Monday, April 13, 2020

Russia in Review: Kremlin Tests Authoritarian Societal Control Measures during COVID-19 Crisis

By: Mason Clark and Aidan Therrien 

Key Takeaway: Putin’s response to the COVID-19 crisis is focused on shaping reality to conform to his desired narrative. The Kremlin is restricting the free flow of information on COVID-19, jailing doctors, and obfuscating its public infection numbers to support Putin’s central narrative that COVID-19 will affect Russia less than much of the world. The Kremlin is additionally testing new methods of societal control as part of its efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. The Kremlin will retain these improved authoritarian tools for use against future opposition.

Putin delayed responding to COVID-19 in Russia until late March to continue advancing his power retention campaign. Russia closed its land border with China on January 30, but delayed implementing quarantines and other travel restrictions throughout February and March.[1] Kremlin-run media claimed Russia would combat the virus without major disruptions.[2] Putin claimed as late as March 17 that the situation was “under control” and infections had been “contained.”[3] Kremlin-run media have repeatedly claimed the West is targeting Russia with disinformation exaggerating the scale of COVID-19. [4] The Kremlin has simultaneously conducted disinformation campaigns on COVID-19 around the world.[5] Kremlin officials continue to deny widespread reports Russia is underreporting its infection numbers.[6]

Putin likely downplayed the scale of COVID-19 to minimize disruption to his ongoing campaign to retain power beyond 2024. The Kremlin planned to hold a national referendum on April 22 to legitimize Putin’s sweeping constitutional changes, passed in early March. One of the changes would allow Putin to run for president in 2024 by resetting his term limits.[7] The Kremlin initially resisted delaying the referendum and announced on March 19 that Russia’s Central Election Commission was considering holding electronic voting amid the pandemic.[8]

Putin shifted his rhetoric in late March, warning during a G20 meeting that the problems caused by COVID-19 would exceed the shocks of the 2008 global recession.[9] He postponed the national referendum indefinitely and enacted a nationwide paid holiday – later extended through the end of April.[10] The Kremlin pledged $18 billion to combat the economic shocks of COVID-19 and falling oil prices after initially denying either event would affect the Russian economy.[11]

Putin is increasingly centralizing Russia’s response to COVID-19 as the crisis worsens. The Kremlin did not initially impose any nationwide controls, initially delegating decision making to regional administrations. All 85 of Russia’s federal regions imposed emergency measures by March 19, but procedures were not centrally coordinated.[12] Putin ordered regional governments on April 2 to respond to COVID-19 by increasing sanitary health, closing non-essential businesses, and restricting travel within each district.[13] Putin likely spread responsibility to allow local leaders to tailor their responses, in addition to dispersing potential blame for mishandling the pandemic response away from the Kremlin, an approach Putin has taken in past crises.[14]

The Kremlin recentralized control of Russia’s COVID-19 response in early April. The Russian Parliament passed a law on March 31 providing the Russia’s Cabinet of Ministers the ability to declare an emergency – previously a power reserved for the Kremlin.[15] The law additionally grants the central government control of a newly created “Unified State System for the Prevention and Liquidation of Emergencies.”[16] The Kremlin pressured three regional governors to resign due to their reportedly insufficient responses to COVID-19 in early April.[17] The Kremlin additionally reprimanded Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in early April after Kadyrov closed Chechnya’s borders to the rest of Russia. [18] Chechnya is a Russian Federal subject in the Caucasus region. Prime Minister Mishustin further warned all regional leaders to not step outside the bounds of their own authority on April 6. [19] While Kadyrov holds unique independent authority compared to Russia’s other regional leaders, the Kremlin will likely punish – not only reprimand – any further violations of central policy by Russian regional leaders.

