ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – In its foreign policy, Russia tends to prioritize hard power over military might and oil and gas exports. But in recent months, the Kremlin has won a sweeping diplomatic victory from an unexpected source: the success of its coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V.
While the United States and European countries have considered or implemented bans on vaccine exports, Russia earned applause by sharing its vaccine with countries around the world in an apparent act of enlightened self-interest.
To date, more than 50 countries in Latin America and Asia have ordered 1.2 billion doses of Russian vaccine, which improves the image of Russian science and increases Moscow’s influence in the world.
Yet in Russia, things aren’t always what they seem, and this apparent triumph of soft power diplomacy may not be all the Kremlin would have the world think. While Sputnik V is unmistakably efficient, production is lagging behind, raising the question of whether Moscow promises many more vaccine exports than it can deliver, and at the expense of its own citizens.
The actual number of doses distributed in Russia is a state secret, said Dmitry Kulish, a professor at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. Nonetheless, Russian officials boast of massive vaccine exports and bask in the heat of the resulting vaccine diplomacy.
“Soft power is the yawning and yawning hole in Russia’s global status,” Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the risk consultancy Eurasia Group and former US diplomat, said in a telephone interview. “If they play their cards right here, the vaccines could be very important.”
European officials have started to repel Russia’s aggressive marketing of Sputnik.
“We still wonder why Russia is, in theory, offering millions and millions of doses without making enough progress in immunizing its own population,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday during a press conference. “This question must be answered.”
Despite doubts, vaccine diplomacy has already helped a number of goals for Moscow: it helped deepen divisions within the European Union, sending a shipment to Hungary before regulators approved it. for the whole block; stoked internal discord in Ukraine by highlighting the slow supply of Western vaccines in the country; and disseminated disinformation in Latin America that has undermined public confidence in vaccines made in the United States.
“We are ready to lay pipelines and provide cheap energy, we can sell you weapons and now we have this other dimension, this soft power: we are ready to offer you a vaccine,” said Andrey V. Kortunov. , chairman of the Russian organization Council for International Affairs, a non-governmental group analyzing Russian foreign policy.
Rejecting its detractors, the Kremlin took every opportunity to highlight its exports, some rather insignificant.
Sufficient vaccine supply for 10,000 people, for example, arrived in Bolivia last month with the pump usually reserved for state visits – greeted at the airport by the country’s President Luis Arce and the Russian Ambassador .
“We congratulate the brotherly people of Bolivia for a qualitatively new level in the fight against the coronavirus,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Sputnik is entering new orbits,” sang a state television report this month, proudly showing cases of thousands of doses of vaccine loaded onto a plane leaving Russia for Argentina.
In Russia, at least so far, there has been little backlash on exports, even though at the end of 2020 it had the third highest number of excess deaths in the world after the United States and Brazil.
Only 2.2 million Russians (less than 2%) received a first dose of the two-dose vaccine. In the United States, by contrast, 40.3 million people (about 12%) received initial injections, despite a difficult deployment.
Analysts say the reason for this lack of public acceptance is that many Russians are so suspicious of their own government that they reject clinical trials which have shown Sputnik V to be safe and highly effective. In a poll taken last fall, 59% of Russians said they did not intend to get the vaccine.
Distrust runs so deep that fully-stocked vaccination sites in Moscow are often empty. The fears have not been alleviated by the example of President Vladimir V. Putin, who has not yet taken the vaccine himself.
“If massive demand for vaccines emerges, conflicting with the drug shortage due to export, this could become a political issue,” Ekaterina Schulmann, associate researcher at Chatham House, a London-based research institute, told About the use of the vaccine in foreign police. “Now anyone who wants to get a vaccine can get it, so it’s rather a source of pride that Russia was among the first to get a vaccine and that we are helping others as well.
It is not known how long this state of affairs will last, given the problems with vaccine production, which in some ways are emblematic of Russia’s overall economic problems, largely resulting from state control.
The license for the vaccine is controlled by two public institutions, a research institute and a sovereign fund. They have cut back on export and production deals, while seven private pharmaceutical factories manufacture most vaccines under contracts that offer little incentive for innovation or even long-term investment.
Professor Kulish, a consultant to Russian pharmaceutical companies, said several vaccine makers delayed production for several months last year pending critical equipment made in China and missing during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, Russia does not produce any biotech equipment at all,” he said, adding that he expects production to increase from this month.
But that remains to be seen. At a vaccine production site contracted by a company outside of St. Petersburg this week, vials of Sputnik vaccine rolled off a production line, each containing five doses and the potential to save lives.
Still, scaling up production has been a challenge. “It’s a very capricious technology,” said Dmitry Morozov, CEO of Biocad. His company received the contract in September, and by early February had produced just 1.8 million two-dose sets – a far cry from the hundreds of millions the Kremlin promised to foreign buyers.
Mr Morozov said his factory has the capacity to produce twice as much vaccine. But vaccine contracts are so onerous that it is losing money on production, forcing it last fall to reserve half its capacity for a profitable cancer drug. It has since added additional vaccine lines.
In the longer term, Russia is looking to foreign producers to expand its production, signing deals with companies in India, South Korea and China. But these companies appear to be months away from vaccine production.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said last month that future production abroad will meet foreign demand, thereby avoiding shortages at home.
For now, Russian doctors serving overflowing Covid-19 rooms are complaining that they had to continue working without being offered the vaccine. Yuri Korovin, a 62-year-old surgeon from the Novgorod region northwest of Moscow, never received a dose until he fell ill at the end of December.
“Of course, you can’t forget your own people,” he said of exports, still coughing and whistling, in a telephone interview.