Russia in Review: Kremlin Misdirection Continues amid COVID and Peace Processes

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin continues to exploit COVID-19 to advance its key campaigns. The Kremlin is trying to exploit two peace processes in the United Nations and Ukraine to lift sanctions on Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also making lasting changes to Russia’s security services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, unbinding the authority of police and empowering the Ministry of Defense both diplomatically and as an increasingly normalized domestic actor. The Kremlin has not lost sight of its key objectives during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue its malign actions.  

The Kremlin is preparing to exploit an upcoming meeting of the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members – the P5 – to attempt to lift sanctions on Russia and its allies. The virtual meeting of the P5 will likely occur in early May.[1] French President Emmanuel Macron has called for the P5 to endorse a “global ceasefire” during the COVID-19 crisis. Macron stated on April 15 that he has secured the agreement of the US, UK, and China and hopes to convince Putin to join.[2] 

Putin will attempt to exploit Macron’s peace framework to achieve his own objectives. The Kremlin has not committed to Macron’s proposal thus far, stating Russian diplomats must “work” on the proposal before joining it.[3] Putin will likely attempt to secure a benefit to Russia before agreeing to Macron’s proposal. None of the other P5 states placed conditions on their support for the ceasefire. Macron is asking Putin for support, despite Putin being the aggressor in many of the conflicts to be covered by the global ceasefire. Putin has actively courted Macron on several issues and held numerous calls with him over the past year.[4]

Putin’s desired compensation for his support will likely focus on sanctions mitigation. The Kremlin is  framing Western sanctions as a crime during COVID-19 to support its long-standing objective of removing Western sanctions on Russia without reversing the malign activity that led to them.[5] The Kremlin conducted an outreach campaign on sanctions removal to every member of the P5 in mid-April.[6] The Kremlin will likely attempt to equate sanctions with conflict by convincing Macron to include sanctions removal in his ceasefire resolution. The US will likely veto any resolution that includes sanctions removal. ISW previously forecasted Putin would intentionally provoke the US into vetoing a COVID-19-related resolution in the UNSC to secure a rhetorical victory.[7] This attempt to provoke a US veto is also likely intended to further split Macron from the US by forcing the US to veto one of Macron’s key efforts. Putin may alternatively demand Macron’s support on other ongoing talks in exchange for not pushing the sanctions issue. The West must not fall for the Kremlin’s likely attempt to blame the West for the collapse of a ceasefire agreement due to Russian asks not being met.

Putin will attempt to advance a Kremlin-favorable peace process in Ukraine as he tries to lift sanctions. The foreign ministers of the Normandy Four – Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France – will hold a video conference to discuss the Ukrainian peace process on April 30.[8]

During the virtual meeting, the Kremlin will likely try to secure further Ukrainian concessions. Russia and Ukraine agreed in December to conduct an all-for-all prisoner exchange and withdraw forces from three new disengagement areas in Donbas, with the goal of disengagement from these sites by the end of March 2020.[9] Ukraine also agreed to make a public joint statement with Russia that it is “necessary” to incorporate the Steinmeier Formula, a Kremlin-favorable interpretation of the Minsk agreements, into Ukrainian law.[10]

Ukraine did not implement this disengagement by March 2020 due to continued Russian pressure. Kremlin-controlled proxies attacked two of the three Ukrainian withdrawal zones in January and February, despite the Kremlin’s posturing as a peacemaker.[11] Ukraine has not adopted the Steinmeier Formula in part due to resistance from Ukrainian civil society.[12] The formula, which the Kremlin manipulated Zelensky’s government into last year, carries long-term risks for Ukrainian sovereignty that ISW has previously described.[13] The December 2019 agreement additionally does not stipulate any timeline for incorporating the Steinmeier Formula.

The Kremlin is falsely framing that Ukraine has stalled the peace process. The Kremlin will continue pressuring Ukraine into concessions using prisoner exchanges as a bargaining chip.[14] Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov stated on April 28 Ukraine has not yet completed its “homework” by implementing the December 2019 agreements, ignoring that the Kremlin had not implemented its own side of the agreements. Lavrov claimed that the peace talks in their current form “do not make sense” due to Ukrainian policy positions.[15]  The Kremlin may attempt to reboot the stalled process to create a joint “advisory council” – a body Ukraine and Russia discussed on March 11 that would facilitate direct Ukrainian talks with Kremlin-controlled proxies for the first time in the war and advance the Kremlin’s objective of legitimizing its aggression in Ukraine.[16]

The current situation presents both risk and opportunity for Ukraine. Ukraine should recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic and oil price collapse have weakened the Kremlin’s power to extract its desired concessions. These circumstances provide Ukraine more room to maneuver in the short term. Ukraine and the West should recognize that Putin is driving toward a deal with the West on multiple fronts while simultaneously pursuing the Kremlin’s campaign against Ukraine. Ukraine and the West should be careful not to mistake Putin’s posturing as a constructive international partner and peacemaker in Ukraine as a change in Putin’s intent or strategic objectives.

