Letter From the Editors

Russia rolled out its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine late last week with much fanfare but few facts that could reassure citizens about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Health care professionals are optimistic, but some are cautious and even skeptical.

Republic.ru columnist Rimma Polyak, summarizing some of the controversy swirling around the vaccine, quotes Lev Averbakh, general director and chief physician of CORIS private ambulance service in St. Petersburg, who believes that promoting vaccines in general during the height of an epidemic is not a good idea, and that Sputnik V in particular is not ready for distribution, given its limited testing for safety and efficacy. But other health experts say the choice is between the lesser of two evils – the known risks associated with COVID‑19 versus the unknown risks of a not fully tested vaccine. Polyak strikes a middle ground, saying that public health might ultimately be better served by ramping up efforts to mitigate the airborne spread of the virus through masking, social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings – at least until a vaccine can be developed that is proven to be safe and effective.

The most cynical Russian commentators are downright suspicious of Sputnik V. Yulia Latynina, known for unabashedly calling a spade a spade, says Sputnik V was developed solely to score Russian President Vladimir Putin political points on the world stage and should be viewed as a political project. She says Russia has no business developing a world-class vaccine, since it lacks the proper know-how and equipment. TV reports touting Russia’s vaccine should be viewed as nothing more than propaganda designed to put the Russian authorities in a good light, Latynina concludes. Yes, get any vaccine you can get, she advises her readers, but with a tacit word of caution: Make sure you get a healthy dose of reality along with your dose of vaccine.

The Russian authorities are also keen to inoculate law enforcers from professional and criminal liability for actions taken in the line of duty. Novaya gazeta commentator Boris Vishnevsky claims that new amendments to the Law on Police, purportedly intended to “strengthen guarantees to protect citizens’ rights and lawful interests,” actually do anything but. He says the amendments essentially provide police with a blank check along with blanket protections to do anything they want to citizens, including beating a defenseless person or opening fire with lethal intent if they think they are being threatened with attack. Police will also get the right to search individuals, their vehicles or items on their person if police officers have “reason to assume” that they have weapons, ammunition, cartridges, explosive substances, explosive devices, stolen goods, narcotic or psychotropic drugs, etc. Previously, police needed “information” – i.e., factual evidence – to conduct such searches. Now police only need “reasons” based on their own determination. These and other changes introduce a lot of room for arbitrary policing, essentially making the police immune to liability for violating citizens’ personal rights and freedoms. In the words of Vishnevsky, they represent “yet another unchecked expansion of police powers, passed off as ‘improving police practices.’ ” The Russian authorities are also continuing their eager effort to inoculate Russia from the painful symptoms of Western sanctions. As part of that effort, Russia has been trying to popularize its national interbank payment system, the Financial Messaging System, as an alternative to the SWIFT international payment system, in case Russia is cut off from it as Iran once was. Although attracting some users, including Iran, Russia’s FMS has a long way to go to gain any real traction with other countries and general worldwide acceptance, says Anna Bodrova, chief analyst at the Alpari analysis center. The challenge is a familiar one to the Russian authorities, who are used to facing a steady stream of skepticism and cynicism about anything coming from Putin’s Kremlin these days. But they seem immune to it.