Russia’s federal states take control amid coronavirus pandemic

Russia COVIDBy Hannah Clegg, Senior Analyst, Russian Domestic Affairs Section
Analytical Question: Stability of the Russian government under Vladimir Putin | Date: 02 April 2020

WITH RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN largely absent from the public eye, confusion has set in with cases of COVID-19 increasing every day. Recent federal intervention is proving to be more reactionary than proactive. Consequently, the majority of measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 has been taken by local governments, with Moscow setting the example. Given the continuing nature of this situation, we predict with moderate-to-high confidence a national state of emergency will be declared in the next two weeks.

The Russian government has been taking a number of precautions since the virus first began to spread, likely due to the country’s close geographical proximity to virus hot spots, such as China. In early March precautionary steps were taken by the federal government including stopping the exporting of medical supplies like masks, gloves, and protective suits, as well as cancelling multiple conferences across the nation. Gatherings were limited to 5,000 people and, in an attempt to keep COVID-19 out of Russia, borders started closing and flights from heavily infected countries were cancelled [1]. Since cases first started appearing within Russia, Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin has been extremely proactive and is currently leading the government’s response against the pandemic.

This is in stark contrast to President Putin, who disappears for days at a time and minimizes his public appearances, while other politicians have taken center stage. Other than the Russia-Georgian War in 2008, this is the first time President Putin has not taken control during a national crisis [2]. Last week he declared the week of March 30 a paid national holiday in response to the pandemic. As of April 2 that has been extended to the entire month of April2.  However, instead of self-isolation, this has encouraged picnics and vacations, as there was no explicit quarantine order. Other government officials have had to discourage this type of behavior in response. While the Kremlin has denied any plans for a state of national emergency, three senior officials within the government have hinted otherwise [3]. This appears to be probable given the legislation that passed on April 1, granting the President’s cabinet the power to declare a national emergency —a power which until now was only granted to the president [4].

The other legislation signed by President Putin increased the consequences of breaking quarantine and spreading misinformation —including heavy fines and up to 7 years in prison. Besides the paid national holiday, which caused isolation problems, the Kremlin’s actions appear reactionary and take effect after further spread is likely to have already occurred. However, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin has taken steps to stop the spread with local restrictions, causing other regions to follow. Mayor Sobyanin ordered all non-essential businesses in Moscow to close, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin extended the order to the entire country shortly thereafter.

With President Putin absent, people are looking to Mayor Sobyanin for leadership. The president has earned a reputation as someone who does not like to associate himself with unpopular decisions1. During his April 2 statement, President Putin said he is leaving anti-coronavirus measures to local governments, due to the differences in cases between regions. Some have speculated that he has let Mayor Sobyanin take the lead in case a scapegoat is needed later, in case of failure to contain the pandemic [1]. Under that logic, it is probable President Putin will not declare a state of national emergency himself, but will encourage the cabinet to make that declaration instead, as a power granted by the new legislation. As of April 1, Russia has sent medical supplies to the United States in order to help with areas heavily impacted by the virus. The current amount of cases within Russia are reportedly (and debatably [5]) minimal compared to other countries. However, if the Russian Federal government continues to leave containment measures to local authorities, the lack of a national standard may facilitate the rise in COVID-19 cases. If medical relief is needed in the future, President Putin hopes the United States will reciprocate Moscow’s generosity in dealing with this pandemic [6].

Several Russian and foreign news sources have confirmed that President Putin has the reputation of not associating himself with harsh orders. Given this corroboration, we predict with moderate to high confidence that the regional governments will continue to be the main sources of restrictive measures. The Russian government, like the rest of the world, is facing a health crisis. Their stability is threatened by numerous factors like the economy and the health of the population, both of which are victims of this pandemic. It is possible that status as a country in a national state of emergency can help curb the spread, if declared.


[1] “Coronavirus in Russia: The Latest News April 2.” The Moscow Times. April 2, 2020. Web. April 2, 2020.

[2] Klishin, Ilya. “As Russia Battles the Coronavirus Crisis, Why is Putin so Absent?” The Moscow Times. March 31, 2020. Web April 1, 2020.

[3] Zverev, Anton and Gleb Stolyarov. “Russia Considering Coronavirus Emergency, say Sources, but Kremlin Denies it.” Reuters. April 1, 2020. Web. April 1, 2020.

[4] “Putin Signs Law Enabling Cabinet to Declare State of Emergency.” Sputnik International. April 1, 2020. Web. April 1, 2020.

[5] Titova, Irina. “Coronavirus: Russia Doctors say Government is Covering Up Cases. Business Insider. March 20, 2020. Web. April 1, 2020.

[6] Kelley, Alexandra. “Russia Sending Medical Equipment, Supplies to the U.S. for Coronavirus Relief.” The Hill. April 1, 2020. Web. April 1, 2020.