Public discontent with the Kremlin’s COVID-19 response highlights additional weaknesses in Putin’s system. Approximately 2000 people protested self-quarantine orders in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, on April 20.[17] The protesters demanded authorities reopen work, remove the quarantine, and called on the regional governor to resign. Riot police arrested 39 protesters. The Kremlin decried the protests as illegal and opened criminal investigations against the protesters. Russians in several cities additionally began a series of “online protests” on April 20, utilizing Yandex.Maps – a popular service equivalent to Google Maps – to leave comments near government buildings calling for better services and the end of quarantine.[18] As with physical protests, Russian authorities swiftly moved to delete negative messages, particularly those focused on federal government buildings including the Kremlin. An increase in available time, and a lack of risk compared to confronting riot police, will likely drive increased numbers of Russians to online forms of resistance, though the Kremlin’s recently strengthened censorship apparatus will likely minimize the impact of digital protest.[19] The Kremlin will successfully suppress future protests but will likely face increasing public discontent, impeding centralized framing of an effective response to the virus.

The Kremlin is responding to COVID-19 by empowering its security services, including both law enforcement and expanding the role of the military. The Russian government allocated 2.66 billion rubles (approximately $360 million) to the Ministry of Defense and other security services to fight COVID-19 on April 13.[20] The Kremlin is additionally preparing legislation to further empower Russian law enforcement by providing expanded immunity from prosecution and expanding their search and seizure powers – implicitly preparing to shield police following anticipated human rights abuses.[21] Putin likely perceives a need to intensify his societal control mechanisms as economic and COVID-19 pressures mount. Putin additionally likely seeks to secure the loyalty of police and security officers by legally shielding them as public discontent increases.

The Kremlin is empowering the Ministry of Defense (MoD) as a humanitarian and non-military actor, an expanded role that will likely continue beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu announced the mobilization of 30,000 military personnel in 17 newly formed military medical units to combat COVID-19 domestically on April 24.[22] The Kremlin continues to leverage the MoD to act as a humanitarian actor internationally despite facing medical supply shortages in Russia. The Kremlin sent medical personnel and medical equipment to its allies and partners in Serbia, Moldova, Serbia-affiliated Bosnian political entity Republika Srpska, and Russian proxy republic Abkhazia throughout April.[23] The MoD previously shipped personnel and medical supplies to Italy and the United States in March.[24] The Kremlin has not employed the military in similar global public relations campaigns during past crises, instead relying on state run but non-government partners to leverage soft power. For example, the Kremlin relied on projects funded through Rusal, a Russian aluminum company, to combat Ebola in Africa.[25] The Kremlin will likely further leverage the MoD to support non-military lines of effort. The MoD’s responsibilities will increasingly encompass non-military efforts, both domestically and internationally as a tool of diplomatic outreach.

The Kremlin’s priorities and reactions during the COVID-19 crisis will have long-term effects. The Kremlin continues to attempt to exploit the global health crisis to advance its long-term objective of lifting sanctions without reversing the Kremlin’s original malign behavior. The Kremlin will likely leverage ties with Macron to advance its narratives but is unlikely to successfully link sanctions relief to a global ceasefire – potentially undermining the ceasefire in the process. The Kremlin is similarly attempting to quietly advance its preferred Ukrainian peace process despite worsening Russian economic and diplomatic problems. Finally, Putin’s further empowerment of internal security services and his expansion of the role of the MoD to new diplomatic and internal situations will remain past the COVID-19 crisis, further limiting Russian freedoms and expanding the role of the MoD in Kremlin policy.

[1] “No Exact Date for UN P5 Online Summit Yet – Kremlin,” TASS, April 23, 2020, https://tass((.))com/politics/1148721.

[2] “Russia to Announce its Stance on Global Ceasefire due to COVID-19 Pandemic Soon — Kremlin,” TASS, April 16, 2020, https://tass((.))com/politics/1145687; “France’s Macron Says he Hopes to Secure Putin Backing for UN Truce Plea,” Reuters, April 14, 2020,

[3] Pierre Bairin and Emma Reynolds, “France's President Says US and China Back a World Truce -- and he Thinks Putin will 'Definitely Agree,'” CNN, April 15, 2020,

[4] George Barros, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin Faces Setbacks in the Balkans,” Institute for the Study of War, April 23, 2020,; Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros, “Russia in review: Putin Accelerates Ukraine Campaign Amid Converging Crises,” Institute for the Study of War, March 24, 2020,; George Barros and Nataliya Bugayova, “Europe Cedes Opportunity in Russia-Ukraine Energy Deal,” Institute for the Study of War, January 30, 2020,

[5] Mason Clark with Aleksei Zimnitca and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2020,

[6] Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin spoke with Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui on COVID-19 and UNSC coordination on April 22; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the UNSC on April 17; Putin held a phone call with Chinese President Xi Xinping on the UNSC on April 17; and Putin and Macron held a phone call on COVID-19 and sanctions on April 17. [“About the Telephone Conversation Between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Pompeo,”] Russian MFA, April 17, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4101182; [“Telephone Conversation with President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping,”] Kremlin, April 16, 2020, http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63209; http://kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/63211; [“About the Telephone Conversation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Morgulov with the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the People's Republic of China in Russia Zhang Hanhui,”] Russian MFA, April 24, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4105259.

