What followed instead was an annus horribilis for Russia, and perhaps Putin’s most challenging year to date.
As Covid-19 started to spread around the globe, Russia briefly appeared to be on the front foot. The country sealed its border with China, and Putin boasted that the virus was “under control,” thanks to what he described as robust early measures to halt the spread of the disease.
But that approach was little more than bluster and spin. Not long after the government announced a nationwide lockdown that began on March 28, it became clear the country was in the grip of a major public health crisis.
The government was forced to postpone the referendum on constitutional changes.
Doubts grew about how well the Kremlin was handling the pandemic and whether it was leveling with the Russian public about the severity of the crisis.
Russia’s economic situation was also dire. The country was mired in a coronavirus-induced recession, compounded by plummeting global prices for oil, a key export.
Such profound economic stress threatened to derail the ruling United Russia party’s political program by exposing deep weaknesses in the social compact that has kept Putin in power for two decades.
Putin’s political durability is often attributed to a simple bargain between him and his citizens: Accept limited political competition in exchange for stability and steady increases in the standard of living. But amid the pandemic, that deal has begun to unravel.
Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, refused to step aside and his security forces brutalized and detained thousands of Belarusians, leaving the Kremlin faced with the uncomfortable scenario of citizens in a neighboring and closely allied country refusing to play along with Russian-style sham democracy.
The Kremlin did manage to hold the nationwide referendum that secured constitutional changes, with the help of a nationwide get-out-the-vote campaign, a state holiday and the mobilization of the country’s large state sector, which accounts for a large part of the workforce.
Navalny had been leading a campaign called “smart voting” — an effort to get out the vote for the candidates in local elections who had the best chances of defeating United Russia candidates.
The Kremlin critic was eventually flown to Berlin for treatment, after Russian doctors initially insisted the opposition leader was too gravely ill to make the journey.
The Kremlin denied any attempt to harm Navalny, and Russian state television has spun a range of conspiracy theories to explain away the apparent assassination attempt.
But the Russian government drew swift criticism from international leaders, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying: “There are very serious questions now which only the Russian government can and must answer.”
Navalny’s poisoning, in effect, demolished much of the goodwill that Russia had sought to build internationally amid the pandemic.
The Russian government also threw its weight behind efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine, a project that became a matter of national prestige.
The outbreak of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region further tested the Russian government’s crisis-management skills in 2020.
While the brief but intensely bloody fighting ended with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, the ceasefire deal also showcased the regional clout of Turkey. Russia is no longer the only indispensable power in the post-Soviet space.
Kremlinology is an inexact science, but as 2020 draws to a close, one wonders if Putin is reconsidering those apparent plans to stay on as president until 2036.
The bill by no means implies the Russian president’s imminent departure from office — after all, Putin is a man who likes to keep his options open.
But for some observers, the bill was reminiscent of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s surprise handover of power to then-Prime Minister Putin on New Year’s Eve, 1999. One of Putin’s first acts as president was the signing of a degree granting Yeltsin immunity.
The end of this convulsive and difficult year, then, is likely to leave keen Russia-observers watching for any fresh New Year surprises from Putin.