From Republic.ru, May 13, 2021, https://republic.ru/posts/100390.
The fierce battle over the right to vaccinate the Europeans, who are suffering from a vaccine deficit, and the fight between Russia and the West over the rights of oppositionist Aleksei Navalny appear to have nothing to do with each other, but the time has come for them to intersect: Citing senior European Union sources, Bloomberg is reporting that deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine to North Macedonia have been delayed because of this country’s stance on Navalny.
Unnamed officials say the problem is that North Macedonia became one of three non-EU Balkan countries (along with Montenegro and Albania) that signed on to the anti-Russian sanctions provoked by the trial and verdict in Navalny’s case earlier this year [see Vol. 73, No. 6 7, pp. 3‑6], and that Moscow has now held back vaccine deliveries, even though it was supposed to send 200,000 doses to Skopje.
This explanation is quite strange. Then again, several days ago the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which works to promote Sputnik V, trumpeted San Marino’s victory over the coronavirus thanks to the Russian vaccine – and San Marino was one of the countries that did not sign on to the sanctions. This seems to be a clear hint.
Russia is actually bending over backwards to deliver Sputnik V to Europe, and is so proud of even minimal successes that it seems unlikely that it would go so far as to punish a country for holding the wrong political position. In this case, official media outlets would have no reason to report in such a hopeful tone that the German authorities are apparently leaning toward negotiations on deliveries. If this were all about Navalny, then Germany would have been one of the first countries to be denied the Russian vaccine.
Navalny’s case would have been more likely to influence a refusal to purchase instead of refusals to sell the vaccine. In this matter, it is much more important for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to show his moral –and technological – superiority over the West. For him it’s a bit like lend-lease, only in the opposite direction, from East to West: It’s important to provide assistance so that the Kremlin will be able to point out to European politicians for many years to come that they would not have been able to cope with the threat [of the coronavirus] if Russia had not helped.
In fact, people have seen Sputnik V as a tool of the Kremlin’s political influence since the moment the vaccine appeared. Both Russian and foreign media have written about this, and Sputnik V has caused extreme aversion in many. For example, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the Russian vaccine “more a means of propaganda and aggressive diplomacy than a means of showing solidarity and providing medical assistance.” [French] President Emmanuel Macron was more circumspect, saying only that the Russian vaccine is not certified in the EU, although he did participate in a discussion about the vaccine’s possible release on the European market.
Russia’s low vaccination rate is in itself cause for suspicion. One of the most frequent arguments skeptics make is that if the Russians themselves are not taking their own exceptionally effective vaccine, that must mean that something is wrong with it, that it’s all just propaganda, or both of these things. The Russians’ traditional mistrust of any enterprise undertaken by the authorities, be it elections or inoculations, is difficult for Europeans to understand, especially since it’s hard for them to believe that pulling the wool over foreigners’ eyes is really a priority for the Kremlin.
The Russian vaccine factor has already provoked several political crises in Eastern Europe. The most sensational one erupted in Slovakia, where Prime Minister Igor Matovich had to leave office because he ordered 2 million doses of Sputnik V from Russia in March, not one of which has actually been used. Matovich insisted that he only wanted to help, but he was faced with a real revolt by his pro-Western colleagues in the government and was forced to move to the position of finance minister.
Slovakia’s State Institute for Drug Control said at the time that the vaccine sent from Russia differed from the one that received a positive review in The Lancet journal [see Vol. 73, No. 12, pp. 9‑10]. The vaccine was then sent for reverification to a laboratory in Hungary, which did not find any problems. The authorities are promising to start vaccinations in June. The new prime minister, Eduard Heger, has continued to lobby for Sputnik: He says that elderly people, including himself, have taken Russian (i.e., Soviet) vaccines their entire lives and have nothing but trust in them. According to polls, the level of trust in Sputnik V in Slovakia is at almost 15%, while only 4% of people in Hungary, where the vaccine is used, trust it.
Sputnik V also caused a commotion in the Czech Republic in April: Opposition to the vaccine cost health minister Jan Blatny and foreign minister Tomas Petricek their jobs, because they insisted that a vaccine that had not been approved by the European Medicines Agency could not be used. Just two weeks later, the country was shaken by a major spy and diplomatic scandal [see Vol. 73, No. 17, pp. 8‑9] surrounding the 2014 explosions in Vrbetice, with the spotlight focused on [Ruslan] Boshirov and [Aleksandr] Petrov [the two Russian men suspected of poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain; see Vol. 70, No. 10‑11, pp. 10‑12 – Trans.]. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamacek, who was preparing to fly to Moscow for negotiations on vaccine deliveries, had to announce that the visit was canceled and that his country would not be purchasing the vaccine. Czech President Milos Zeman, who had previously pushed for use of the Russian vaccine and who said at the time of the scandal that there was no proof Russia was responsible for the explosions, was threatened with treason charges.
Brussels has promised assistance to Eastern Europe, which faces a physical shortage of vaccines. In December, the EU adopted a 70 million euro aid package for the Balkan states to support their aspirations to join the EU, and was preparing to allocate some vaccines from its reserves. In addition, the EU lent financial support to the World Health Organization’s COVAX program for poor countries. But these countries initially only received symbolic batches of the vaccine – interruptions in production arose even within the EU itself. The [shortages] were especially pronounced for non-EU countries (except for Great Britain).
