After months of denials, Russia is facing a new reality with respect to the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the country. Friday’s statistics officially acknowledge 1,036 diagnosed cases of COVID-19, including four deaths. The real numbers are undoubtedly much higher, as testing for the potentially deadly disease is only starting to pick up steam and some coronavirus deaths are being attributed to other causes.
The highly contagious virus has already penetrated the walls of the Kremlin. Russian media reported that two Kremlin officials may have tested positive for the coronavirus. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed he was aware of one of those cases, but claimed no knowledge of the second. State media outlet TASS speculated that one of the infected persons may have been a staffer responsible for awards, who traveled to Spain and later attended Putin’s presidential awards ceremony in occupied Crimea.
Putin’s own spokesman couldn’t avoid the handshake of the disease, having been present at a star-studded birthday party attended by pop singer Lev Leshchenko, who recently tested positive for coronavirus. Peskov claimed that attendees at the fancy affair maintained proper distancing and “barely even shook hands” in light of the coronavirus advisories. However, video clips aired by the Russian state media TV show 60 Minutes demonstrated that celebrity partiers hugged, kissed and made silly gestures mocking the coronavirus precautions. Peskov denied interacting with the infected singer at the party.
Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia that consists of 450 members, said it will require all of its deputies to take coronavirus tests on Monday.
Putin expressed near certainty that Russia could defeat the coronavirus “in two or three months time… maybe even earlier.” Taking an obvious jab at the United States, he added: “In some countries, it is said that the war with the virus (they call it a ‘war’) will be a very long one.”
State media outlet RT hinted at the upcoming unrest in the United States: predicting that “a people deprived of their myths will not remain complacent forever.” RT opined: “With no brawls or ballgames to watch, and the fear of potential hunger gnawing at their bloated bellies and brains… Americans will now find it harder and harder to ignore the truth about their country and its deplorably corrupt media, financial, government, education and health care systems… The crisis is going to get worse before it gets better… America, on the other hand, will only get much worse, with no hope that it is ever going to get better.”
Moscow’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin expressed his hope that Russia’s fight against the coronavirus will be “more smooth and painless than in other countries.” He ordered Moscow’s restaurants and most stores to shut down for eight days and noted: “The restrictions introduced today are unprecedented in the modern history of Moscow and will create many inconveniences for the everyday life of every person,” but argued that “they are absolutely necessary in order to slow the spread of coronavirus infection and reduce the number of cases.”
Meanwhile, during his Thursday telephone call with reporters, Peskov insisted that in Russia “there is de facto no epidemic” and the Kremlin hopes “to be able to avoid one.”
Kremlin-controlled Russian state media are using the crisis to promote the view that democratic, progressive countries’ inability to curtail the pandemic demonstrated the superiority of Russia’s paternalistic government. Russian state media argued that the failure of the United States to prepare for coronavirus, even with a two-month advance notice, also demonstrates the loss of America’s global leadership.
Appearing on The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, Political scientist Sergey Mikheyev said that he was very happy to report: “Things are better in Russia than in Europe or America.” Mikheyev pointed out that the United States failed to extend a helping hand to Europe, after decades of transatlantic solidarity. He attributed the failure of the Trump administration to help America’s European allies to “stupidity, greed,” or the overt manifestation of total disregard.
The host, Vladimir Soloviev, asserted that overcoming the pandemic “with minimal losses” would cement Putin’s success in securing the upcoming nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments designed to maintain the Russian leader’s grip on power. In anticipation of the inevitable suffering, Russian state media have been promoting outlandish conspiracy theories that blame the United States—and even their alleged “secret bio-laboratories in Ukraine”—for the creation of the coronavirus.
The ongoing spread of the coronavirus in Russia will be accompanied by the inevitable escalation of anti-Western propaganda. When push comes to shove, the Kremlin frequently resorts to its traditional methods of assigning the blame to evil external forces (most frequently, the United States) and portraying Putin as Russia’s only hope and savior of the Motherland.
The scope of the pandemic, suddenly extending to the Russian president’s inner circle, caused obvious nervousness on Russian state television. Appearing on Russia’s 60 Minutes, unsettled pundits traded insults and practically screamed at each other. In spite of the Kremlin’s initial claims of successfully controlling the spread of the virus, many are realizing that the worst is yet to come.