Russia’s vaccine and the political side-effects for Europe

Despite EU officials’ public statements, it seems that the discussion over Sputnik V is still at a very early stage in Brussels. [Shutterstock/AK-GK Studio]

As EU-Russia relations hit a new low over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Moscow’s Sputnik V vaccine is seen as a window of opportunity for Europe to make up for the delayed vaccine deliveries. But the Russian jab may also creates additional headaches across EU capitals.

The EU initially took a sceptical stance toward Russia’s vaccine and even criticised its rapid approval. But things changed a few days ago in the aftermath of the EU row with the pharma industry over the vaccine’s distribution fiasco.

Brussels is now open to Sputnik V if it gets the green light of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) while the medical journal The Lancet said the Russian vaccine was 91.6% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 cases.

In Europe, Hungary has purchased Sputnik V, Serbia is already administering it while the Czech Republic is mulling following Budapest’s example to get a head start in vaccine race once EMA approves it.

On the other hand, Ukraine has banned the vaccine, describing it as “a hybrid weapon of Russia against Ukraine”.

Not on EU’s radar, for now

Despite EU officials’ public statements, it seems that the discussion over Sputnik V is still at an very early stage in Brussels.

“For the time being, it’s not really on the radar,” Commission sources told EURACTIV.com, adding that the EU executive’s relevant services have not been contacted by Russian manufacturers.

“In order to be part of the EU vaccination programme, manufacturers need to have production capacity in EU territory to exactly make sure we have independence,” the sources added, saying Sputnik V are currently “all produced in Russia”.

Earlier this week, EU top diplomat Josep Borrell visited Moscow and described Russia’s vaccine as “good for mankind”.

EU sources told EURACTIV that the vaccine issue was not really discussed, saying the issue came up only at the press conference. “Almost the whole discussion was about Navalny and human rights, Ukraine and bigger foreign policy issues,” one source pointed out.

The same source added that while it has a political angle, in essence, Sputnik V is not a political issue since the vaccine might be fine as long as there is scientific endorsement by the European Medicines Agency, and this “does not depend on politics”.

Germany, France positive

Both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have expressed their openness to the vaccine.

Berlin even offered to help with production sites while it also gained Paris’s trust. According to an Odoxa study, 52% of the French would approve the Russian vaccine roll-out in France.

“All vaccines that meet health safety requirements and prove their effectiveness […] are welcome in Europe,” a French government’s adviser told AFP.

Still, French political figures like leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen politicised the results of the The Lancet study.

Mélenchon tweeted: “So I was right. Where are the scoffers? The worst for me is yet to come: a freely licensed Cuban vaccine!”.

Similarly, Le Pen wrote: “Now that there is no longer any doubt about the effectiveness of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine […] France should work together with Russia and not let anti-Russian ideology ruin our ability to vaccinate our compatriots!”.

Poland unlikely to get ‘conditional’ Russian jab 

Not everybody shares the Franco-German openness to the Russian jab, notably in Poland.

“We have not yet analysed the purchase of the Sputnik vaccine”, said Michał Dworczyk, Government Plenipotentiary for Vaccination. “It’s rather time for the European Commission to collect deliveries from producers that will take place according to schedule and in declared volumes,” he added.

Professor Agnieszka Legucka, a specialist in Russian foreign policy, told EURACTIV Poland that the vaccine might be offered with conditions.

“For political reasons, Poland, Ukraine or the Baltic states will not get the vaccine from Russia. Knowing the conditionality of such aid – the side effects may be worse than the drug itself”, she said.

“Poland and other countries pointed out that Russia with its corona-diplomacy is attacking the image of the EU and undermining its crisis management capabilities. Its second priority is to lift or relax sanctions,” Legucka claimed.

Melchior Szczepanik, an analyst from the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said it would be difficult to predict how the vaccine might affect EU-Russia relations.

“If the Russian vaccine was approved by the EMA, and thus could be used by the member states, then it would be an important image success for Russia and it is almost certain that Russia would try to somehow translate it into concrete benefits,” Szczepanik told EURACTIV.pl.

However, the EU will not be quick to abandon its principles. “Putting Navalny’s case on the shelf is unlikely, it would be too clearly cynical, and the symbolic dimension of such a decision would be difficult for EU citizens to accept,” he said.

The Czech plans

According to Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, geopolitical games should be put aside while Europe faces the pandemic. “If EMA approves the (Russian) vaccine, we should offer it to our people,” said Babiš on Thursday (11 February).

He also admitted not being sure whether Czech people are willing to get Russian vaccines instead of western ones due to the low level of public trust in Russia.

Babiš hinted that the Czech government could purchase Russian jabs, like Hungary or Serbia did, but emphasised that he would wait for the EMA’s approval first.

Currently, there are no official negotiations between Russia and Czechia over purchases of the Sputnik V vaccine, the Czech foreign ministry confirmed to EURACTIV.cz.

Moreover, the Czech government expects that in upcoming weeks there would be sufficient vaccine deliveries from western manufactures, thus there will be no need for Russian jabs.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com]

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