The Kremlin is limiting the free flow of information around the COVID-19 issue in Russia. Putin signed a sweeping package of legislation on COVID-19 into law on April 1.[20] The laws include punishments of up to five years in prison for spreading “misinformation” on COVID-19 and up to seven years of jail time for breaking quarantine.[21] Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal body responsible for media censorship, announced monitoring of all “mass-media, social networks, video hosting, and broadcasting companies” to identify inaccurate information about COVID-19 on March 18.[22] Rozkomnadzor quickly began cracking down on alleged misinformation, forcing multiple media organizations, Facebook, YouTube, and VKontakte to remove content disputing official Kremlin coverage of COVID-19.[23]

The Kremlin’s security forces are arresting individuals who dispute Kremlin claims. Russian police arrested Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of Russian doctor’s union Doctor’s Alliance, on April 2.[24] The Doctor’s Alliance has publicly criticized the Kremlin for its poor response to COVID-19 and for shipping medical equipment abroad when Russian doctors lack supplies for their own patients.[25] Russian police arrested Vasilyeva on April 2 on charges of quarantine violation while she was delivering medical supplies to healthcare providers.[26]

The Kremlin is likely sending Russian nationals with COVID-19 to its proxy republics in Ukraine. The Foreign and Health Ministries of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine– which are controlled by the Kremlin – announced their willingness to treat Russian COVID-19 patients in their own health facilities on March 22.[27] Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU) reported separatist media says there are no COVID-19 cases on their territory. However, SBU sources claim at least 13 people have died in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic from COVID-19 symptoms. The SBU also claims COVID-19 patients are being intentionally falsely diagnosed with acute respiratory disease, a tactic the Kremlin has likely employed domestically as well.[28] The deportation of Russian nationals with COVID-19 allows the Kremlin to artificially keep their infection rates down while minimizing the risk of further infection of Russian medical professionals and citizens.

Russian authorities are testing a variety of new societal control technologies. Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced the use of city-wide facial recognition software to enforce quarantine restrictions on February 21.[29] Moscow installed this software, developed by a company partially owned by Russian state-owned defense giant Rostec, in January.[30] Rostec is run by Sergei Chemezov, a close associate of Putin.[31] The Kremlin is using the Moscow quarantine to experiment with the mass implementation of population monitoring software; COVID-19 provides the Kremlin a test case for the active use of the new camera system. In one instance, Russian police tracked a Russian national returning from China to her home to arrest her.[32] Sobyanin also announced that Moscow law enforcement and health professionals are carrying out “unpleasant, but necessary” raids on apartments, hotels, and other places of residence of Chinese nationals.[33] The Kremlin will continue to use these techniques on its citizens after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.

Russian regional administrations are testing societal control tech solutions as well. The administration of Nizhny Novgorod – a city with a population of over 1 million – rolled out a QR code system to track all resident movement, issuing each resident a code scanned by security personnel whenever they moved about the city.[34] The government announced security personnel will have the right to return any residents moving without a QR code to their homes. Moscow announced the creation of a similar QR code system on April 1 but said the system would be delayed on April 3.[35] Moscow authorities stated other measures have successfully kept Moscow residents home but threatened to impose QR code restrictions if more people broke quarantine.[36] Moscow authorities may have refrained from imposing additional population controls due to their potential political costs.

The Russian National Guard, Rosgvardia, is preparing for a large-scale domestic deployment to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, their first deployment for healthcare purposes. Putin directly commands Rosgvardia and has previously used it to suppress protests and control population.[37] Rosgvardia is creating teams of medical professionals from Russian government entities, such as the Ministry of Health and the Main Center for the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Research, to prepare for efforts to contain the virus and interact with suspected infected patients. Rosgvardia will also engage in “unscheduled inspections” on entities or citizens based on suspected threats to human life and health.[38] Putin’s deployment of Rosgvardia during the COVID-19 crisis allows the Kremlin to further test and expand its population control measures.

The Kremlin will likely apply authoritarian societal control measures refined during the COVID-19 crisis to future public discontent. The Kremlin is testing a new set of authoritarian tools – including facial recognition software, QR code systems, and extending the authority of domestic security services. The Kremlin will refine these tools during the COVID-19 crisis and likely use them to control public resistance to any future Kremlin policies. The Kremlin may overplay its hand in the information space to retain normalcy, however. Putin’s reluctance to pause his power retention campaign poses a potential test case to watch of the Kremlin’s risk of its information campaigns backfiring by impeding concrete action.

