Vaccine geo-politics and Sputnik-V
While Western countries were busy with their own vaccination campaigns, Russia has filled the leadership vacuum in developing countries. This trickle of news flies under the media radar.
Argentina has become the first country in South America to produce Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The first shipment of the shots is promised to Peru by May.
Some 11,000 doses of the Russian jab has reached North Macedonia, while Tunisia has begun to administer 30,000 doses, and 1.7 million more are promised to Bolivia by May.
The African Union has received an offer of 300 million doses from Russia, which has already signed agreements to produce tens of millions of doses in China, Brazil, Iran and Serbia.
While we weren’t looking, Sputnik V has become the cornerstone of pandemic response for the developing world. In doing so, Russia has filled the leadership gap in Asia, Africa and South America left by western countries busy with their own vaccination drives.
But at heart, Sputnik V is a calculated campaign to increase the Kremlin’s power and influence through a global scientific, diplomatic, and media influence operation.
Far from the authoritarian, bellicose, annexationist Moscow that poisons its domestic political opponents and interferes in its rivals’ elections, the jab casts Russia in the role of scientific superpower and pandemic saviour.
Sputnik V is the image of Russia the Kremlin wants to project and indeed offers a unique chance to launder the country’ reputation.
Russian capabilities align elegantly with the world’s pandemic needs. As developing countries tried and failed to secure enough vaccine supplies through Western mechanisms, headlines worldwide hail Russia as the partner that really comes through when it counts.
Russia’s official mouthpieces minutely cover each new country that approves Sputnik V for use, while the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the Kremlin agency that bankrolled Sputnik V s development, trumpets Russia’s achievement not just in finding a vaccine first, but also in making it widely available.
Sputnik V’s Twitter feed pumps out messages once or twice an hour — ‘A planeload of vaccines lands in Armenia!’ — or retweets good news from partner countries. The Mexican Health Ministry claims that Sputnik V is the only vaccine with a 0% chance of producing serious adverse side effects.
What Russia can no longer achieve with its declining military strength, Flemming Splidsboel Hansen at the Danish Institute for International Studies writes, it now seeks through cognitive and digital means.
First in line for the Russian jab have been Moscow’s long-time allies. “The vaccines underline the anti-Western bloc’s scientific prowess. Ideology demands it be portrayed as greater than the West’s,” says Félix Arellano, a professor of international relations at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas.
He adds: “Russia’s posture, in offering up highly effective vaccines at a low price for countries like Venezuela, is media-driven. It’s how Russia and its allies seek to show that authoritarian governments can also grow in the scientific realm, that it’s possible to grow without democracy.”
Argentina, under a proto-socialist government, was the first to send a team to Moscow to translate Sputnik V’s technical documentation to Spanish and set up its own production facilities.
Other countries soon followed suit, including Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, and even US allies like Peru, Chile, and Colombia. The last three were the final seal of approval on an operation that is succeeding largely thanks to the West’s navel-gazing inaction.
“At this point the discussion, at least in Peru, grants the need to negotiate to secure whatever vaccine is on offer,” explains Oscar Vidarte, a professor of international relations at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú in Lima.
For Colombia, buying into Sputnik V serves two purposes, immunising a vulnerable population and rebuilding bilateral links with Moscow. “We’re Washington’s key ally in the region,” says Mauricio Jaramillo, who teaches international relations at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, “but the U.S. is not trying to leverage vaccines to project its power or earn prestige.”
The West hasn’t so much lost this fight as forfeited it. The World Health Organization (WHO) COVAX initiative amounts to a clearinghouse for the West’s leftovers.
The Biden administration has pledged some $4 billion to COVAX, but the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledges that ‘when there are no vaccines to buy, money is irrelevant.’
It is not just access to ample supply that is tilting the field in Moscow’s favour, it is how the Russians approach supply agreements, making sure to portray deals not as charity, but as partnerships among equals, say experts.
Meanwhile, Sputnik V’s successes keep mounting. The European Union’s shambolic vaccine roll-out has brought even some member countries like Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, and the Czech Republic knocking on Moscow’s door. Each has had to negotiate unilaterally for its share.
Italy and Spain are now considering doing the same, and the European Medicines Agency has had no choice but to formally consider certifying the Russian vaccine, softening its line in the wake of Crimea and Navalny.
To be sure, liberal democracy need not fear for its life from the Russian vaccine. But the West has left a huge leadership vacuum at a moment of acute crisis that Russia is determined to exploit.
Western democracies, and particularly the United States, have lost too many opportunities to the pandemic — not least among them the chance to back their allies, firm up their influence and position themselves as the go-to model for how to manage a crisis that, many scientists fear, could be repeated sooner than many realise.
Nepal is in talks to procure 8 million doses of Sputnik V vaccine. Russia has offered an international competitive price of $19.90 per two shots. The jab received emergency use permit in Nepal back in April and has over 90% efficacy.
In the region, India and Philippines have started inoculating its populations with the Russian jab. Bangladesh has also entered an agreement to domestically produce the vaccine.