Putin has just made two huge mistakes — and his timing couldn’t be worse

The Kremlin’s second big mistake was to allow its propaganda machine to project an aura of invincibility even as the covid-19 tsunami was spreading across Russia. The Kremlin closed part, but not all, of its 2,600-mile border with China on Jan. 31, leading to a false sense of security that was compounded by willful ignorance. Demonstrating both its hubris and ignorance, the military thus went forward with a large-scale exercise on Ukraine’s border in late March, long after NATO had pulled the plug on its “Defender Europe” drill…

Now, as social media users are sharing videos of ambulances lined up for miles waiting to deposit patients in overcrowded Moscow hospitals, it’s no longer possible to claim that all is under control. The Russian health-care system was already struggling with a number of chronic health conditions (tuberculosis, heart disease, alcoholism, etc.) and many public health experts worry that the pandemic might bring matters to a breaking point. Russia is also one of the rare countries that’s simultaneously coping with low life expectancy and a graying population, making it particularly vulnerable to covid-19. Putin’s tendency to delegate decisions on pandemic policy to regional governors might help insulate him from political fallout in the near term, but it is unlikely to lead to a well-managed policy over the longer term.

All of this jeopardizes Putin’s plan to change the constitution to allow him to serve two more terms as president, allowing him to stay in office until 2036 (when he will turn 84). Although parliament had already rubber-stamped the changes, Putin had also intended to put them to a referendum, originally scheduled for April 22 but now postponed indefinitely.