Russian vaccine diplomacy undermines EU freedom of movement- C. McQueeny

Russia and China’s superior vaccine access abroad could win them soft power points while inadvertently impacting some EU member states ability to travel across the bloc.

The EU’s slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has come under censure and led some member states to deviate from the bloc, procuring vaccines independently. The efforts have boosted immunisation in individual nations where curbing the virus has been critical but could threaten the EU’s principle of freedom of movement.

In December 2020, when the European Commission approved the first COVID-19 vaccine for use across the Union, it came comparably late to other western power houses such as the UK, which approved a candidate three weeks earlier, while the US also approved its first jab ten days before the EU.

Having awaited the ‘rigorous’ approval process of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), deployment across the 27 member states has, since also been painstaking slow as a concerted rollout. This delay has triggered some member states to bypass EU protocol and source vaccines not yet EMA-approved, such as the Russian vaccine Sputnik V or China’s Sinopharm. 

But doing so could impact the EU’s next COVID-induced move — the Digital Green Certificate rollout, proposed to facilitate safe travel while the pandemic continues. Should Russia or China’s vaccine not make the grade, it could hinder EU citizens’ ability to travel freely across the bloc, while inadvertently boosting Russia and China’s soft power.

Soft power expansion

The COVID-19 health crisis, along with its associated economic downturn has provided fertile ground for geopolitical maneuvers not purely for humanitarian and health benefits. Mask diplomacy, “the health silk road’, and the vaccine race have all lent themselves to help states increase their power and influence.

The global disparities in vaccination against COVID-19 is a key reason for this. So far, only 1.7 billion of the world’s 7.8 billion people have had the first dose of a Covid vaccine. Covax, an initiative headed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Gavi, CEPI, and Unicef, promised to fill the divide between the wealthiest and those in need as a platform for nations to donate vaccinations for those with lesser means, allowing at least 20% of a country’s population faster access to inoculations. Covax was launched as one of the three pillars of ACT (access to Covid-19 Tools). The EU remains a large supporter of the programme and pledged 1 billion euro, along with other states like the US and private organisations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Despite execution and support for the programme, efforts have been thwarted by early isolationist or more broadly protectionist policies. Only 0.2% of the 1.7 billion inoculations have taken place in countries classified as low income

As Covax has failed to address exisiing disparities, other states with developed vaccines not yet approved by WHO have tried to pick up the slack.

Russia has managed to fill a gap, and in doing so will make soft power gains with Sputnik V shipments serving as a diplomatic influence tool, according to Igor Delanoë, deputy head of the French-Russian Analytical Center Observo in Moscow. 

“From the very beginning of the pandemic, Russia has undertaken a sanitary diplomacy, providing medical support – although limited in number of personnel – to Italy, Serbia…”, said Delanoe.

“This has been further pursued through the export of vaccines – with all the caveats mentioned above – with the aim of increasing Russia’s international standing”, he continued.

Protectionism vs multilateralism

Across the EU, vaccination roll-out remains slow with just 35% of the adult population vaccinated, calling into question multilateral unity the Gavi COVAX program requires. And the protectionism employed by some states are potentially stunting efforts to return to global normality.

The US, for instance, enacted the Defense Protection Act to boost vaccine availability, likening the current crisis to a war effort. This legislation ensured vaccines produced in America were not exported and that the US would be able to bolster relations among companies to work together in vaccine production efforts. 

With apparent early success, some downturn in vaccine inoculations has occurred with 61% of American adults having now received the vaccine. A decrease of vaccinations from 3.38 million to about 1.78 million vaccines a day could illustrate apprehension among the remaining 40% of the US’s population and offers theoretically the possibility of shipping jabs to the rest of the world. 

Boosting vaccine accessibility

Russia, in comparison has been slower domestically, which has only inoculated 11.1% of their population, but exported Sputnik V to 43 nations while authorised for use in 65 countries. While the vaccine is mainly for sale, it is still affordable, bolstering Russia’s soft power. 

UNICEF reported  Sputnik V’s highest price to be 29 dollars on the private market in Pakistan but is more readily available at 10 dollars per dose. Its affordability and portability — without the need for special freezers — makes it more accessible than Germany’s Pfizer produced offering or the Moderna candidate in the US. 

Now European countries, specifically in the Western Balkans, have been taking measures to ensure the Sputnik V vaccine is available to citizens as accessing EMA-approved vaccines has been difficult.

Sputnik V better abroad 

However, in Moscow, even though vaccines are readily available, people are not lining up to get them. 

Russian Molecular biologist, Konstantin Severinov, said the lack of vaccinations was down to outstanding public hesitations for Russian goods and medicines. 

“Over the years whenever they were given the choice of having a Russian drug, of which, there are not many, or a Russian vaccine, let’s say a flu vaccine or a foreign vaccine would always go for the foreign product even though it may be more expensive”, he told Brussels Morning, adding this was a deeply ingrained feeling and likely an important cause often echoed through social media. 

This existing hesitancy was likely the reason for the Russian media’s drive to discredit western vaccines backfiring. Instead of increasing public desire for Sputnik V, skepticism around all COVID-19 vaccines prevailed. Other reasons for low vaccination deployment lie in the sheer lack of state capacity to produce the necessary volume of vaccine to keep global and local supply chains operational.  

Hungary has managed to vaccinate 32% of its population, with 51% having received at least one dose. Much of this has stemmed from the country’s access to alternative vaccines like Sputnik or Sinopharm and their regular deviation from EU rules. 

If the Green Certificate enabling free travel this summer only works on EMA approved vaccine producer, Hungary’s and citizens of other countries’ ignoring EU-mandated guidance may have to stay at home until such Sputnik or Sinopharm is approved. 

Hungary is working on its roll out of their state-based certificate to provide proof of vaccinations, but is falling short so far, as member states like Austria and Romania, who originally seemed on board with free travel between the states without a socialled ‘vaccine passport’, are leaning towards the European standards for the Green Certificate

The rollout of the Green Certificate comes with its own concerns, including its digital makeup, raising privacy issues and cyber security concerns as well as discrimination according to vaccine access.

While the detail is being ironed out, Russia and China could well expand their influence through their vaccine diplomacy.


This article is part of a partnership between the Observatory on Contemporary Crises and Brussels Morning newspaper, where SLU-Madrid graduate student Catherine McQueeny runs the biweekly “International Wire” column. The original article appeared first on Brussels Morning.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  C. McQueeny (2021), “Russian vaccine diplomacy undermines EU freedom of movement”.

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