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How the Coronavirus Revealed the Hollowness of Putin’s “Vertical of Power”

This is partly the inevitable result of the Putin system’s longevity; after twenty years in power, Putin thinks of himself less as a politician and more as a “messianic” or “historic” hero, as Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of the analysis firm R.Politik, put it. This period crystallized in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fuelled a would-be separatist insurgency in Ukraine. Sanctions, opprobrium, and attempts at isolation followed—but Russia was again an undeniable force on the world stage.

“If, in earlier times, Putin stood before the people and in some way was responsible to them, he now sees himself as standing before history,” Stanovaya told me. He is consumed with the idea of restoring Russia’s great-power status, and so the tasks that interest him are commensurate with this sweeping mission: navigating an oil-price war with Saudi Arabia and the United States; dispatching Russian forces and paramilitaries around the Middle East to take advantage of the vacuum left by the U.S.; and courting foreign leaders, whether Donald Trump or China’s Xi Jinping. Stanovaya said that Putin sees “social problems,” of which covid-19 is one, as “too small compared to his great mission. They’re simply not interesting to him; they don’t rise to his level.” (Putin, though, relishes high-profile events like the military parade commemorating victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, normally held on May 9th. In April, Putin delayed it indefinitely, citing the pandemic; on Tuesday, he announced that it would go ahead after all, on June 24th.)

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