By Paul Goble
Kirill Dmitriyev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Foundation and someone often listed as a possible successor to Vladimir Putin, says “the Americans were surprised when they heard the signals from sputnik” and the same thing will be true when Russia is first to have a coronavirus vaccine (iz.ru/1041331/2020-07-29/glava-rfpi-sravnil-sozdanie-rossiei-vaktciny-ot-covid-19-s-pervym-sputnikom).
That is the clearest sign yet that the Kremlin views the vaccine and its potential to reorder the international environment as the new inspiring idea that will lead Russians to rally around Putin even as the economy continues to deteriorate, Moscow commentator Aleksey Moshkov says (svpressa.ru/politic/article/272752/).
Ever since the “Crimea is ours” campaign began to lose steam, he continues, Moscow has been in search of such an idea. That is because economic conditions have continued to deteriorate, and the Kremlin having underestimated the impact of that trend on popular attitudes believes that it can come up with an ideological substitute.
Most recently, Moshkov suggests, the Kremlin expected that the approval of “the Putin constitution” could do that, especially as it loaded the document with ideas supposedly attractive to the Russian people. But the latter saw through this and concluded that the amendments were only about keeping Putin around forever without their problems being addressed.
The pandemic intervened as well, and Putin launched another trial balloon about a new national idea: the pandemic as a conflict like the struggle with the Polovtsians and Pechenegs, a notion that others like Vladimir Mau expanded into the idea that fighting the coronavirus is like World War II (interfax.ru/russia/703186 and rbc.ru/society/05/08/2020/5f2abac79a79474f60dfbf92).
But because Putin wanted to declare victory against the pandemic quickly, this campaign had to be redefined so that the pandemic is only the first battle in a coming war. Leonid Roshal and Gennady Onishchenko were quite ready to make that argument (forbes.ru/biznes/406015-eto-repeticiya-biologicheskoy-voyny-vrach-leonid-roshal-ob-urokah-i-posledstviyah and iz.ru/1043281/2020-08-03/onishchenko-sravnil-koronavirus-s-terroristicheskoi-atakoi-v-informatcionnoi-voine).
Being first to develop a vaccine thus became “task number one” for the Putin regime because only that achievement could “guarantee victory in this war,” Moshkov says. The logic is simple: “Again as in Soviet times, we are first. We defeated Nazi Germany and now we are putting an end to ‘kovid.’”
But despite the obvious attractiveness of those who have used similar paradigms in the past, this current effort, the Moscow commentator argues, is going to be “in vain.” It isn’t clear that a vaccine developed in such haste will be as effective as the Kremlin promises. And because other countries face the pandemic, they too will come up with vaccines.
These may or may not be more effective than the Russian variant, but at the very least, they will make the Russian one far less unique than Putin needs it to be if it is to be an ideological as well as medical tool. The Russian vaccine, if it works, may give the Kremlin a small boost, but it will not be enough to overcome either Khabarovsk or Belarus.