Russian media contends that the domestically manufactured Sputnik V—a COVID-19 vaccine developed last year by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology—is the world’s second-most highly approved inoculation against the novel coronavirus (Vzglyad, March 5). In truth, official data on the effectiveness of the Russian-manufactured vaccine is inconclusive, save for a single article published in the medical journal The Lancet, on February 2, suggesting the efficacy of Sputnik V is 91.6 percent after the first dose. Nonetheless, a growing number of countries are eager to acquire the vaccine. As of March 22, Sputnik V was approved in 52 countries, whose total population reaches 1.4 billion people (RIA Novosti, March 22). From an ideological point of view, for Moscow, winning the “vaccine race” has acquired meaning comparable to other famous Soviet-era endeavors, such as the “Space Race” or the pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In promoting its agenda today, Russia is using a broad spectrum of tools, combining elements of fair and unfair competition as well as exploiting the lack of cohesion inside the Western camp.
On March 1, European Union High Representative Josep Borrell stated that, in promoting its own COVID-19 immunizations, “Russia is seeking to discredit other vaccines produced by Western companies […] spreading and amplifying fraudulent information for the purpose of damaging trust and downgrading our [Western] norms and values, as well as weakening our international alliances” (UNIAN, March 1). A representative of the US Department of State, Ned Price, claimed that the United States has found and identified Russia-related outlets spreading disinformation against the (US-produced) Moderna and Pfizer vaccines (Interfax, March 9). Similar statements came from the Estonian Ministry of Defense (Svd.se, March 16). That said, while Russia-generated information operations (including disinformation efforts) must not be downplayed, it is the position and deeds of the European actors that de facto make such disinformation campaigns against Western vaccines seem much more effective. Namely, the COVID-19 crisis not only brought to light multiple problems faced by the EU in the realm of public health, but it also exposed a lack of cohesion and solidarity at both national and regional (sub-state) levels in the West.
First, at the national level, individual EU member states have been entering into agreements with Russia separately, without regard to the positions of Brussels or their allies within the European bloc. For instance, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) has reportedly—although no specifics details are available—agreed on production of Sputnik V in Italy, France, Spain and Germany. Moreover, Hungary and Slovakia—at the time contrary to EU rules and directives—unilaterally agreed to start using the Russian vaccine (Kommersant, March 15). The next most likely country to approve the use of Sputnik V is Czechia (the Czech Republic), where the issue of the Russian vaccine has already sparked a political crisis.
Second, at the regional level, Markus Söder, the minister-president of Bavaria, in an interview to one of the leading German tabloids, Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung, stated that there is a chance production of the Russian vaccine may soon be launched in Germany’s most affluent Bavarian region (in Illertissen). Similar sentiments were also expressed by the governing mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller (Vzglyad, March 20).
Additionally, the vaccine-related issue has already been weaponized by some right-wing pro-Kremlin forces inside the EU. Specifically, Marine Le Pen, who heads the far-right French party National Rally, has stormed against both the French government and the EU authorities, claiming that France could have certified either Sputnik or the “Chinese vaccine” a long time ago (RIA Novosti, March 22).
Arguably, however, the most worrisome fact lies in the lack of coordination and continuing wavering of EU officials. For instance, following Borrell’s statement on March 1 (see above), Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton officially claimed that “Sputnik is of course probably a good vaccine because the Russians are pretty good scientists and […] I would not have any reason to doubt […] one way or the other I think we should probably help Russia” (Reuters, March 17). This was followed by a contradictory declaration by Eric Mamer (the chief spokesperson of the European Commission), who argued that the EU does not need the Russian vaccine (Sputnik News, March 22). The next day, another (unnamed) representative of the Commission stated that acquiring Sputnik V would not be economically sustainable, since “it might take years to establish steady supply chain mechanisms between Russia and the EU” (Rosbalt, March 23).
Watching and relishing these developments, Russian observers and members of the ruling elite have become increasingly emboldened. Kremlin-supported information outlets have concluded that this crisis has not only demonstrated that “there is no ‘United Europe’ or European solidarity per se” but also that further fragmentation and dismembering of the EU is well under way. Some outlets have gone so far as to make a comparison between the allegedly disintegrative impact of the “vaccine crisis” on the EU and the Chernobyl disaster in the late Soviet Union (1986), the latter frequently cited as one of the factors contributing to the breakup of the Soviet state. Also, Russian media have argued that the main damage that resulted from the crisis is a strike against the EU’s “soft power,” which, purportedly, has virtually ceased to exist (Rubaltic.ru, February 16).
One particularly notable (and rather realistic) observation was made by Timofey Bordachev, a member of the Valdai Club and a professor at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. He suggested that Russia’s ability to weather the sanctions war (in general) and successfully pursue its COVID-19 agenda (in particular) primarily owes to the fact that unlike the Soviet Union—which would have lost the “vaccine race” due to its economically marginalized status—Russia is part of the global market. And since it is so tightly integrated into various (economic, social, political) global processes, Russia is now able to compete with Western powers using all the instruments and tools equally affordable to all players. Moreover, unlike the Soviet Union, today’s Russia is pursuing a commercial approach, no longer providing other countries with its products free of charge (Vzglyad, March 15).
While it is still premature to make any far-reaching conclusions—the battle to supply shots in arms is far from over—it is possible to argue that, to date, Russia has been rather effective in the “vaccine race” by playing to its own strengths while simultaneously exploiting the limitations of its opponents.