Lessons to be learned from Kremlin’s vaccine diplomacy and Vrbetice attack

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Expelled diplomats with their relatives from Czech embassy in Moscow arrives at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague, Czech Republic, 19 April 2021. [EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK]

It seems that Russian vaccine diplomacy is better at triggering political crises than at convincing people to get vaccinated by Sputnik V, writes Miroslava Sawiris.

Miroslava Sawiris is a Research Fellow for Democracy and Resilience at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute.

Despite significant efforts exerted by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and propaganda theatre of political leaders ‘welcoming’ batches of the so far EMA-unapproved Sputnik V, only 5% of populations living in 10 Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) would opt to get vaccinated by Sputnik V over other vaccines approved by EMA, according to the latest representative public opinion polling by GLOBSEC.

The only outlier is Slovakia, where the percentage reaches 15%. However, even here, despite the massive discussion of the Russian vaccine dominating public discourse for a couple of months, 42% of the population would still pick Western vaccine or any EMA-approved vaccine over Sputnik V.

In Hungary, where the vaccine is available, only 4% of the population expressed the wish to get vaccinated by Sputnik V over others.

Strong preference for Western and EMA-approved vaccines across CEE (43%) indicate that a substantial proportion of populations sees the value of subjecting vaccines to the same standardised rigorous approval processes guaranteeing basic safety and efficacy. Independent national and European institutions are instrumental in this process.

Institutions under attack 

While Sputnik V is hailed by its producers as the ideal solution against COVID-19, many concerns regarding the vaccine’s efficacy and safety proliferate with lacking approval by the EMA.

In CEE countries the rollout of the vaccine has been linked to potential institutional co-optation and reputational smear campaigns against scientific bodies.

In Hungary for example, the speedy approval of the vaccine by national institutions throws doubt on their actual independence in the context of the Orbán government’s concentrated grip on power. As reflected in the low preference for Sputnik V, such an approval process may damage populations’ trust in institutions, and by extension, the perception of the vaccine.

In Slovakia, the tricky approval process of Sputnik V triggered a full-blown political crisis that led to the resignation of the prime minister and the subsequent reconstruction of the ruling coalition’s government.

But it also caused scathing attacks, by both the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and some Slovak political representatives, on scientific institutions ŠÚKL (Slovak State Institute for Medicine Control) and the Biomedical Centre at the Slovak Academy of Sciences for not producing the ‘desired’ assessment of the vaccine.

Nothing new under the sun 

However, Kremlin’s vaccine diplomacy needs to be viewed in a broader context if we want to make sense of it beyond RDIF’s business interests. Such a context is provided by Russia’s recent military posturing on the Ukrainian border, the likes of which were not seen since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Firstly, military intervention has several times proved to be the go-to measure of Putin’s administration when his popularity rankings needed a pickup.

This was the case with military interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, both of which saw Putin’s approval rankings elevated to over 80%. The fact that legislative elections are planned for September 2021 only raises the stakes.

As former Soviet bloc countries, CEE states are of significant strategic importance for Putin’s USSR-revisionist regime. Demonstration of solidarity with Ukraine is thus an important step, not only as a commitment to democratic values of multilateralism but also as an act of self-preservation.

Allowing major geopolitical power to usurp swathes of neighbouring sovereign state’s territory sets a dangerous precedent.

While the situation on the Ukrainian border and bilateral Sputnik V negotiations may seem as unrelated, they are in fact two sides of the same coin. Both seek to find cracks in European unity to further undermine the EU and NATO projects.

Weakened multilateral institutions would leave vulnerable CEE states isolated and open to a growing influence of the Russian administration, a strategy that is both old and easy to read. Despite this, the real danger lies in failing to appreciate these risks and the vital need to contain them.

Unified EU policy on Russia is needed 

The dangers of allowing the Kremlin to conduct its hybrid warfare operations became clear once again, as the details of the Vrbetice ammunition depot explosion from 2014 in the Czech Republic transpired.

The blast which killed two people was originally assumed to be an accident. However, Czech authorities now link it to Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU intelligence agency and implicate Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, agents accused of the involvement in the infamous Salisbury attack. 

These revelations caused a rupture of epic proportions in bilateral relations between Russia and the Czech Republic, as Czech authorities expelled 18 Russian diplomats, to which Russia responded by expelling 20 Czech diplomats.

As state representatives from V4 and beyond express their solidarity with the Czech Republic, little more than words are needed. Slovakia, for example, announced the expulsion of three Russian diplomats as an act of solidarity with the Czech Republic.

Given these developments and long-known facts about current Russian administrations’ approach towards the EU, it is the right time to re-evaluate bilateral deals such as Nord Stream 2, Sputnik V and others, in an attempt to formulate consistent unified EU foreign policy.

After all, a stronger Europe in the world is one of the key priorities of the current Commission. This would be the right place to start.

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