February 24, 2021

Europe

RUSSIA: Vaccine diplomacy overshadows domestic immunization campaign

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 4 mins)
  • Russia is relying on vaccine diplomacy to bolster its reputation abroad amid deteriorating relations with the West and looming threat of sanctions.
  • Low public trust in domestic vaccines from Covid-19, their production bottlenecks and Moscow’s focus on vaccine diplomacy hamper progress of the domestic vaccination campaign.
  • Slow vaccination progress leaves the door open for a new wave of the pandemic, while challenges to scale up vaccine production could limit Moscow’s ability to honor its supply commitments to other countries.

On 20 February, the Ministry of Health registered a third domestic vaccine (CoviVac) against Covid-19. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin plans its roll out in mid-March, although CoviVac’s third-stage clinical trials are yet to begin.

Challenges to domestic vaccination campaign

Russia’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – including the vaccination campaign – has been characterized by a lack of transparency. Authorities do not provide regular updates on the inoculation progress, and the latest figure given by the deputy head of the Gemaleya research center (developer of the Sputnik V vaccine) on 10 February estimated that 3.9mn residents (2.7% of the population) had been vaccinated at least with one dose. The pace of vaccination differs across Russia, which is unsurprising given the size of the country and varying competences of regional administrations. However, considering that Russia was one of the first countries in the world to launch the inoculation campaign in early December, progress has been slow to date and the government’s target of immunizing 20mn residents (13.6% of population) by the end of March appears extremely optimistic.

One of the main challenges to the inoculation campaign has been low public trust in the hastily developed vaccines. A Levada Center survey dated in December (latest available) showed that 58% of citizens were not willing to get inoculated with the Sputnik V vaccine, primarily due to incomplete clinical trials and the fear of side effects. The fact that President Vladimir Putin has not been vaccinated to date does not help public trust either. The low take-up of the vaccine was probably the main reason why the inoculation campaign was opened up to all adults already on 18 January.

The limited production of vaccines is another notable hurdle. According to Mishustin, Russia has produced around 10mn doses of Sputnik V as of 20 February. This is enough to vaccinate 5mn residents (3.4% of the population), but some of this output is destined for exports. Sputnik V has been approved by health regulators in 30+ countries, with at least a dozen of them having already received at least one shipment. The scale up of vaccine production at home and abroad is progressing slower than anticipated.

Focus on vaccine diplomacy

Significant efforts to promote Sputnik V abroad suggest that Moscow prioritizes vaccine diplomacy over the domestic inoculation drive. The acute shortage of vaccines – particularly in developing countries – gives the Kremlin an excellent opportunity to build/strengthen political ties abroad and promote Russia’s image as a reliable partner at a time of the global crisis. Going forward, Moscow could attempt to build on the vaccine diplomacy to expand ties in other areas. However, a failure to swiftly increase production of Sputnik V could limit Russia’s ability to fulfill its generous vaccine supply promises thereby undermining its reputation.

The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is working hard to pitch Russia’s efforts in fighting the global pandemic against the sanctions debates on Russia in the West and the EU’s restrictions on vaccine exports. Currently, Hungary is the only EU country using the Sputnik V vaccine, but several other members of the bloc, including Croatia, Slovakia or the Czech Republic, are actively considering Sputnik V orders from Russia. Moscow could potentially use such bilateral vaccine supply deals to undermine the EU unity needed to impose the proposed sanctions on individuals responsible for the arrest and sentencing of the Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny or in response any future incidents.

From the domestic perspective, the considerable interest in Sputnik V globally supports the Kremlin’s narrative of Russia’s great power status – a much-needed distraction from declining living standards and the ongoing crackdown on political opponents, independent media and civic activists. However, the slow vaccination progress leaves the door open for a third wave of the pandemic, particularly as most Covid-19-related have been lifted across the country. This would be another blow to the government’s popularity ahead of the State Duma election in September and could trigger public backlash against the vaccine exports.

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