Sputnik V’s Twitter feed pumps out messages once or twice an hour — ‘A planeload of vaccines lands in Armenia!’ — or retweets good news from partner countries. The Mexican Health Ministry claims that Sputnik V is the only vaccine with a 0% chance of producing serious adverse side effects.
What Russia can no longer achieve with its declining military strength, Flemming Splidsboel Hansen at the Danish Institute for International Studies writes, it now seeks through cognitive and digital means.
First in line for the Russian jab have been Moscow’s long-time allies. “The vaccines underline the anti-Western bloc’s scientific prowess. Ideology demands it be portrayed as greater than the West’s,” says Félix Arellano, a professor of international relations at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas.
He adds: “Russia’s posture, in offering up highly effective vaccines at a low price for countries like Venezuela, is media-driven. It’s how Russia and its allies seek to show that authoritarian governments can also grow in the scientific realm, that it’s possible to grow without democracy.”
Argentina, under a proto-socialist government, was the first to send a team to Moscow to translate Sputnik V’s technical documentation to Spanish and set up its own production facilities.
Other countries soon followed suit, including Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, and even US allies like Peru, Chile, and Colombia. The last three were the final seal of approval on an operation that is succeeding largely thanks to the West’s navel-gazing inaction.
“At this point the discussion, at least in Peru, grants the need to negotiate to secure whatever vaccine is on offer,” explains Oscar Vidarte, a professor of international relations at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú in Lima.
For Colombia, buying into Sputnik V serves two purposes, immunising a vulnerable population and rebuilding bilateral links with Moscow. “We’re Washington’s key ally in the region,” says Mauricio Jaramillo, who teaches international relations at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, “but the U.S. is not trying to leverage vaccines to project its power or earn prestige.”
The West hasn’t so much lost this fight as forfeited it. The World Health Organization (WHO) COVAX initiative amounts to a clearinghouse for the West’s leftovers.
The Biden administration has pledged some $4 billion to COVAX, but the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledges that ‘when there are no vaccines to buy, money is irrelevant.’
It is not just access to ample supply that is tilting the field in Moscow’s favour, it is how the Russians approach supply agreements, making sure to portray deals not as charity, but as partnerships among equals, say experts.
Meanwhile, Sputnik V’s successes keep mounting. The European Union’s shambolic vaccine roll-out has brought even some member countries like Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, and the Czech Republic knocking on Moscow’s door. Each has had to negotiate unilaterally for its share.
Italy and Spain are now considering doing the same, and the European Medicines Agency has had no choice but to formally consider certifying the Russian vaccine, softening its line in the wake of Crimea and Navalny.
To be sure, liberal democracy need not fear for its life from the Russian vaccine. But the West has left a huge leadership vacuum at a moment of acute crisis that Russia is determined to exploit.
Western democracies, and particularly the United States, have lost too many opportunities to the pandemic — not least among them the chance to back their allies, firm up their influence and position themselves as the go-to model for how to manage a crisis that, many scientists fear, could be repeated sooner than many realise.
This article was originally published in community blog Persuasion and Inter Press Service.