickly,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The key concern is that the medical system doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the coming uptick in cases.” 

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On Tuesday, Putin toured a new coronavirus information center in Moscow that is pulling together high-tech resources, including surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence, to monitor social media for disinformation about the spread of the disease, properly enforce quarantines, and identify empty supermarket shelves, which have recently been emptied in major cities as Russians have begun stockpiling goods. After the visit, Putin said that he judged the situation in the country to be “under control.” 

“We were able to contain the mass penetration and spread” of the pandemic, Putin said during a government meeting of ministers and top officials in Moscow. “The situation is generally under control despite high risk levels.”

In spite of such public assurances, Russia has stepped up its defenses recently. Foreign nationals are now banned from entering until May 1 as part of an effort to slow the spread of the virus, and Moscow has barred all outdoor events and limited indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people. Older Russians have been told to remain inside. Schools are now closed, as are major tourist attractions, while Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced a $4 billion bailout package on Monday to help businesses that are at risk due to the drop-off in economic activity. Russia has also shut its sizable land borders with its 14 neighbors, and the city of Moscow is currently constructing two large hospitals to house patients infected with the coronavirus. 

The recent speed of the government response may in part be due to recognition that the virus is, in fact, spreading throughout the country. While official figures remain low, evidence is emerging that that reality is more severe, with many cases of the virus being misdiagnosed as other ailments. A report published last week by RBC, a Russian business newspaper, found that Rosstat, the country’s official statistics agency, has recorded an increase of 37 percent of cases of “community-acquired pneumonia” in January as compared to January 2019, which could fit similar symptoms to the coronavirus. Such an increase would represent nearly 2,000 cases. 

Other evidence that a much larger spread of the virus could be hiding in Russia was put forward by the Doctor’s Alliance, a recently formed countrywide union for medical professionals, who said that the true figure of those infected with the new coronavirus could be in the thousands, but that many cases have likely been labelled as pneumonia. In a recent video posted on the group’s YouTube channel, the organization also warned about a lack of protective gear in hospitals outside of major cities in Russia’s regions that could lead to more infections. The video also featured anonymous calls from doctors who said that they were being told to clear entire hospital wards in order to accommodate a flood of patients suffering from “pneumonia.”  

A report by the Russian outlet Meduza also pointed to a similar development in St. Petersburg, which has recorded 10 confirmed cases of coronavirus, but where local hospitals have run out of space due to an influx of influenza and pneumonia patients.

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The small official figures for coronavirus cases and the more muted government response in Russia compared to its peers around the world stem from a combination of economic, political, and practical realities inside the country. 

Coronavirus testing in Russia is currently a monopoly run by a lab in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, more than 2,000 miles east of Moscow, where the testing procedure is overseen by Rospotrebnadzor, the state health watchdog. This means that the lab faces a thickening bottleneck and growing backlog in terms of delivering results. Moreover, tests in Russia are conducted via a locally developed version, which some medical experts have said may not be accurate enough to identify all cases of the virus. On top of that, a longstanding lack of trust in the medical system may be preventing some sick patients from coming forward for testing. 

“People won’t go see a doctor, because many are accustomed to home remedies, and there is a deep distrust in the health system, especially outside of Moscow,” said Judy Twigg, an expert on public health in Russia at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

The Russian government has also been somewhat resistant to sound the alarm about the virus due to the country’s struggling economy, which has been hit by twin shocks of a global downturn caused by the spread of the coronavirus and an ongoing oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Until just a few weeks ago, Putin was promising Russians that their stagnant incomes would finally pick up along with the economy this year, but recent developments have dashed those hopes, and limiting their impact appears to be a top priority for the Kremlin. 

“The government knows that people don’t have much savings and that businesses run on monthly cash flow,” said Gabuev from the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The concern is how to do a proper quarantine and not cause a massive economic disruption in the process.” 

In terms of managing the virus, the Russian government responded quickly at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 by shutting down its 2,600-mile border with China and limiting flights between the two countries. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who was recently appointed by Putin to head a coronavirus task force, also enacted a series of controversial policies targeting the Chinese community, such as raids on work sites with Chinese laborers and asking city bus drivers to report when Chinese-looking passengers got on board. The measures earned a rare rebuke from the Chinese Embassy in Moscow, which complained directly to the Kremlin. According to official numbers, the tough border measures appear to have worked, with the majority of confirmed cases in Russia coming from citizens who were abroad in Europe, particularly in Italy. 

Since then, the Russian capital has remained on “high-alert,” with strict policies implemented, but Moscow has so far refrained from calling for a national emergency, as has been done across Europe. The city has said that anyone ignoring quarantine requirements could face up to five years in prison, and the authorities have used Moscow’s widespread facial-recognition network to monitor people under quarantine, even issuing fines when some have gone outside to drop off the trash. 

But while Russia has taken tough new measures this week to slow the spread of the virus, restaurants, bars, and shopping malls currently remain open. Similarly, while many businesses have already told employees to work from home, Sobyanin only issued an official decree on Wednesday for Moscow employees to work from home. 

“The longer you keep things open and hold back on the social distancing side of things for fear of the economic situation, the more you are delaying an inevitable spike in the spread of the virus,” Twigg said. 

Meanwhile, Russia’s political life continues to move forward even while the pandemic is hitting closer to home. Despite concerns about large crowds of people gathering, Putin confirmed on Tuesday a planned nationwide vote on April 22 on constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for two more terms as president. 

Similarly, the Kremlin said that it would continue with rehearsals for its Victory Day parade in May, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II and could involve up to 10,000 soldiers training together. 

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan