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Vaccine Diplomacy: How Sputnik V became a Foreign Policy Tool

On March 25-26, the European Council will discuss the EU relations with Russia. The Kremlin's politically-motivated assassinations and harsh reprisals against domestic opposition may lead to new sanctions. Against the backdrop of a crisis in relations, Putin is deploying his new weapon - the Sputinik V vaccine. Pavel Havlicek of the Czech AMO Research Center explains how Moscow uses the 'vaccine diplomacy' to undermine the Europeans' confidence in the effectiveness of the EU institutions.

Материал также доступен на русском языке.

Over the last couple of months, the Russian diplomacy has had an extra means – a sort of doping – at its hand, the first officially registered anti-COVID19 vaccine, Sputnik V. And it has made an extensive use of it when promoting its foreign policy interests in Europe and the world. Multiple member states of the EU have become targets of the Russian vaccine campaign and paid extra credit to the Russian authorities for gaining privileged access to the cure. Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia are prime examples of the Russian success in promoting its foreign policy agenda on several levels.

Old tactics in new bottles

This might to some degree be surprising since the motif and posture of the Russian Federation towards to its neighbours, the EU or the United State and the rest of the world remain the same. Even if now advocated by distribution of the Sputnik V and “saving the world” by the vaccine of a notorious name.

It is to disrupt the unity and disseminate chaos and disbelief in the Western liberal democracies and sense of partnership in the EU and Transatlantic space. This has been the case in Ukraine and its so-called separatist territories in Donbas, dividing the EU members or exposing the dividing lines between the EU, UK and United States, when focusing on the vaccine exports and trade issues.

When promoting disinformation and foreign policy propaganda, the Russian officials, state media or proxy channels tried to discredit the Western vaccines, promote their own product and exaggerate the fear and insecurity of citizens towards their governments and institutions and the EU.

Foreign policy doping

Sputnik V – a product of the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology – has served as a primary means to return Russia back the world stage when engaging with countries from across Latin America, Africa or Asia. From Argentina to China and South Korea back to Serbia and Hungary in Europe, more than fifty countries of the world have so far opted for the Russian solution to the omnipresent pandemic.

At the same time, it has quickly been revealed that Russia is not the industrial powerhouse of the USSR times, barely comparable with today´s China and its production and capacity. Delayed shipments all cross the world led to a substantial slowdown in Russia´s billion sized promises of vaccine dozes and reputational risks in multiple countries.

That is why Russia has engaged in negotiations with multiple EU members and other countries of the world in order to increase its production capacity to meet the existing demands. Germany has played a crucial role in Russia´s plans due to its research and development capacity and production means. Even if the earlier negotiations between Chancellor Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin collapsed due to the initial Russian unwillingness to register with EMA, now the talks have resumed and finally lead a bilateral partnership in this area. This might be somehow paradoxical since it is Germany that is facing very strong Russian pressure in terms of disinformation and well as other hybrid operations on its territory. This situation is similar in Italy, France and other EU countries, which are currently also involved in similar processes. However, it is essential to see that any concrete outcome and production of Sputnik V in the EU itself will take months.

And while the Russian science has gained some credit, it has also been criticised in Europe and the world for not following the ethical standards and matching the second and third stage of the clinical testing in order to win the battle for world´s attention and primacy in the vaccine production.

Yet, Russia was still able to play with the EU unity and use this extra foreign policy doping to open doors, which would otherwise be closed. This is especially relevant at the moment of crisis in the EU-Russia relations and upcoming European Council meeting on Russia on 25-26 March 2021.

The case of CEE

Due to various reasons, the Visegrad Four (V4) countries have been the first to listen to the Russian whispering and were lurked to negotiate about the Sputnik V offer. After the initial approval in traditionally closed Serbia, Hungary was the second in row and the first in the EU to break the ranks of the common approach to vaccination and the European Medicines Agency´s procedures.

The European Commission that is still under pressure for slow roll-out of vaccination and complicated negotiations with private companies allowed for an exception from the common EU rules, which then led to a domino effect and breakdown of an EU vaccine unity.

Interestingly, Hungary used an ad hoc justification when it amended the domestic law on drug use, which followed the case of unregistered vaccine in a candidate EU country (not only a member one) and bypassed the EMA´s assessment and review process. China´s Sinopharm vaccine was given a green light slowly after and the Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán demonstratively used the Chinese jab.

Slovakia and its erratic prime minister Igor Matovič were the second to go their own way when exceptionally admitting Sputnik V as a “therapeutical means” by the ministry of healthcare. It was particularly striking that the Slovak head of government bypassed not only the EU system, but also his own coalition partners when secretly sending Slovakia´s planes to Moscow to bring the vaccine.

As in Hungary, all negotiations were happening behind the closed doors and the price of vaccination is still not known in public. But even worse, the responsibility for the use and side effects fell on the Slovak doctors, neither the government, nor the Russian provider. Thanks to journalistic investigation, it became clear that the Hungarian government paid almost six times more for the Chinese jab than for AstraZeneca purchased in the common round of negotiations managed by the EU Commission.

Other countries in the region, including Poland, Austria or Denmark also decided to seek external partnership beyond the EU-managed process, when reaching to China and Israel respectively. On the other hand, Lithuania, for example, said a strict NO to Sputnik V and the same as Slovak foreign minister Ivan Korčok identified the Russian behaviour as a continuation of the hybrid warfare against the West.

The case of Czechia

The situation in Czechia has been particularly interesting in this context. While the government and the political elite has concluded that only the common European approach will be applied, the President Miloš Zeman has bilaterally reached out to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to seek for his personal help. Consequently, on the official request of the PM Andrej Babiš, Zeman also addressed the Chinese president Xi Jinping with the same request.

Zeman who has traditionally warm relations with both countries has later called for a dismissal of minister of healthcare and the head of Czech medicines regulator SÚKL due to their opposition to the unregistered vaccines. On the top of that, the President also requested to fire the foreign minister Tomáš Petříček – his personal rival – for his uncompromising stance on Russia and China too.

While clearly a destabilising move, Zeman also revealed the real political nature of these negotiations and high stakes when Czechia is now planning to organise the biggest tender after 1989 on the nuclear power station Dukovany II, in which the foreign minister as well as the security apparatus warns against the Russian and Chinese offers.

Even if the opposition against unregistered vaccines is much stronger than in Hungary or Slovakia and overwhelming majority of the Czech society prefers to use only registered vaccines, the case is still made in favour of Russia and China and the game remains open for similar pressures as long as the President and his loyalists find it instrumental for pushing for their own financial and power interests.

Russia and Europe

What stands in the sharp contrast with the Russian foreign policy endeavours is the situation in Russia itself, which is typical for insufficient means, particularly in Russia´s regions as well as very high level of mistrust towards the vaccination and Sputnik V, which are frequently mentioned in the EU.

This is even more relevant now as Russia is approaching the September Duma elections and the head of Russia´s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev announced that Russia is not prepared to supply the EU with a substantial amount of vaccines before May or June when a majority the Russian population gets protected first. And there is really a rather long way to go, if we take into consideration that there are around 3.5 % of the Russian citizens that have had both dozes of the jab so far.

This might in fact also explain why Russia after several months of waiting and attacks against EU´s EMA, finally decided to apply for the rolling review on 4 March 2021. This might take up to two or three months, giving Russia some time to negotiate with the European producers to invest in the common production as well as letting the domestic consumption be better satisfied before the crucial vote.

It still remains to be seen how efficient the Russian “vaccine diplomacy” will finally be, but the upcoming days of the European Council and discussions on the future of EU´s relations with Russia might give us a better idea. Hungary, Slovakia as well as other members states will be closely observed when having their say on the EU foreign policy vis-à-vis Putin´s regime. Even a single EU member might block or at least slow down the whole process and determine the EU´s level of ambitions in this regard.

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