Axios World

A blue ball of yarn with patches of green yarn; a model of earth.

May 14, 2020

Welcome back and happy Thursday, World readers.

  • We're starting in Russia this week and winding our way to Uruguay, with some alcohol and espionage along the way (1,739 words, 6.5 minutes).
  • Sign up here if you're a new arrival, and please spread the word if you're not.

1 big thing: Pandemic brings Putin down to size

Watching Putin mark Victory Day, from a Dacha near Moscow. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s surging coronavirus epidemic is now the world’s second largest, behind the United States.

What to watch: As Russia becomes a new epicenter, President Vladimir Putin appears almost paralyzed.

How it happened: Russia’s caseload had remained surprisingly low until mid-April, when it started rising sharply. Daily new cases have now been around or above 10,000 for the past 12 days.

  • Russia’s mortality rate remains low (2,305 deaths from 252,000 cases), but the deaths of many COVID-positive patients are being attributed to pneumonia or other causes.
  • That’s in line with how Russia has long treated deaths from diseases like AIDS, noted Yale University's Robert Heimer in a Wilson Center webcast.

Many of the deceased were health care providers. Severe shortages of protective equipment and delayed or ill-conceived policies have allowed hospitals to become hotspots.

  • Doctors have reportedly been forced to work even if they are in vulnerable groups or have already become ill. Meanwhile, "half-trained medical students ... felt like raw military conscripts being sent into battle, barely trained to shoot,” per the Washington Post.
  • At least three health care workers have fallen from windows in possible suicide attempts.

The disease has reached Putin’s inner circle, with his longtime spokesperson and close adviser Dmitry Peskov hospitalized this week. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and several officials have tested positive.

  • Putin has been conducting meetings via video conference, often appearing a bit bored. “Geopolitical games are interesting for him; lockdown is boring,” political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya told the Moscow Times.
  • Putin brought Russia's ill-defined national “non-working" period to an equally vague end on Monday.
  • Moscow, which has roughly half of all cases, will remain locked down.

What they're saying: “Only good news comes from Putin. He only allows, encourages, promises,” says Sergey Parkhomenko, a Russian political commentator. The decisions on closures, restrictions and fines are left to local officials.

  • The devolution of authority during this crisis has been highly unusual, Parkhomenko says. Local officials that have little connection with the population have been handed responsibility but not resources, he adds.
  • Russian businesses have been instructed to continue paying their workers, but have received negligible state assistance. Moscow may be particularly reluctant to spend at a time of rock bottom oil prices.

What's next: This more passive Putin is not particularly popular. His approval rating has fallen to a historically low, if still enviable, 59%, according to the Levada Center.

  • The timing is unfortunate for Putin, who was forced to delay a constitutional referendum last month that could allow him to hold power through 2036.
  • The Kremlin reportedly wants to hold it as soon as June 24, perhaps to preempt what could be a brutal recession.
  • “Before the epidemic, it was always absolutely guaranteed for him,” Parkhomenko says. “Now, it’s a big risk.”

2. Emerging from lockdown, with data or desperation

Outside at last, in Copenhagen. Photo: Ida Gudlbaek Arentsen/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty

Denmark was among the first countries in Europe to impose a lockdown, and it's one of the first to begin to lift restrictions. It has not seen a surge in cases since.

What they’re saying: Søren Brostrøm, director of the Danish Health Authority, was asked Wednesday about how governments could know when to ease lockdowns.

  • “You need to know your epidemic, you need to control it, and you need to be able to have confidence in your data,” he said in a webinar hosted by the German Marshall Fund.
  • Without precise data on where the virus is spreading and how the population is behaving (public transport ridership, say), governments can’t track the effects of each step in the reopening process and know whether they’re going too fast, he said.
  • Brostrøm said the issue of opening up hadn't been particularly polarizing in Denmark. He pointed to the government's clear and consistent messaging, as well as high levels of public trust in fellow citizens and institutions like the health authority.

The big picture: Brostrøm expressed some optimism about the trajectory of the pandemic, noting that it had been largely brought under control in the first epicenter (East Asia) and was being contained in the second (Europe).

  • The third epicenter (the U.S.) “had your issues … but it seems you are able to control it,” he said.
  • If an epicenter emerges in the developing world, he warned, it could be much harder to contain.

Where things stand: Active case counts are flat or falling in most of East Asia and the Pacific, as well as in Europe (with notable exceptions including Russia and the U.K), according to a report from Albright Stonebridge Group.

  • But they are rising in the vast majority of countries across Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
  • That’s due in part to increased testing. However, testing rates in countries like Nigeria remain so low that it's impossible to get a clear picture of the outbreak.

What to watch: Lockdowns are only sustainable for so long, even (or perhaps particularly) in countries where data is scarce.

  • Dozens of developing countries are now loosening restrictions long before they've reached the Danish standard.

Go deeper: EU advises members on which tourists to admit

3. The facts on Flynn

President Trump with Flynn at a rally in 2016. Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

The case against Michael Flynn once seemed pretty simple.

  • He lied to the FBI. He pleaded guilty. He cooperated with Robert Mueller. A lenient sentence was expected.
  • Then, his cooperation fizzled. A short jail term was floated. He proclaimed his innocence. Trump supporters took up his cause.

Then came the bombshell: Attorney General Bill Barr moved to drop the charges.