[1] “The Latest: Russia is Closing its Land Border with China,” AP News, January 30, 2020,
[2] Andrew Higgins, “As Russia Braces for Coronavirus, Putin Lets Underlings Take the Heat,” The New York Times, March 30, 2020,
[3] “Virus Situation in Russia ‘Under Control,’ Putin Says,” The Moscow Times, March 17, 2020
[4] “Coronavirus: Russia Denies Spreading US Conspiracy on Social Media,” BBC News, February 23, 2020,; Zlatica Hoke, “Analysts: Russia Using Virus Crisis to Sow Discord in West,” VOA News, March 20, 2020,
[5] George Barros, “Viral Disinformation: The Kremlin’s Coronavirus Information Operation in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, March 11, 2020,
[6] “[Sobyanin has Denied the Rumors about Underestimation of the Number of Infected COVID-19 in Moscow],” Interfax, March 15, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/moscow/699171.
[7] “Russia’s Putin Orders April Vote on Constitutional Changes Despite Coronavirus,” Reuters, March 17, 2020,
[8] Natalya Bashlykova, “[Adjusted for the Virus: How Will the Vote on the Constitutional Change Take Place],” Izvestia, March 19, 2020, https://iz((.))ru/988377/natalia-bashlykova/s-popravkoi-na-virus-kak-proidet-golosovanie-ob-izmenenii-konstitutcii.
[9] Alena Yakushova, “[Putin: Coronavirus Crisis will be Worse than in 2008],” Vedomosti, March 26, 2020, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/articles/2020/03/26/826337-putin-krizis-iz-za-koronavirusa-tyazhelee-chem-v-2008.
[10] “[Appeal to the Citizens of Russia],” Kremlin, March 25, 2020, http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63061; “Putin Extends Nationwide Paid Holiday as Coronavirus Numbers See Sharpest Rise Yet,” Moscow Times, April 3, 2020,
[11] Andrey Ostroukh, “Russia Earmarks $18 Billion to Tackle Coronavirus Crisis,” Reuters, April 1, 2020,
[12] “[High Alert due to Coronavirus Introduced Throughout Russia],” TASS, March 19, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/obschestvo/8027563.
[13] “[Decree on Measures to Ensure the Sanitary and Epidemiological Well-being of the Population in Connection with the Spread of Coronavirus Infection],” Kremlin, April 2, 2020, http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63134.
[14] Fabrice Deprez, “Russia’s Confusing COVID-19 Response,” FPRI, April 7, 2020,
[15] “[Amendments to Emergency Measures Related to the Spread of Coronavirus Adopted],” State Duma, March 31, 2020,
[16] “[Amendments to Emergency Measures Related to the Spread of Coronavirus Adopted],” State Duma, March 31, 2020,
[17] Alexander Marrow, “Under Pressure from Putin and Coronavirus, Russian Governor Resigns,” Reuters, April 3, 2020,
[18] “Russia’s Chechnya First Region to Seal Off Internal Borders Amid Coronavirus,” Moscow Times, April 1, 2020,; “[Mishustin Advised the Regional Authorities not to Confuse Their Powers with Federal],” Interfax, April 6, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/702737; “[Kadyrov refused to open the borders of Chechnya for residents of other regions],” Vedomosti, April 6, 2020, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/news/2020/04/06/827284-kadirov-otvetil-na-trebovanie-pravitelstva-k-regionam-otkrit-granitsi
[19] “[Mishustin Advised the Regional Authorities not to Confuse Their Powers with Federal],” Interfax, April 6, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/702737.
[20] “Russians Risk Fines, Jail Time for Dodging Coronavirus Quarantine,” Moscow Times, April 1, 2020,
[21] Elena Mukhametshina, “[State Duma Toughens Punishment for Quarantine Violations and Fake News on Coronavirus],” Vedomosti, March 31, 2020, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/society/articles/2020/03/31/826686-gosduma.
[22] “[Roskomnadzor Warns of Responsibility for the Dissemination of False Information],” RKN, March 18, 2020,
[23] “Russian News Outlets Ordered to Take Down ‘Fake’ Coronavirus News,” Moscow Times, March 20, 2020,
