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Opinions | The pandemic’s big political losers

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-05-15 Editorial Board

MANY POLITICAL leaders have seen their popularity soar during the covid-19 pandemic. Two big exceptions are President Trump, who has seen his poll ratings decline significantly in recent weeks, and Russian ruler Vladimir Putin, who recently recorded his lowest approval rating since September 1999. Of course, U.S. and Russian politics differ significantly. But in managing the health crisis, Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin are making some of the same mistakes.

Like the U.S. president, Mr. Putin played down the threat of the novel coronavirus at first, concluding that he had curtailed the threat by closing Russia’s border with China. “The situation is under total control,” he told Russians on April 19. When infections began to spike, Mr. Putin responded with a public relations offensive, appearing on television almost every night, while eschewing tangible actions. Instead, he delegated responsibility to Russia’s regional governors. Sound familiar?

The United States at least has many capable state governors, who have partly compensated for Mr. Trump’s malfeasance. Their Russian counterparts are mostly flunkies of Mr. Putin who lack the resources or the skills to combat the coronavirus. One, Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, threatened his subjects with death if they violated quarantine. Many others have done little or nothing.

Russia now has the second-fastest-growing case count in the world, after the United States, with 252,000 recorded infections as of Thursday — and Moscow’s mayor says the number in the capital may be three times Monday’s official count of 115,000. Yet Mr. Putin is already moving to lift restrictions on the economy. On Monday, when a record 11,656 new cases were reported, he told Russians it was time to go back to work.

The price of the Kremlin chief’s disengagement is mounting. Russia had reported 2,305 deaths from the virus as of Thursday, but many experts believe that number is grossly understated, too. An analysis by the Financial Times showed that the toll could be 70 percent higher, based on mortality records in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Then there is the damage to the Russian economy, which Mr. Putin compounded by enagaging in an oil price war with Saudi Arabia that drove prices to historic lows. The International Monetary Fund now estimates the Russian economy will shrink by 5.5 percent this year, and much of the foreign reserves the regime has accumulated in recent years will be drained.

Mr. Putin himself has suffered two big setbacks in addition to his plunging poll numbers. He was forced to postpone a referendum last month that would have ratified constitutional changes allowing him to remain in power until 2036, when he would be 84. And he was unable to stage a much-anticipated celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany last weekend that was to be attended by world leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping and France’s Emmanuel Macron.

Few are predicting the epidemic will bring about Mr. Putin’s downfall. But then, there is also no sign his regime will soon gain control over the virus. Russians, like Americans, are suffering the deadly consequences of their president’s mix of arrogance and fecklessness. The difference is the latter can vote for a change in November.

Read more:

Michael Carpenter: Putin has just made two huge mistakes — and his timing couldn’t be worse

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Vladimir Putin has a popularity problem — and the Kremlin knows it

Garry Kasparov: Russia claims it has covid-19 under control. The facade is cracking.

Jackson Diehl: The winners and losers of the coronavirus’s global test of governance

The Post’s View: This is Trump’s greatest failure of the pandemic

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin are posing for a picture: President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. © Jim Watson and Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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