Putin and the Pandemic: Testing the Paradoxes of Putinism

Sam Wood
Is Putin making a case for "managed" democracies?

Kent's Professor Richard Sakwa is one of the world’s leading experts on President Putin and his terms as both President and Prime Minister of Russia. Here Professor Sakwa examines Putin’s leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Vladimir Putin is potentially the most important leader of our era. He is in equal measure misunderstood and condemned. He has been at the helm of the world’s largest country since late 1999, and his decisions have shaped not only Russia but also some of the key issues in world politics. It is therefore crucial to understand what motivates the man, what shapes his policies, and what have been the consequences.

‘Here, we focus on explaining the Putin phenomenon through the prism of “paradox”. A paradox is something that at first appears absurd or untrue, yet the contradiction ultimately makes sense. A paradox appears to deny the truth yet the implied meaning reveals some deeper truth. Putin’s leadership is comprised of a number of paradoxes.

‘What does this mean in the context of Russia today? First, the phenomenon of Putin’s leadership is more complex than meets the eye. Although he has been demonised by much recent Western commentary (as in the three-part Channel 4 documentary aired in April 2020), Putin has in fact begun as the most pro-Western leader Russia has ever had. Putin’s alienation from the West was a gradual process and can be explained by the “security paradox“. Putin came to power in 2000 determined to stabilise relations with Western countries and institutions and even talked of Russia joining NATO.

‘However, by the time he returned to his third presidential term in 2012, western relations had irrevocably broken down. The crisis over Ukraine two years later was a symptom rather than the cause of what some call the Second Cold War. Russia and the West each pursued a model of post-Cold War peace order, both based on international law and the norms upheld by the UN, yet in combination with each the outcome has been disastrous. Europe is once again divided and there is enormous potential for various proxy wars across the globe.

‘The reasons for this go far deeper than the character of Russia’s leader. However, when faced by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the facet of Putin’s character that immediately seeks engagement with the West has once again come to the fore. The supply of medical aid to Italy and even to the United States, accompanied by calls for a five-power summit of the five permanent members of the UN is testimony to Putin’s paradoxical commitment to multilateral responses to the global crisis.

‘Second, the Putin phenomenon is a reflection of the “democracy paradox”. Democracy by definition requires the open-endedness of outcomes and the firmness of rules, yet in post-communist Russia it is the rules that are flexible and the outcomes predetermined. Can a managed democracy be a democracy at all? Who does the managing, and with what justification? Putin inherited a “dual state” from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in which the institutions and procedures of impartial constitutional rule are subject to manipulation by an administrative system standing outside of the rules that it claims to uphold.

‘Putin effectively argues that democracy is too dangerous to be allowed free rein. Instead, the value of stability is affirmed to take priority, but ultimately the search for manually-imposed stability can become destabilising.

‘The COVID-19 pandemic will test the Putinite polity to the limits. This is a question of governmental efficacy and trust in his leadership. Can a model of “managed democracy” deal with such a major crisis, with enormous implications for the standard of living and the economy. Do democracies deal better with such challenges, or is the authoritative Putin’s Russia powerfully demonstrating their validity for protecting their people?

‘A number of other paradoxes are at work in contemporary Russia, including in the economic sphere and in the world of news management. The most tragic paradox of all may be that the societies that most loudly proclaim the values of freedom and openness may be closed precisely to understanding the paradoxes that shape the future not only of one of the world’s leading powers but also of the world at large.’

This article is drawn from Professor Richard Sakwa, The Putin Paradox (London and New York, I. B. Tauris, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020).

Professor Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent’s School of Politics and International Relations. Professor Sakwa is an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, Honorary Professor at Moscow State University and since September 2002 a Fellow of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences (FAcSS).

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