  • The Justice Department, Senate committees and the acting director of national intelligence are mobilizing to probe the origins of the investigation into Flynn and the Trump campaign.
  • Trump claims the rot goes all the way to the top — Barack Obama and Joe Biden. That narrative has displaced the pandemic as the top story in conservative media.
  • But it's not the only investigation in town. The judge in Flynn's case has appointed a former top prosecutor to build a case against Barr's decision. That "threatens to unearth ... unflattering details" about Barr's move, per the Washington Post.
  • Meanwhile, leading Democrats including Obama are accusing Trump and Barr of weaponizing the Justice Department in an election year.

If you're as confused as I was about this topsy-turvy saga, I've done my best to untangle it.

  • It starts in the final days of 2016, with a call between Flynn — then the incoming national security adviser — and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
  • Trump’s administration-in-waiting was concerned that Obama’s sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election would spiral into a tit-for-tat just as Trump — who had promised warmer ties with Russia — took office.
  • U.S. intelligence was listening in on Kislyak's calls. They recorded multiple contacts with a "U.S. person" as the sanctions drama was unfolding.
  • More than 30 senior U.S. officials, including Biden, requested the identity of the "U.S. person," who turned out to be Flynn — a fairly routine process known as "unmasking." (Some of those requests pre-dated the Kislyak call and were presumably about contacts with other individuals the U.S. was surveilling.)
  • FBI leadership, meanwhile, knew that it was Flynn on the call and what he had said. After an intense internal debate, they decided to talk to him.

Go deeper

4. World news roundup: Beef, booze and bad news

Lining up for liquor, in Delhi. Photo: Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty

1. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) announced his resignation today as chairman of the intelligence committee amid an FBI investigation into insider trading.

2. China suspended meat imports from four major Australian facilities, in a not-so-subtle reply to Australia's call for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

3. The Afghan government is resuming offensive operations against the Taliban after an attack on a maternity ward in Kabul left 16 people dead.

  • The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack and called the announcement "a declaration of war."
  • The big picture: The U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal signed in February was intended to pave the way for intra-Afghan negotiations "within 10 days." Ninety days later, the talks haven't started and the violence is increasing.

4. A new lawsuit accuses the EU of funding forced labor by backing an infrastructure project in Eritrea — which has a grim record on conscripted labor — that is intended to deepen links with neighboring Ethiopia.

  • The European Commission has claimed its participation will make work easier for the conscripts and allow more transparency, per the NYT.

5. Alcohol sales spiked in the U.S. when coronavirus restrictions came into force, but liquor stores in India and parts of Mexico were closed.

  • Massive lines formed in Indian cities last week after they reopened, undermining social distancing and forcing an uncomfortable conversation about alcohol consumption. Delhi put a new tax on alcohol in part to deter the crowds.
  • In Mexico, at least 70 people have died from drinking tainted moonshine.

5. Uruguay's unsung success story

Out on the promenade, in Montevideo. Photo: Ernesto Ryan/Getty Images

After I wrote last week about the success of Australia and New Zealand in suppressing their COVID-19 outbreaks, I got an email from Martin Aguirre, editor-in-chief of Uruguay’s El Pais newspaper.

  • Martin attached a chart showing cases-per-million over time, highlighting two countries: New Zealand and Uruguay. 
  • Uruguay lacks New Zealand’s geographical advantages (it borders Brazil, which has a fast-growing outbreak), and yet its COVID curve is even more impressive.

Over Zoom, I asked Martin what their secret was. He shrugged. 

  • Uruguay never went into a full lockdown. Most schools and restaurants are closed, but shops are open. Martin can still drop in to his local bar.
  • Critics of the president, who took office in March, insisted the failure to take stronger action would result in a spike. It hasn’t come. 
  • There are more active cases in my D.C. neighborhood (pop. 28,000) than in all of Uruguay (pop. 3.5 million), which has 155 cases and 19 deaths.
  • The government’s nightly press conference has grown boring, Martin says. There's only so much to say about two new cases.

The big picture: Uruguay stands out in the region for its strong public health care system, high levels of trust in government and low levels of poverty. Those could all be part of the explanation.

  • Or, as Martin says, “maybe we got lucky."

Worth noting: The latest testing rates in New Zealand are significantly higher than those in Uruguay.

6. What I'm listening to: Spy stories

1. "Wind of Change" was the soundtrack to the fall of the Soviet Union and remains one of the best-selling singles of all time. Could it have been written by the CIA?

  • The New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe chases that tip in a new podcast, "Wind of Change."
  • He's one of those "read-anything-he-writes" journalists, and I'm enjoying the ride so far.

2. The CIA landed a big one. A senior KGB defector is ready to talk, and he's en route to Washington.

  • The agency needs someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of Soviet spycraft to lead the debriefing.
  • It turns to Aldrich Ames, who would later be exposed as one of the most destructive moles in U.S. history.
  • That's just one of several twists in the latest episode of "I Spy," from Foreign Policy.

7. Stories we're watching

A groom and his socially distanced wife in a village in Maharashtra, India. Photo: Sanket Wankhade/AFP via Getty Images

  1. FBI says Chinese attempting to steal coronavirus research
  2. The "new Cold War" started in Beijing
  3. Wuhan orders all residents to get tested
  4. Bolsonaro wants to open up as death toll surges
  5. Israeli infrastructure bid caught in U.S.-China standoff
  6. China's Luckin Coffee fires CEO and COO for fraud
  7. Past peak oil demand?


"His father gave him the most awful cut in the world, so we're desperate to get it tidied up. He looks like Kim Jong-il!"
— One of many New Zealanders lining up for a midnight haircut the moment lockdown restrictions eased

Follow the World channel in the Axios app: Available on iOS or Android.