Left alone with the problem, governments have taken varying approaches to solving it. Hungary, for example, is the only EU country that voluntarily decided to start purchasing everything – Sputnik V, Chinese vaccines and Western products. The same approach was taken by Serbia, which is not an EU member and which ended by sharing small batches of the vaccines with other countries, such as Montenegro and North Macedonia. Hungary and Serbia are now leading Europe in vaccination rates.
However, the Russian blitzkrieg in Hungary appears to have suffered a setback. In February, it seemed that Russia had staked its claim to all the positions there by sending 4 million doses of Sputnik V to the country. The Hungarian authorities said that the Russian and Chinese vaccines were better than the Western ones. But their tone has recently changed, and they have turned toward Pfizer, which is expected to deliver 2.8 million doses by late May, with a total of over 10 million doses to come. As soon as [Hungarian] President [sic; Prime Minister] Viktor Orban announced that the Pfizer vaccine would be used widely (until then, the vaccine had only been available to the elderly, medical workers and Olympians), the vaccine appointment Web site crashed from the number of requests, and long lines formed at vaccination sites.
The Russian government has just announced the delivery of the most recent batch of 2 million doses under the January contract (this includes both first and second doses, i.e., shots for 1 million people). “Hungary was the first country that Russia completely fulfilled its contract with,” reported the media cheerfully. But, unfortunately, nothing was reported about a new contract.
It appears that [all of the above] is not related to Navalny, but to technical difficulties in delivering a large volume of supplies. The 200,000 Sputnik V doses for North Macedonia were announced in March, but the country received only two batches of 3,000 doses, each in the same month. The RDIF insists that all the deliveries are on schedule and that all accusations of a political motivation are groundless.
Meanwhile, Skopje also recently received 200,000 doses, only of the Sinovac vaccine, which was brought on trucks from Serbia; another 500,000 doses should soon arrive from China, along with 26,000 Pfizer doses.
The other Balkan countries aren’t focusing on the Sputnik vaccine, either. In May, the EU started to distribute 650,000 Pfizer doses to the Balkans. Serbia stocked up on Sputnik V, but the first deliveries of millions of doses were from China, and [Serbian] President Aleksandar Vucic took the Sinovac vaccine. (Belgrade, however, did not put all its eggs in one basket: Prime Minister Ana Brnabic took the Pfizer vaccine, while the foreign minister took Sputnik V.) Serbia was the first European country to use China’s vaccine, which is the most widely available vaccine there. And even though Vucic and the RDIF recently announced the launch of Sputnik V production in Serbia, this really just involves putting the vaccine in vials. On the other hand, the Serbian president did announce back in March that a plant to produce Sinovac will be built by October with the participation of China and the United Arab Emirates – and one gets the feeling that here, too, it will be difficult to keep up with China.
Problems are arising with other continents as well. In Mexico, Hugo López-Gatell, assistant to the health minister, said that Russia was having trouble with deliveries of the second Sputnik dose. “Over several months, the number of first doses they were able to produce did not match the number of second doses,” he complained. Naturally, the RDIF denies all of this, but statements are a poor substitute for vaccines. In any event, Mexico has received only 1.9 million doses of Sputnik V out of the 24 million stipulated in the contract signed in February. Meanwhile, Pfizer has sent over 10 million doses to Mexico, the Chinese have sent the same amount, and AstraZeneca has sent another 4.6 million.
In May, the Brazilian regulator Anvisa refused to approve Sputnik V, with doctors saying that the adenovirus used in the vaccine’s second dose was not inactive and could therefore multiply, which is nothing short of dangerous. In typical fashion, the RDIF called this disinformation and a “political decision.” Meanwhile, the contract with Brazil envisaged the delivery of a whole 10 million doses. Shortly before this, the Brazilian authorities signed an agreement with Pfizer on the delivery of another 100 million doses, in other words, 10 times more than Russia promised.
It’s possible that the difficulties noted by López-Gatell in the delivery of second doses gave Russian officials the idea to separately register a “Sputnik Lite,” which is just a first dose of Sputnik V.
So Russia continues to do battle on the vaccine front, but not all these battles are hopeless: There’s Slovakia;, and there’s Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, who said he is committed to Sputnik V. Even Germany is showing some interest: Officials in some states are leaning toward the Russian vaccine. Everything depends on EMA approval, which has not yet been given. But debates within governments are unlikely to subside even after approval. No matter what Putin says, political “baggage” has become attached to the Russian vaccine, and many fear falling under Russia’s influence and becoming indebted to a country they have often maligned. This would inevitably discredit the idea of sanctions. And we’re talking about tens of millions of doses here. The question is whether Russia can fulfill this commitment.
However, if Russia is provoking political destabilization and division with its vaccine, then much of this destabilization has been caused by the EU’s inability to effectively provide vaccines to everyone who wants them.
In these conditions, the choice of one vaccine or another really does become a political act that confirms allegiance – primarily moral – to one camp or another, be it Chinese, Russian or Euro-Atlantic. And at the make or break moment, almost everyone will prefer to choose in favor of European solidarity – or, in an extreme case, China. Deliveries from China even noticeably exceed deliveries from Russia in Armenia and Kazakhstan. And there are new vaccines on the horizon – the French-Austrian company Valneva is in the third stage of trials, so Russia may not even have time to woo Sebastian Kurz. For now, it has only two real allies in Europe – Belarus and San Marino. But then [Belarussian President] Aleksandr Lukashenko has already announced that Minsk will soon have its own vaccine.