Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has yet to win EU regulatory approval and is likely to play little part in the bloc’s rollout, but it has already achieved what some observers say is one of its objectives – sowing division among, and within, member states.
“Sputnik V has become a tool of soft power for Russia,” said Michal Baranowski, a fellow with a US thinktank, the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s planted its flag on the vaccine and the political goal of its strategy is to divide the west.”
Sputnik’s makers say the shot has been approved in 61 countries and exported to 40. But safety concerns linger, and many EU leaders are sceptical of Russia’s intentions when it has administered fewer than 19m doses to its population of 144 million.
Amid growing European concern over repeated Russian cyber-attacks against the west, the Kremlin’s treatment of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and escalating tensions on the Ukraine border, EU observers say Moscow is deploying Sputnik as another weapon of geopolitical influence.
“Russia’s low vaccination rate just doesn’t tally with it having a supposedly cheap, easy-to-make and effective vaccine,” one EU diplomat said. “Either Moscow’s being altruistic, which seems unlikely. Or it’s prioritising geopolitics over Russians’ needs.”
So far, only two EU member states, Hungary and Slovakia, have broken with the bloc’s collective approach by ordering the shot, and only Hungary has used it – although Bulgaria is about to open talks, Austria has said it is ready to buy 1m doses and Germany is negotiating for 30m.
Others are decidedly less enthusiastic, even frankly hostile. France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has described the shot as “more a means of propaganda and aggressive diplomacy than of solidarity and assistance”.
The prime minister of Lithuania, Ingrida Šimonytė, tweeted in February that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, saw the shot not so much as a “cure for the Russian people” as “another hybrid weapon to divide and rule”.
After a lamentably slow early rollout that has only recently started to pick up speed, meanwhile, the European commission says Sputnik V is unlikely to play a part in the EU’s rollout simply because it will not be available in sufficient quantities until the end of 2021, when most Europeans will already be vaccinated.
Thierry Breton, the commissioner in charge of vaccine procurement, has said the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is evaluating Sputnik but “still lacks essential data”, while factories in Italy, Spain and Germany that have been named as putative manufacturing sites would take months to come on stream.
Hitting back via its official Sputnik V Twitter account, Russia has denied the vaccine is a political tool, or that safety or production capacity are potential issues. “Politicisation of vaccines is unethical and costing lives,” read a typical recent tweet. “Sputnik is undoubtedly one of the best vaccines in the world,” said another.
The account has accused EU officials of “bias” and “fake storytelling” and sought to play down the safety concerns that have plagued other viral vector jabs such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
“Biased western media cannot forever ignore real data from the real world that shows Sputnik V is safer and more efficient than mRNA vaccines,” the account said, accusing Breton of continually “misleading the public” over production capacity.
An EU study released this week accused Russian and Chinese media of systematically seeking to sow mistrust in western vaccines by sensationalising safety concerns, making unfounded links between shots and deaths in Europe, and promoting Russian and Chinese vaccines as superior.
But whether or not the EMA approves Sputnik V and whether or not it ever arrives in sufficient numbers, observers argue it has already done significant damage, with EU national and regional leaders leveraging it for their own political ends.
In some countries, it has caused mayhem: the Slovakian prime minister, Igor Matovič, was forced to resign this month amid a bitter dispute over a secret deal to buy 2m doses despite the disagreement of many in his four-party coalition.
Making matters worse, the Slovak medicines agency subsequently said the first 200,000 doses were different from the vaccine in the Lancet study and refused to approve them, prompting Matovič to say Slovakia would use a Hungarian lab instead.
Sputnik has also cost the health and foreign ministers of the Czech Republic – both opposed to the shot’s deployment without EMA approval – their jobs, fired by the prime minister, Andrej Babiš, following remarks by the pro-Russian president, Miloš Zeman.
Only in the wake of a furious diplomatic row last week over Czech allegations that Russia was behind a deadly 2014 blast at an ammunitions warehouse did Prague announce it would no longer be seeking to purchase any of the vaccine.
Elsewhere in post-communist Europe, Hungary’s Brussels-baiting leader, Viktor Orbán, who has long fostered close relations with Russia, has gleefully bypassed both the bloc’s joint procurement programme and EMA authorisation to buy 2m doses, while outside the EU, Serbia has become a champion vaccinator thanks to Sputnik.
In western Europe, regional politicians have also sought to score points against national governments through Sputnik deals: the conservative leader of Madrid in Socialist-led Spain; the far-right president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in France; the opposition Democratic party leader of Italy’s Campania region.
In Germany, where federal elections in September have turned the country’s early shortage of vaccines into a particularly burning issue nationwide with politicians of all colours under heavy pressure to find solutions, three states including Bavaria have either struck or are negotiating Sputnik deals.
The federal health minister, Jens Spahn, has said Berlin is in talks on a national deal but stressed any rollout will depend on EMA approval and Sputnik V supplies would have to arrive within the next couple of month or be too late.
For Baranowski, Sputnik’s rushed approval, online propaganda and carefully selected destinations add up to a Russian strategy that is “neither innocent nor humanitarian. It is part of exactly the same game, of dividing the west, that we see in Moscow’s use of military power, cybersecurity, energy security.”
And it’s working, he said: “It’s dividing various European actors pretty well. Until Sputnik V has EMA approval – at which stage, of course, there’s no problem: the world needs vaccines – it’s become a political litmus test for whether you are for or against the EU’s programme. That’s eroding confidence. And that’s what Putin wants.”
Early western doubts about Sputnik V’s efficacy after Russia approved it last August – without the results of full clinical trials – were partly dispelled by a peer-reviewed late-stage trial published in the Lancet in February which showed it was almost 92% effective.
Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute laboratory and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund backing the shot, have since said scientists had found Sputnik V 97.6% effective in “real-world” data from 3.8 million people.
The EMA’s director, Emer Cooke, however, confirmed last week the agency’s approval process, which began late because of a lack of manufacturer data, was “really at a very early stage”, saying the agency had yet to start reviewing any “real-world” safety records, for example on potential side-effects of the vaccine.
Among other things, the agency is looking into whether clinical trials met so-called “good clinical practice” standards after some soldiers and state employees Russia said took part in them reportedly claimed they had been pressured into doing so.