• Eamonn West

Vaccine Diplomacy: Sputnik V

Photo credit: Marco Verch Professionnal Photograph

The COVID-19 pandemic, emerging in 2019, but stamping its mark on the world in 2020, has forced governments to adapt to its health and economic consequences, having a penetrating influence on nearly all aspects of people’s lives across the globe. As much of a challenge handling the pandemic has been, it also presents a unique opportunity for actors unhappy with the status quo, like Russia and China. These actors’ interests are hampered by the current Western-led international order, with their global influence limited by Western allies and Western-leaning international organisations; the pandemic offers the potential to erode this current world system. This opportunity is facilitated by the Western-dominated international regime struggling to adequately provide a sustainable approach towards COVID-19 vaccine distribution, with its harmful response of vaccine nationalism furthering the already significant vaccine disparity, potentially leaving the developing world behind. Great authoritative powers such as Russia and China have observed this failing, and have adopted the response of Vaccine Diplomacy to help realise their diplomatic ambitions. In the short to medium term, these ambitions involve slowly eroding the American-oriented global hegemony.

However, these efforts have not been entirely successful; where China’s vaccine diplomacy has thrived, Russia’s has stalled. (Kier and Stronski, 2021) While China’s reputation suffered greatly in the opening phase of the pandemic, being the purported virus origin, they have succeeded in utilising the pandemic to advance their diplomatic agenda through vaccine distribution, pressing Latin American countries like Honduras and Paraguay to switch their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in order to secure the Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines. (Hill, 2021) Delivering 755 million vaccines by September 2021, China has adjusted its impressive industrial strength into a medical machine. (Hill, 2021) Paired with an advanced propaganda campaign, highlighting Chinese resilience and ability, such as popular social media videos of their fast construction of hospitals, the Chinese government has successfully engaged itself in public diplomacy. (Molter and DiResta, 2020) Conversely, despite a promising start and potential for Russia’s vaccine diplomacy campaign, it has failed to match that potential.

The Russian produced vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ is an ode to Russian triumph and success during the apex of the USSR, reaffirming their contemporary scientific prowess and their strong historical foundations, heralded by Russia as a “vaccine for humankind”, (Stronski, 2021) Just as Sputnik-1 was the first artificial satellite, Sputnik-V was the first registered vaccine- however, just as they lost the Space Race, despite their early success, Russia appears to be losing the vaccine race, again despite their initial promise.

Being the first registered vaccine was a major victory for Russia, which gave them all the advantages of being first out of the gate. It allowed them time to properly advertise the vaccine, as well as to coordinate deals and agreements to dispense them. These advantages were intensified by the West’s tendency towards vaccine nationalism and reluctance towards effective vaccine distribution abroad. This vacuum in effective leadership has given Russia a great opportunity to engage in vaccine diplomacy and distribution- committing to which allows them to advertise the flaws in Western global leadership, and a viable alternative. This, coupled with Russia’s highly advertised lower pricing of the vaccine, presented the potential for Russia to make significant deals and diplomatic in-roads, especially across the developing world.

The Kremlin’s influence on the world has waned significantly since the fall of the USSR. Compared to its Cold War heights, where it competed globally with the United States, its current international perception and ability to project power is seen as a shadow of its former self. It has lost its buffer of friendly states in Eastern Europe, and the loss of population, raw materials, territory, etc. from the collapse of the USSR restricts its capabilities. This influence, and general great power status, is something the Russian state is attempting to re-establish- particularly under the premiership of President Vladimir Putin. Putin rules with an infamous ‘strong-man’ persona, with an agenda dominated by hawkish military-oriented foreign policy, focused on a “Russian revival”. (Rachman, 2016) A major focus of this is the reassertion of Russian power on the global stage, and while displays of force has been a key aspect of this, a long-term target is to redevelop diplomatic relations in order to reassert Russia’s geopolitical power. Providing a viable alternative to the current Western international structure is crucial in making this a reality, and a crisis on the scale of the Covid pandemic has offered Russia a great stage to display this alternative.

The strategy of vaccine diplomacy seemed to be a great avenue to pursue, with significant potential to forge new diplomatic and economic ties. Fitting in well with broader campaigns to become a geo-political partner to Africa, as well as developing Russia’s limited influence in South-East Asia, Sputnik benefits from a relative ease of transportation and storage compared to Western vaccines. (Stronski, 2021) (Murphy, 2021) This gave it another early advantage, which would be squandered, for its target market in the developing world, which can lack effective infrastructure. Sputnik V’s focus, therefore, was not multilateral schemes like the UN-led COVAX, but individual, bilateral deals with specific nations or regional unions like the African Union. (Cullinan and Nakkazi, 2021) Engagement with the EU has been severely limited as it has still not received approval from the European Medicines Agency- which Russia asserts is a “deplorable” act of politicization, while the EU maintains its due to the need for health standards to be met. (Herszenhorn, 2021) This dispute may add fuel to Russian assertions of a need to transition away from the current Western order. Regardless, the strategy focusing on bi-lateral deals is reminiscent of past success in their arms trade strategy, which prioritises a balance of seeking influence and profit, alongside bi-lateral lines. Led by Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, high-profile, brokered deals led to 70 countries authorising Sputnik V’s use and distribution, which allowed Russia to boast plans to supply 700 million doses of the vaccine by the end of 2021. (Ramani, 2021)

