Street. Petersburg, Russia – In its foreign policy, Russia tends to favor the hard power of military power and oil and gas exports. But in recent months, the Kremlin has achieved a sweeping diplomatic victory from an unexpected source: the success of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.
While the United States and European countries have studied or implemented a vaccine export ban to deal with the shortage at home, Russia has garnered praise by sharing its vaccine with countries around the world in a clear act of enlightened self-interest.
So far, more than 50 countries from Latin America to Asia have ordered 1.2 billion doses of the Russian vaccine, which has polished the image of the Russian flag and raised Moscow’s influence around the world.
However, things in Russia are not always what they seem, and this apparent victory of soft power diplomacy may not be all the Kremlin would like the world to think. While Sputnik V is undoubtedly effective, production is lagging behind, raising questions about whether Moscow is promising to export far more vaccines than it can provide, and to do so at the expense of its citizens.
Dmitry Kulich, a professor at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, said the actual number of doses dispensed within Russia is a state secret. Nevertheless, Russian officials are proud to export huge quantities of vaccines, and are relishing the warm glow of vaccine diplomacy that has been born.
“Soft power is the vast and growing gap in Russia’s global standing,” Cliff Copchan, president of the Eurasia Group risk advisory group and a former US diplomat, said in a phone interview. “If they play their cards here, vaccinations could be very important.”
With a vaccine shortage leaving the world unprotected, even as dangerous variants of misery spill over, a Russian vaccine could also be important in the global fight against a pandemic – if there is enough to overcome it.
On Friday, President Biden offered some relief, announcing that his administration would fulfill its pledge to donate $ 4 billion For the international effort to accelerate the manufacture and distribution of vaccines. New pledges were made by the European Union, Japan, Germany and Canada.
But more is needed, especially as scientists have made this clear No country is really safe Until everything is done, as the continued spread could lead to more variants.
European officials – who have been criticized for their mistakes in distributing vaccines – have begun to push back Russia’s aggressive marketing of Sputnik, suggesting that it is not the solution to the world’s problems. At least not yet.
“We still wonder why Russia is providing, in theory, millions and millions of doses, while not making sufficient progress in vaccinating its own people,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference this week. This question must be answered.
Despite the skepticism, vaccine diplomacy has already strengthened a number of goals for Moscow: it helped deepen divisions within the European Union, sending a shipment to Hungary before the regulators agreed to it for the entire bloc; Domestic discord sparked in Ukraine By highlighting the slow Western vaccine supply to the country; And misinformation circulated in Latin America That undermined public confidence in vaccines made in the United States.
Andrey F. Kortonov, chairman of the Russian company, said: “We are ready to lay gas pipelines and provide cheap energy. We can sell you weapons. Now we have this other dimension, this soft power: We are ready to offer you the vaccine.” The International Affairs Council, a nongovernmental group that analyzes Russian foreign policy.
The effort is part of a greater competition to use vaccines, in part Diplomatic gain. At the Munich Security Conference on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of that competition, saying that a severe slowdown in aid to African countries would lead them to turn to China and Russia and leave the power of the West “a concept, not a reality.”
For its part, the Kremlin took every opportunity to highlight its exports, some of which are somewhat unimportant.
For example, vaccine supplies for 10,000 people arrived in Bolivia last month with pageantry usually reserved for state visits – received at the airport by the country’s president, Louis Ars, and the Russian ambassador.
“We congratulate the brotherly Bolivian people on the qualitatively new level in the fight against the Coronavirus,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. statement.
“Sputnik enters new orbits,” a report broadcast on state television this month, proudly shows boxes of thousands of doses of vaccine being loaded onto a plane leaving Russia bound for Argentina.
In Russia, at least so far, there has been little backlash on exports, although at the end of 2020 it had the third largest number of excess deaths in the world after the United States and Brazil.
Only 2.2 million Russians (less than 2 percent) received the first dose of the dual vaccine, according to the latest figures provided by a Russian official last week. In the United States, about 41 million people (about 13 percent) received their first injection, despite the rockslide.
Analysts say the reason for the general lack of acceptance is that many Russians do not trust their government to the point that they are dismissing clinical trials that have shown Sputnik V Extremely safe and effective. In a poll last fall, 59 percent of Russians said they would He did not intend to vaccinate.
Fully equipped Moscow pollination sites are often empty. The example of President Vladimir Putin, who did not personally take the vaccine, did not help resolve these concerns.
Ekaterina Schulman, associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based research institute, has said about the use of the vaccine in foreign policy. “Now, anyone who wants to get a vaccine can get it, so it is a matter of pride that Russia was among the first to get a vaccine and that we are helping others too.”
It is unclear how long this will last, given the problems with vaccine production, which in some ways are a symbol of Russia’s overall economic problems, and arise in large part from state control.
The vaccine licensing is governed by two state-run institutions, a research institute and a sovereign wealth fund. They cut both export and production deals, while seven private pharmaceutical factories manufacture most of the vaccine under contracts that provide little financial incentives for innovation or even long-term investment.
Professor Kolesh, a consultant to Russian pharmaceutical companies, said that many vaccine makers had delayed production for months last year while waiting for important pieces of equipment made in China and there was a shortage of supply.
“Unfortunately, Russia does not produce biotechnology equipment at all,” he said, adding that he expected to increase production starting this month.
But this is not yet clear. At one site producing a vaccine under contract by a company outside of Saint Petersburg this week, vials of Sputnik vaccine rolled off the production line, each containing five doses and having the potential to save lives.
However, scaling up the production was a challenge. “It’s a very volatile technology,” said Dmitry Morozov, Biocad CEO. His company received the contract in September, and by early February had produced just 1.8 million sets of two doses – a far cry from the hundreds of millions the Kremlin had promised foreign buyers.
Morozov said his plant has the capacity to produce twice that amount. But the vaccine contracts are so onerous that he’s losing money on production, forcing him last fall to keep half his capacity as the lucrative cancer drug. He has since added additional vaccine lines.
In the long term, Russia is looking to foreign producers to expand production, signing agreements with companies in India, South Korea and China. But those companies It looks like it’s months away From producing the vaccine.
Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, last month that future overseas production will meet foreign demand, avoiding shortages at home.
At the moment, Russian doctors serving in Covid-19 surplus wards complain that they have had to continue working without introducing a vaccine. Yuri Korovin, a 62-year-old surgeon in the Novgorod region northwest of Moscow, was not shown a dose before he fell ill in late December.
“Of course you can’t forget your people,” he said of the exports, still coughing and squeaking, in a phone interview.
Constant Mehot contributed reporting from Paris.