[24] “Russia Doctor Who Criticized Government’s COVID-19 Response Detained,” Radio Free Europe, April 3, 2020,; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, April 2, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1245793613419876352?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1245793613419876352&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2F
[25] Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, March 19, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1240669524166402051; Anastacia Vasilyeva, Twitter, March 22, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/DrAnastasy/status/1241669421887827971; Anastacia Vasilyeva, Twitter, March 21, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/DrAnastasy/status/1241380032376983552; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, March 19, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1240669524166402051; “Russia Doctor Who Criticized Government’s COVID-19 Response Detained,” Radio Free Europe, April 3, 2020,; “FAQ,” Doctor’s Alliance, https://alyansvrachey((.))ru/#chastye-voprosy.
[26] “Russia Doctor Who Criticized Government’s COVID-19 Response Detained,” Radio Free Europe, April 3, 2020,; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, April 2, 2020, https://twitter((.))com/alyansvrachey/status/1245793613419876352?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1245793613419876352&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2F
[27] “[DNR Invited Russians Affected by Coronavirus to Donetsk Hospitals],” News Sky, March 22, 2020,; “[Media: The Hospitals of Donetsk are Ready to Accommodate Russian Patients with Coronavirus],” Donpress, March 22, 2020, https://donpress((.))com/news/22-03-2020-smi-v-bolnicah-donecka-gotovy-razmestit-bolnyh-koronavirusom-rossiyan;
“[The ‘DNR’ will Carry Patients with Coronavirus from Russia, Donetsk Hospitals are Preparing for the Mass Reception of Infected],” Dialogue, March 22, 2020, https://www.dialog((.))ua/ukraine/203630_1584863876.
[28] The Security Service of Ukraine, Facebook, April 3, 2020,; “What Exactly is Going On With Russia’s Low Coronavirus Numbers?” Radio Free Europe, March 24, 2020,; Doctor’s Alliance, Twitter, March 19, 2020,
[29] “Moscow’s Coronavirus Quarantine Explained,” Moscow Times, April 3, 2020,; “Moscow Deploys Facial Recognition Technology for Coronavirus Quarantine,” Reuters, February 21, 2020,
[30] “[Moscow Authorities will Monitor Isolation Through Face Recognition and Geodata],” RBC, March 31, 2020, https://www((.)); James Vincent, “Moscow Rolls Out Live Facial Recognition System with an App to Alert Police,” The Verge, January 30, 2020,
[31] Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here With Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War, March, 2019,
[32] “Moscow Deploys Facial Recognition Technology for Coronavirus Quarantine,” Reuters, February 21, 2020,
[33] “Moscow Deploys Facial Recognition Technology for Coronavirus Quarantine,” Reuters, February 21, 2020,
[34] “[The Size and Distribution of the Population],” GKS, http://www.gks((.))ru/free_doc/new_site/perepis2010/croc/perepis_itogi1612.htm; “[Gleb Nikitin approved a mechanism for monitoring compliance with self-isolation],” Government of Nizhny Novgorod, April 2, 2020, https://www.government-nnov((.))ru/?id=254621.
[35] Eduard Lysenko, “[About the Application for Monitoring Quarantined Muscovites],” Echo, April 1, 2020, https://echo.msk((.))ru/programs/razvorot-morning/2616757-echo/.
[36] Sergei Sobyanin, “[Coronavirus: Extension of the Home Regime, Transfer of the Introduction of Passes and Other Solutions 04/02/2020],” Sobyanin, April 2, 2020, https://www.sobyanin((.))ru/koronavirus-prodlenie-domr-perenos-vvedeniya-propuskov.
[37] “Russian Riot Police Launch Recruitment Drive ‘To Suppress Uprisings’ in Moscow,” Moscow Times, August 27, 2019,; “Russia: Over 1,000 Detained at Weekend Protest,” Human Rights Watch, August 6, 2019,
[38] “[Rosgvardia prepares freelance teams against the virus],” Kommersant, March 31, 2020, https://www((.))