Europe’s lackluster vaccination program has presented one of the continent’s greatest foes with a golden opportunity to score a serious diplomatic victory.
Earlier this week, the Kremlin released a readout from a video conference between French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Item one on the agenda, according to the Kremlin, was a discussion on the prospect of “the registration of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine in the EU and possible deliveries and joint production of the vaccine in the EU countries.”
The German readout of the call used more moderate language, including a more explicit caveat around how Sputnik could only be used if it meets European standards.
But the meeting was enough to send shivers down the spines of some member states, while prompting angry responses from government officials and senior lawmakers among Europe’s allies.
The European Union’s vaccination program has been slow out of the blocks and plagued by supply issues. For a growing number of desperate EU leaders, one road out of the crisis may lead to Russia.
The Kremlin was heavily criticized last summer for approving Sputnik before large-scale Phase 3 trials began, but recent analysis published in The Lancet found the vaccine to be highly effective and safe.
A review of Sputnik by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which approves drugs on behalf of the EU, is underway.
Other European leaders are skeptical about Russia’s motives and see the offer of much-needed doses as a chance for Putin to further divide the continent.
Diplomats from some ex-Soviet member states pointedly say that they have no intention of using any vaccine “other than those procured by the European Medicines Agency”, speculated that the Russian vaccine “could be a tool to divide the Union and its allies” and fear that Moscow could use it as a “vehicle” for other nefarious activity.
From the European perspective, the majority of the EU27 seem remarkably relaxed about the meeting between Merkel, Macron and Putin, and think the international concern has stemmed from Russia’s spin on events.
Indeed, some member states are already dealing directly with Moscow in the hope of getting hold of Sputnik shots, even though they have not been approved by the EMA and are not part of the bloc’s centralized vaccine program, in which the European Commission has procured doses on behalf of countries.
Both Hungary and Slovakia have approved and ordered 4 million doses of the vaccine between them, while other countries, including influential Austria, are preparing to place an order with Moscow and get Russian shots into citizens’ arms.
Italy and other countries are in talks to produce Sputnik doses in Europe.
Austria’s seal of approval for the Sputnik vaccine is a particularly vicious gut punch for Brussels, after Chancellor Sebastian Kurz openly accused the European Commission of distributing the jabs unfairly among member states.
This week, he tweeted a picture of his meeting with Austria’s Russian ambassador, stating that he was “very happy” that he would soon be able to place an order.
Compare this to Kurz’s counterpart in Lithuania. Ingrida Šimonytė, Lithuania’s Prime Minister, has publicly said that “Putin doesn’t care to use it as a cure for the Russian people — he offers it to the world as another hybrid weapon to divide and rule.”
But Šimonytė’s views are in the minority among EU leaders. While the fact that the bloc’s two most powerful leaders even had this discussion with Putin has deeply concerned some of the ex-Soviet states, few are as vocal, as they know they are losing the argument.
And while most EU members are less enthusiastic than Kurz about using Sputnik, most are relaxed about Franco-German overtures to Moscow and think the fear is overhyped.
Playing down the concerns of countries like Lithuania and Poland, one European diplomat told CNN: “Even if the EMA does approve it, it’s very unlikely the Commission will add it to its portfolio of vaccine. Besides, Russia simply doesn’t have capacity to get the thing manufactured at any serious scale inside the EU.”
Vaccines used in the EU’s scheme must have been manufactured in labs that comply with EMA standards. So while it’s true that we are a long way from seeing Sputnik being produced in EU labs, the mere fact that some member states are worried, some are dismissing those fears and others are clamoring to get hold of Russia’s vaccine, reveals just how easily Moscow can cause division, both inside and outside of the EU.
In the UK, with whom Brussels is having a public spat over vaccines, a senior government official told CNN that it was “extraordinarily naive” to have even discussed Sputnik, given “we know that Russia is using vaccines as a diplomatic tool.”
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK’s foreign affairs select committee, said: “Using vaccines to shove a deeper wedge between the UK and EU, and between those EU states that know Russia well — like Lithuania — and others that are more ready to turn a blind eye is designed to divide and provoke, and that only feeds Russia’s interest.”
Whether this was the primary intention or not, dividing the West is always welcomed in the Kremlin. Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst at Crisis International, believes that Moscow’s main objective was to “win a soft power battle by getting the vaccine recognized by Europeans, making Russia more palatable to European citizens,” but accepts that creating a wedge in the West is probably a happy side-effect.
“Russia is always happy to see the European Union and its allies divided as it plays into domestic messaging that perhaps Western democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he added.
Kremlin critics in Russia have noted that the success of the Kremlin’s vaccine exports has played a larger role in domestic media than anything resembling a vaccine rollout for Russian citizens, which raises important questions about where Russia’s priorities really are. If the aim this week was to lob a political grenade into Europe, Sputnik is a perfect vehicle by which to do it.
“We already know Russia is playing vaccine diplomacy. What’s more alarming is that Russian actors were allegedly behind the hacking of the EMA last year — the very agency that might approve the vaccine,” says Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of Defend Democracy, an independent foundation focusing on how democratic states are being undermined internationally.
Moscow has repeatedly denied Western allegations of hacking.
The pandemic has done horrendous things to internal European diplomacy. A combination of unforeseen vaccine supply issues, limited in-person meetings, and the self-interest of nations to prevent citizens from dying is a perfect combination for conflict on a continent as interwoven as Europe.
Yet in the rush to get through a brutal third wave of the pandemic and mend the errors made in the early stages of the vaccine rollout, Europeans should be aware of how their internal divisions are seen outside the bloc. To their allies, it might look like little more than cats fighting in a bag. But to their enemies, it is a weakness that they’re only too ready to exploit.