[7] Mason Clark with Aleksei Zimnitca and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2020,

[8] “Normandy-format Meeting to be Held via Video Conference on April 30 – Foreign Ministry,” Ukrinform, April 23, 2020, https://www.ukrinform((.))net/rubric-polytics/3011305-normandyformat-meeting-to-be-held-via-video-conferencing-on-april-30-foreign-ministry.html.

[9] Ukraine withdrew forces from the first three pilot disengagement sites in Stanitsa Luhanksa in July 2019, Zolote in November 2019, and Petrivske in November 2019. George Barros with Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Fake De-escalation in Donbas,” Institute for the Study of War, February 24, 2020,; “Overall Agreed Conclusions of the Paris Summit in the Normandy Format of December 9, 2019,” President of Ukraine, December 10, 2019,

[10] “Overall Agreed Conclusions of the Paris Summit in the Normandy Format of December 9, 2019,” President of Ukraine, December 10, 2019,

[11] George Barros with Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Fake De-escalation in Donbas,” Institute for the Study of War, February 24, 2020,

[12] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and Its Neighboring States,” Institute for the Study of War, October 15, 2019,

[13] Nataliya Bugayova with George Barros, “The Perils of Talks on Russia’s War in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, December 7, 2019,

[14] [“Peskov: ‘Homework’ for a New Meeting of Leaders of the "Normandy Format" has Not Yet Been Done,”] TASS, April 28, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/politika/8352079.

[15] [“Lavrov Said the Summit of the "Normandy Four" So Far Does Not Make Sense Because of the Position of Kyiv,”] TASS, April 27, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/politika/8342955.

[16] Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros, “Russia in Review: Putin Accelerates Ukraine Campaign Amid Converging Crises,” Institute for the Study of War, March 24, 2020,

[17] [“Rally Against Self-Isolation in Vladikiavkaz,”] Media Zone, April 22, 2020, https://zona((.))media/chronicle/vladikavkaz; [“In Vladikavkaz Opened a Case of Violence Against Police During a Protest,”] Interfax, April 22, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/705458; [“In Vladikavkaz, Hundreds of People Came Out to Protest,”] Svoboda, April 20, 2020,

[18] Daria Kozlova, [“’We Want to Eat, There is No Work!’”] Novaya Gazeta, April 20, 2020, https://novayagazeta((.))ru/articles/2020/04/20/85010-hotim-est-raboty-net.

[19] Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Tests Authoritarian Societal Control Measures during COVID-19 Crisis,” Institute for the Study of War, April 13, 2020,

[20] The Ministry of Defense received the largest portion of the money, with 2.3 billion rubles. Other agencies receiving funding include the Russian National Guard, the FSB, and Russia’s Penitentiary Service. [“Order of the Government of the Russian Federation of 04.13.2020 No. 1006-r,”] Official Internet Portal of Legal Information of the Russian Government, April 14, 2020,

[21] [“Government Intends to Expand Police Powers,”] The Bell, April 22, 2020;; [“Police Officers were Offered Permission to Open Cars and Cordon Off Housing,”] Interfax, April 22, 2020, https://www.interfax((.))ru/russia/705418.

[22] [“Shoigu Announced Vorobyov’s Request to Help Fight the Virus in the Moscow Region,”] RBK, April 24, 2020, https://www.rbc((.))ru/society/24/04/2020/5ea2e0609a7947b3fa0a6d1b.

[23] [“The Russian Aerospace Forces Completed the Operation to Transfer to the Republic of Serbia Russian Military Specialists, the Necessary Equipment and Machinery to Assist Serbia,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, April 4, 2020,; “Russian Aid Delivery to Republika Srpska Complete,” TASS, April 10, 2020, https://tass((.))com/society/1142823; [“Russia Sent the Military to Abkhazia to Combat COVID-19 at the Request of the Acting President,”] Sputnik Abkhazia, April 17, 2020, https://sputnik-abkhazia((.))ru/coronavirus/20200417/1029925325/Rossiya-napravila-voennykh-v-Abkhaziyu-dlya-borby-s-COVID-19-po-zaprosu-io-prezidenta.html; “Russian Defense Ministry Delivers Chinese aid to Moldova to Help Fight Coronavirus,” TASS, April 19, 2020, https://tass((.))com/russia/1146927; “At the Request of the Moldovan Side, the Russian Ministry of Defense Carried Out an Operation to Transfer Medical Equipment by the Military Transport Aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces,” Russian Ministry of Defense, April 20, 2020,

[24] Mason Clark with Aleksei Zimnitca and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners,” Institute for the Study of War, April 3, 2020,

[25] Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, Michaela Walker, Andre Briere, Anthony Yanchuk, and George Barros, “The Kremlin’s Inroads After the Africa Summit,” Institute for the Study of War, November 8, 2019,

Offsite Authors: 
George Barros
Nataliya Bugayova
Mason Clark