Moscow and Saint Petersburg are heading back into lockdowns. With Russia setting new domestic records for daily COVID-19 infections and deaths, one question looms large: How did the situation spiral out of control so quickly?

According to official data, Russia’s COVID-19-related death toll since the pandemic’s start through late October 2021 stands at over 230,000. Russia also has the highest COVID-19 mortality rate among countries in Europe and the second-highest rate in Asia, after India. Given Moscow’s lack of transparency, inadequate testing in some parts of the country, and the Kremlin’s penchant for manipulating statistics, the real figure could be far greater.

Russia’s Change of Tune

Although Russia was the first country to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, its muddled performance in managing the pandemic has left the country vulnerable. Only about one-third of Russians are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Public skepticism and mistrust about the efficacy and safety of domestically produced Russian vaccines have compounded the problem. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin hesitated for months after the splashy August 2020 rollout of Sputnik V before getting inoculated himself in March 2021. Many Russians have grown complacent or even fatalistic about the disease as the pandemic drags on.

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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Now, after downplaying the threat of rising infections for months, Russian officials have suddenly acknowledged the severity of the crisis on their hands. In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, Putin approved a weeklong paid holiday from October 30 to November 7.

Yet instead of staying home, many Russians are taking advantage of their unexpected week off and are heading out on domestic and foreign vacations. Russian officials are publicly venting their frustration over such plans as well as the country’s stubbornly low vaccination rate—to little avail. Even the most at-risk groups—including frontline workers, medical staff, and the elderly—have been reluctant to get vaccinated or to take extra precautions.

The Kremlin’s Poor Management

The Kremlin’s media machine gloated at the West’s troubled response to the pandemic early on. Russian military jets flew equipment and personal protective gear to Italy and even the United States to showcase the Putin regime’s largesse and preparedness. A public health official bragged in front of Putin in April 2020 that Russia’s mortality rate was among the world’s lowest.

However, such efforts to win cheap propaganda points backfired. Many of the medical supplies that Moscow sent turned out to be unusable. By suggesting that Russians were less vulnerable than other populations to the ravages of COVID-19, the government undermined the importance of personal responsibility in fighting the spread of the disease. Russian officials have not learned from their mistakes either, unlike countries such as China and Italy, which were hard-hit earlier in the pandemic but have since orchestrated successful vaccination campaigns and put in place more effective countermeasures.

The Russian government’s unfocused, often lackadaisical approach is nothing new. Poor planning, a lack of sufficient resources, and limited public awareness about how to reduce person-to-person infections have all contributed to today’s crisis, as the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus spreads.

Putin, too, has been part of the problem. For the bulk of the pandemic, he has remained intentionally aloof and largely isolated from the management of the public health crisis, leaving it instead in the hands of a hodgepodge of regional actors. This is not surprising. Authoritarian leaders around the globe have tried to skirt responsibility and delegate difficult decisions to their underlings.

Yet as infections and fatalities have soared in recent weeks, Putin has been forced to take a more active role in managing the crisis, reflecting a deeper problem with the system he has created: it can barely function without his direct participation and manual control. The pandemic has exposed the rickety underpinnings of the country’s Putin-centric political system.

A New Approach?

On October 24, Putin issued a series of orders to speed up testing across the country, curtail operational hours of restaurants and other public venues, and impose stricter isolation requirements for those infected with the virus. To encourage vaccination, he also called for incentives (two paid days off) for those willing to get inoculated. Inoculation rates indeed have begun to rise in recent days in places like Moscow.

Yet Putin continues to delegate most of the responsibility to local officials. In an indication of potential things to come in Moscow—the epicenter of the Russian pandemic—Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced an unpopular vaccine mandate for city workers and a new partial lockdown from October 28 to November 7, with all nonessential workers ordered to remain home and nonessential businesses required to be closed, including schools. The city also claims that it will use facial recognition to help identify violators and levy fines against Muscovites who do not abide by mask mandates while using public transportation, shopping at food and drug stores, and spending time in other public places. However, Russia’s spotty track record of using other high-tech solutions to promote enhanced public health measures is hardly impressive.

An Uphill Battle for Vaccinations

All of the country’s 255,000 hospital beds designated for COVID-19 patients are currently occupied, with over 36,000 new coronavirus cases reported on October 26, 2021. The Russian minister of health urged doctors and other medical staff to “get vaccinated” and come to work; he also called on retired doctors to help alleviate staff shortages. Roughly 700 Russian doctors reportedly died of COVID-19 in the first six months of 2021.

The rampant distrust of Sputnik V among the Russian public is the result of preexisting vaccine hesitancy and a skeptical outlook on authority. Russian experts debate whether inoculation rates would be higher if Russia had allowed foreign-made vaccines to be distributed, rather than just domestically produced ones. Indeed, a number of Russians have traveled to places like Serbia and Armenia to gain access to other vaccines. Yet Russian policy decisions have made a bad situation even worse.

First, the Kremlin rushed the Sputnik V vaccine to market in the second half of 2020, a year before its developers finished the third phase of clinical trials. The vaccine’s developers have dragged their feet on providing safety and effectiveness data to key global public bodies and regulatory authorities such as the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency. This has undercut the vaccine’s image both at home and abroad.

Second, Moscow’s criticism of Western vaccines has compounded vaccine hesitancy overall. Combined with low levels of medical sophistication, limited trust in political leaders, and a notoriously corrupt public health system, the growing domestic confusion over inoculation and vaccine hesitancy has become toxic.

While a similar dynamic is playing out in countries around the globe, Russia’s vaccination rate remains stalled. With about 33 percent of Russians fully inoculated as of October 27, the country is roughly on par with Suriname and far lower than Azerbaijan (about 43 percent), Argentina (about 56 percent), Mongolia (about 66 percent), and China (about 76 percent).

Finally, confusing and often contradictory messaging has undercut local public health campaigns. The October 2021 decision to close the country’s largest vaccination clinic in Moscow’s Gostiny Dvor exhibition space, and instead return to using it for cultural events, illustrates the failure of both the vaccination drive and the city’s faltering efforts to promote social distancing.

A Grim Future

Russia has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Officially, its total number of fatalities in the country ranks among the top in terms of global COVID-19 fatalities. But the actual death toll is likely far higher. Russian COVID-19 mortality statistics are fuzzy; they generally include only deaths in which the virus was the primary cause and not just a contributing factor. If those latter cases were included, the Russian state statistical agency claims the total COVID-19 mortality figure would be closer to 420,000 as of August 2021. In fact, Russia’s total number of excess deaths—those that exceed the expected average death rates for a given period—stands at over 660,000 between March 2020 and August 2021. One demographer even calculated that the country’s natural population (determined by registered births and deaths) may have declined by almost 1 million people from October 2020 to September 2021.

While we may never have an accurate picture of the pandemic’s toll on Russia, the leadership’s botched response to the current spike is a reminder that even authoritarian countries are struggling to keep a virulent and highly contagious disease at bay. The overlay of popular distrust, fatalism, and complacency have only exacerbated this grim reality.