These boasts and authorisations proved deceptive, as ultimately Russia completely mishandled such a great opportunity. A primary root of the problem- is its inability to meet its commercial obligations. Despite Russia’s great promises of hundreds of millions of doses, Russia had only produced 33 million by May 2021. (Kier and Stronski, 2021) This caused a significant strain in relations between Russia, and the large number of countries who were promised vaccines, but did not receive them. Argentina in particular saw great pushback against the commercial contracts when several million Argentinians had to wait months for their dose due to supply issues, as Russia proved unable to efficiently scale up their production of the Sputnik vaccine to meet the demand it had forced itself into in its commercial agreements. (Kier and Stronski, 2021)

For instance, Guatemala demanded significant reimbursement from Russia over their failure to meet their order of 8 million vaccines in time, and was forced to seek a vaccine source elsewhere, relying on COVAX and, eventually, the United States. (Hill, 2021) (Chase et al., 2022) Even old, Moscow-oriented connections like Angola have been disappointed by Russia; planning on securing 12 million doses from their Cold War benefactor, Angola was forced to look elsewhere after Russia struggled to meet its promise, even failing to donate the full 65,000 vaccines it committed to donating as a goodwill gesture by August 2021. (Stronski, 2021) With COVAX and China stepping in to meet Angola’s vaccine demand, Russia’s mishandling in both Angola and Guatemala underlines how failure can lose potential friends to rival international players- whether that being going back to the old Western order, or to the growing influence of China. (Abassi, 2021)

Failing to meet demand has not been the only issue that Moscow’s ambitions faced with the Sputnik vaccine. The rampant corruption and dodgy dealings plaguing the international distribution of the vaccines have perhaps been the most severe at curtailing the success of Russia’s public diplomacy campaign. There has been great evidence that, ultimately, Sputnik revolves around overpricing and corruption schemes, flying in the face of the global marketing of the vaccine as an affordable vaccine. (Kier and Stronski, 2021) Rather than just sticking to forging bilateral deals, Russia agreed to give Aurugulf Health Investments, a UAE firm, exclusive Sputnik resale rights at inflated prices in 5 countries, where private price gouging has been rampant, leading to great resentment by the governments and people who had committed to the Sputnik vaccine. (Cordell and Sauer, 2021)

A brief look at a few countries who have experienced this exposes the harm to the diplomatic relations between Russia and many sections of the developing world they were attempting to deepen ties with. These constant failures will likely hamper the ability for Russia to forge similar deals in the future, cultivating an unfortunate, unreliable reputation. Ghana, following a domestic inquiry, broke from a commercial contract to purchase the vaccine due to Aurugulf charging double the expected price, and Kenya experienced a similar situation too, which led them towards cancelling their contracts. (Kier and Stronski, 2021) While Russia saw an opportunity to develop ties with the African Union, a rapidly developing bloc of African nations, through a deal composing of 300 million vaccines, the bloc rejected the deal due to the inflated cost demanded by Russia. (Winning and Bavier, 2021) As such, the shift to a more mercantile-style of vaccine diplomacy, dominated by profit and self-interest, was a short-sighted approach which hampered Russia’s greater objectives to a significant extent.

Hence, increasingly, the Sputnik Vaccine Diplomacy campaign can be seen as, at best, ineffective, and at worst, detrimental to Russia’s diplomatic agenda. The persistent concerns regarding the safety of the Sputnik V vaccine is especially damaging to Russia’s reputation internationally. The vaccine was rushed through clinical trials in order to be the first vaccine available, and some commentators criticise the data discrepancies and general lack of transparency with the vaccine and its clinical trial process. (Dixon, 2021) South Africa, which Russia saw as a great potential market for the vaccine, is concerned about the lack of age or racial diversity in the trials used for the vaccine, and WHO has yet not granted Sputnik the required emergency use licence, thereby preventing Russia from being able to donate to COVAX. (Stronski, 2021) While COVAX is clearly not a priority for Russia’s vaccine diplomacy, it could have been a great avenue for Russia to play a key, integrated, role on a global level, and act as a strong support to the links it was aiming to foster with the developing world through bilateral deals.

Ultimately, reviewing Russia’s actions and inability in vaccine diplomacy presents that Russia mishandled a great opportunity. China’s success highlights the great potential the pandemic provided both of them as emerging, aspiring, powers- but Russia faltered where China flew. This botched campaign could have aided in Russia’s push to be a serious geo-political partner in the developing world, but instead has worsened the soft power deficit it experiences in these regions, as well as undermining trust in the Kremlin, and its ability to keep its word. Its vaccine distribution has been plagued with issues with its supply chain, down to its industrial base, and this inability to meet its grand promises, alongside price gouging and safety concerns, has presented Russia as a state whose ambitions surpass its capabilities. Africa, and much of the developing world, is still greatly under-vaccinated, even with actors like China prioritising vaccine exports; this means the opportunity has not fully passed Russia by. There is still time to solve the structural issues that have plagued Russia’s vaccine diplomacy, but with the West beginning to look outward, now that their own populations have been vaccinated, this window is rapidly closing- and Russia’s track record thus far paints an unconvincing picture.


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