For Serbia and Hungary, Russia’s coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V has been a godsend, allowing both countries to accelerate their inoculation drives. Austria announced midweek it is negotiating to buy a million doses.
Germany and France are also eager for the vaccine and are negotiating to buy Russian jabs. Midweek, Berlin urged the European Commission to move ahead to purchase Sputnik. Then, German officials say, European Union member states can decide themselves whether or not to buy the Russian jab from Brussels.
But despite the woefully slow pace of inoculations and a shortfall in vaccine stocks, several European governments remain reluctant about ordering the Russian shots, reckoning that the decision to use Sputnik V has more to do with geopolitics than public health and they are fearful that the Kremlin has sinister motives for marketing the vaccine.
Vaccine diplomacy is proving as divisive as vaccine nationalism — especially when it comes to Sputnik.
Lithuania’s prime minister has labeled the vaccine “another hybrid weapon” for the Kremlin to wield to try to “divide and rule” Europe. Ingrida Šimonytė says altruistic reasons aren’t what motivate the sales of Sputnik. Last month she warned: “Sputnik comes packed with many layers of propaganda and even not-hidden ambition to divide the EU countries and their partners in the South and in the East.”
Midweek, Lithuania announced it will not recognize travel certificates from tourists and business visitors who have been vaccinated with Sputnik V — at the very least until the European Union medicines regulator authorizes Russia’s vaccine. If that happens, Lithuanian officials appear ready to fall into line with the EU, but with misgivings.
Sputnik was the first coronavirus vaccine to be registered, albeit only by the Russians and not by an authoritative international regulator. Funded by the state and developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow, the rapid Russian approval last year in August of the vaccine, which was named for the satellite from half a century ago, was met with skepticism in the broader international scientific community. Experts expressed their disapproval of Russian authorities for approving distribution before the completion of trials, suggesting the rapidity of authorization was done so as to be able to tout Russian scientific prowess.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin only received his first jab this week — nine months after the vaccine had been approved, prompting some critics to suggest he delayed in order to be sure it is safe.
Doubts about the vaccine’s efficacy have largely dissipated within the Western scientific community, thanks to a recent study published by authoritative British medical journal The Lancet, which suggests the vaccine has 91.6 % efficacy against COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Nonetheless, Lithuanian and Russian officials have been trading barbs for weeks over the Kremlin’s Sputnik diplomacy. Poland and Ukraine, too, aren’t in any mood to turn to Russia for a vaccine. Officials in Kyiv and Warsaw also believe there are geopolitical motives involved for the Kremlin, especially in light of what they say has been a Russian disinformation campaign to cast doubts on Western vaccines.
Ukraine’s health minister Maxim Stepanov told the Ukrainian parliament this month there is no chance Sputnik will ever be authorized for use in his country. “Under no circumstances will the Russian Sputnik V vaccine be registered in Ukraine. You will not persuade me to do it by any argument,” he said.
The Ukrainian government’s objections to Sputnik have been twofold. First, it says it remains unconvinced that the vaccine is efficacious or safe. President Vladimir Zelenskiy recently said he doesn’t want to turn his citizens into “guinea pigs” in a coronavirus lab.
But Ukrainian officials have raised geopolitical worries more loudly, saying they know what the goal of Sputnik diplomacy is in Europe — namely to provoke splits. Ihor Zhovkva, Zelenskiy’s foreign-policy adviser, recently said Sputnik diplomacy is another weapon in the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare against Ukraine, Europe and the U.S.
“This is also a part of propaganda, a part of hybrid war — to spread this unchecked vaccine and to say that Russia is always willing to extend its helpful arm in order to treat the world while their aim is the opposite,” he told reporters during a visit to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Russian officials have reacted angrily to the accusations of untoward corona-diplomacy, dismissing doubts about the vaccine or the motives for the marketing and selling of Sputnik. They say that despite a wave of disinformation about Sputnik’s efficacy, the vaccine has been recognized internationally.
Last week, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow: “Overseas demand for the Russian vaccine is quite high. Every day, we either receive applications for vaccine supplies or get confirmations of the vaccine’s approval. Fifty-seven countries have approved the medication on a bilateral basis, 21 have purchased the vaccine and some are ready to launch vaccine production on their soil.”
Zakharova added Moscow expects the EU to complete the procedures to approve Sputnik V quickly. But fearful of the political controversy over the vaccine, Brussels appears to be dragging its feet, say analysts.
The European Medicines Agency, EMA, received the first set of requested trial data on Sputnik earlier this month. The regulator’s chief, Emer Cooke, said Tuesday his experts are preparing to inspect the Russia plants producing the COVID-19 vaccine, but the agency has not been forthcoming with a timetable for its authorization process. And EC officials say they are not yet in talks with the Sputnik developers over purchases.
The EU has signed deals with six Western vaccine makers and launched talks with two more. European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen has questioned Russia’s reasons for exporting millions of doses despite a sluggish rollout at home. Russia has managed to vaccinate fewer people proportionally than the EU.
“Overall I must say we still wonder why Russia is offering theoretically millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating their own people. This is also a question that I think should be answered,” she remarked last month.
The slowness of the EMA process to approve Sputnik has infuriated Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who last week clashed with his German chancellor Angela Merkel at an EU heads of state and government meeting, where he complained about the bloc’s vaccine distribution process, which he says favors the bigger Western states.
On Tuesday Kurz rejected political arguments against buying Sputnik, saying, “There must be no geopolitical blinkers when it comes to vaccines. The only thing that matters is whether the vaccine is effective and safe, not where it comes from.”
That was the position, too, of Slovak’s outgoing Prime Minister Igor Matovič when he ordered Sputnik jabs last month in the face of opposition from within his four-party coalition government. Matovič announced his resignation last week in an attempt to bring to a close a monthlong political crisis sparked by his decision to buy Sputnik V vaccine.
While European leaders are split over whether to use Sputnik, there is a high level of skepticism among ordinary Europeans about Russia. In a recent pan-Europe poll undertaken for the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based NGO, in partnership with a group of European parliamentary groups, only 15% of all respondents found Russia to be helpful in fighting the coronavirus in their country.
“Despite an effort to charm European audiences, Russia scored very poorly,” according to IRI.
“Unsurprisingly, the highest levels of skepticism come from Russia’s Baltic neighbors — a majority of respondents in Sweden (73%), Poland (73%) and in the Baltic States (71%) rated Russia as not helpful.”