On Feb. 24, as Russia started a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, the mainstream media’s grim accounts of COVID-19 progression around the world were replaced by no less dramatic reports of the battles in that country. By the war’s fifth day, it became clear that Russia’s aims in Ukraine were unlimited, the main goal being the destruction of Ukraine’s statehood.
But had the COVID-19 pandemic anything to do with this war’s outbreak? After all, the deadly virus has not yet faded from the daily coverage of world events. Even though the pandemic has not caused the war, it has definitely contributed to the timing and progression of the hostilities. The pandemic has been especially devastating for Russia, where people died of the deadly virus in comparatively larger numbers than in most other places in the world.
Even though Russia was one of the first countries to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, the pandemic has ravaged this country, which boasts the largest territory in the world. Sputnik V was soon followed by a handful of other domestically manufactured vaccines or antiviral drugs, but still, the country suffered more deaths than many of its neighbors. Overall, around 2% of those infected with COVID-19 in Russia have died, while the mortality rate has been around 1% in most other countries. In fact, more people died in Russia after the introduction of the locally manufactured vaccines and drugs than before the country had the vaccines.
Among those affected by the pandemic has been Russia's authoritarian ruler, Vladimir Putin. As far as anyone outside the Kremlin knows, Putin has not been sick with COVID-19 himself, but he has become mortally afraid of the virus. For more than two years now, Putin has isolated himself completely as much as one can do this while maintaining contact with the outside world. He has been spending most of his time in an isolated room from which he conducts several teleconferences a day with top Russian officials.
On rare occasions when he comes out of his isolation, Putin maintains triple the normal social distance that was customary during the pandemic. The world has seen photos of Putin's meeting with the visiting president of France, Emmanuel Macron, just before the war. Putin kept Macron at least 20 feet away during his state visit, which France initiated to avert Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On rare occasions when he meets his own officials, Putin keeps them even farther away.
Putin’s fear of infection and death was publicly demonstrated Jan. 27, when he visited the memorial for the victims of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. Born in Leningrad after the war, Putin frequently visits the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery — his older brother died during the siege. Before the pandemic, the open-air events took place with the Russian leader surrounded by many officials and locals. But this January, Putin visited the memorial in complete isolation, with no officials around, and people kept hundreds of feet away behind a hastily erected fence. In addition, snow in front of the memorial where Putin stood had been disinfected, just in case.
Putin had been isolating himself from diverse opinions and viewpoints long before COVID-19’s emergence, but during the pandemic, he has fallen into a near-perfect echo chamber. The Russian leader does not use the internet; he gets information about the outside world only from his trusted officials and from the state-sponsored Russian television channels. The so-called federal TV channels broadcast a mix of bombastic patriotic propaganda and sterilized news.
At the same time, the top Russian officials close to Putin are either incompetent, like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, or afraid to tell him the truth, as the head of the foreign intelligence service Sergey Naryshkin. The self-imposed strict isolation has narrowed Putin's view of the outside world even more; the only glimpses of the neglected reality are provided by the setbacks experienced by his armed forces in Ukraine.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic has also been very hard for members of the Russian armed forces. Many of them have lost family members and friends and had few opportunities during the last two years to practice and train. This lack of training has been especially acute for combined arms operations, the most poorly conducted operations in the Ukraine campaign. Also, the domestically developed and manufactured new communication system for the Russian army has not operated as advertised. The new encrypted communication system, unveiled only last year, had not been adequately tested and improved until the troops rolled into Ukraine. Far from being well-prepared and equipped, the Russian armed forces have been, in fact, unprepared, underfunded, and poorly equipped.
Finally, Putin's paranoid fear of biological infections has been amplified on multiple occasions by select Russian officials who have blamed the United States government for spreading disease and accused it of preparing bacteriological weapons to devastate Russia. For a few years before the pandemic, a research lab in the Republic of Georgia named after U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., was the main subject of the Russian information campaign to “uncover” in its neighborhood alleged secret American programs for biological warfare with Russia. In February and March, the official Moscow, in now-traditional paranoid fashion, “discovered” American biological weapons labs in Ukraine — the Ukrainian labs partially funded by the United States that have played a vital role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Lasha Tchantouridzé is a professor and director of the graduate programs in diplomacy and international relations in Norwich University’s College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.
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