MOSCOW – President Vladimir V. Putin urged Russians to get the coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday – his largest comment to date on the matter – as his country scrambles to contain a vicious new wave of the disease.
Speaking at his annual televised call-in show, Mr Putin spent the first half hour convincing Russians to take one of the country’s four domestically produced recordings. It was the most recent case of a marked change in tone regarding the pandemic by Russian officials who for months did little to get a vaccination-conscious public to vaccinate but are now starting to make vaccination compulsory for some groups.
“It’s dangerous, dangerous for your life,” Putin said of Covid-19. “The vaccine is not dangerous.”
Only 23 million Russians, or about 15 percent of the population, have received at least one dose of vaccine, Putin said. Surveys by the independent Levada Center this year showed that around 60 percent of Russians did not want to be vaccinated. Analysts attribute the Russians’ reluctance to widespread distrust of the authorities, combined with a drumbeat from state television reports that the coronavirus has either been largely defeated or initially described as not very dangerous.
Mr Putin announced that he had received the Sputnik-V vaccine himself this year – the Kremlin had previously refused to say which vaccination he was given – and that he had a brief fever after the second dose. However, his message remained confused as he questioned the safety of Covid-19 vaccines in general.
“Thank goodness we didn’t have any tragic situations after vaccinations like after taking AstraZeneca or Pfizer,” said Putin.
Mr Putin was speaking when his handling of the pandemic – long touted by the Kremlin as superior to Western action – threatened to turn into a major debacle. While Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine is widely believed to be safe and effective, most Russians have avoided it and other available, domestically made vaccines. As a result, the country is suffering from a harrowing new wave of the pandemic, with the delta variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly.
Russia’s largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, have recently reported more than 100 deaths a day, setting records; Nationwide, the number of new cases reported per day has doubled to more than 20,000 in the past few weeks, with 669 deaths reported on Wednesday. The official toll is likely to be a significant shortfall.
Regional officials in Moscow and elsewhere have opposed lockdowns. But almost certainly, with Putin’s blessing, they have made vaccination compulsory for large populations in their regions, such as service workers. This sparked an outcry from many Kremlin critics and supporters.
“I do not support compulsory vaccinations and I continue to hold this view,” said Putin, transferring responsibility for such orders to regional officials.
June 30, 2021, 3:58 p.m. ET
The renewed rise in the coronavirus could derail the Kremlin’s message of competence compared to the dysfunction of the West just before the parliamentary elections in September. Putin’s vocal opponents have already been imprisoned, banned or excluded from running, but blatant electoral fraud or poor performance by his ruling party, United Russia, could undermine the president’s internal authority.
Putin’s annual call-in-show, first broadcast in 2001, has become a foundation of his communications with Russians during two decades of rule. More than a million questions were asked ahead of time by phone, SMS and smartphone app, state news media reported. They covered things like the cost of airline tickets, problems with building codes, illegal logging, and high food prices.
The long session is an opportunity for the president to show that he is in charge, handles the details of a wide variety of matters, and cares for the well-being of ordinary Russians. It also enables him to blame problems on lower officials while portraying himself as the savior of the common man.
But it has also underscored the weakness of the top-down system of government that Mr Putin presides over. In order to solve even the smallest problems, it seems that sometimes Mr Putin has to intervene himself.
For example, after a sheep farmer in the Caucasus Republic of Ingushetia informed Mr Putin that he was having trouble finding land to lease, the president promised to speak to the governor of the region.
“Sheep farming is very important,” said Putin. “People who do this deserve support.”
Mr Putin spent much of the show focusing on domestic issues. He quashed online rumors of new farm fees and promised “no one is planning a cattle tax”. A woman’s smartphone video from a grocery store showed the high cost of carrots and other staple foods. Mr Putin promised to look into the matter, noting that it was a global problem and that “the vegetable harvest is imminent and I hope this will have an impact on prices”.
But Mr Putin was most animated when asked about geopolitics. When asked about Ukraine, he reiterated his oft-made claim that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that the country has become a puppet of the United States. He rejected another viewer’s idea that last week’s incident involving a British warship approaching Crimea could have sparked World War III.
However, he warned that any attempt by the West to establish a military presence in Ukraine, Russia’s largest western neighbor, would pose an existential threat.
“This creates significant problems for us in the security area,” said Putin. “That affects the existential interests of the Russian Federation and the Russian people.”
Some of the questions during the nearly four hour show came as live phone or video calls while others were recorded videos. Mr Putin sometimes seemed confused about whether or not a question was asked in real time and he replied to some of the videos that were recorded. After some technical trouble about two hours later, the presenters said the show was coming under a denial of service cyber attack.
“Everyone is talking about Russian hackers,” joked one of the hosts.
Oleg Matsnev contributed to the coverage.