The medical success of Sputnik V would—like any other coronavirus vaccine—doubtless benefit mankind, but its use as a geopolitical soft-power weapon would certainly further worsen the already critically bad relations between Russia and the West.
Sport was politicised during the Cold War by communist countries, especially the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic, in order to demonstrate their superiority over the “decaying” West. Communist regimes tried to create a positive image of themselves by displaying apparent progress and love of peace. The Kremlin’s ace card, however, was the conquest of outer space when the first man-made apparatus—a satellite called Sputnik 1—was launched on a short trip above the Earth’s atmosphere in 1957.
Sixty-three years later, Russia launched a fast and, figuratively speaking, high-trajectory medical sputnik. Sputnik V was the world’s first registered vaccine against the SARS-Cov-2 virus. The Russian authorities gave their blessing to the vaccine prepared at the Gamaleya Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology on 11 August 2020, just 55 days after the start of initial clinical trials. The third and last phase of clinical trials began in September. Moscow decided not to wait for final results of the trials and started to administer the vaccine to city dwellers in December. It was approved by Belarus, Russia’s satellite state, before Christmas.
The Kremlin then began an aggressive propaganda campaign accompanied by information operations that left no room for misinterpretation of Russia’s stance and goals. The fight against the pandemic became yet another Kremlin geopolitical playground.
The Lancet Offers Credibility to Sputnik V
Moscow chose the vaccine’s name in an obvious direct reference to the Soviet Union’s high point during the Cold War, when the Kremlin was struggling against the West for influence in the Third World. Russia’s sales technique also recalls those times. The quickly developed vaccine received a well-known brand name, but it also needed credibility and the inevitable questions and doubts to be answered.
The British polling company YouGov conducted research in 17 countries around the globe in January to determine preferences for vaccines developed by several countries. It found that people on different continents trusted vaccines made by Germany and other democratic countries, and generally mistrusted those developed by Russia, India and China.
Moscow understood that the West could provide Sputnik V with credibility, first through scientific approval and thereafter through acceptance by certain European countries that could also start to produce it.
A long article by Russian scientists was published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet on 2 February 2021. The journal had also published an article on 4 September 2020, three days before Russia started the last clinical trial phase, stating that Sputnik V “generated certain immunity”. The article published in February raised many questions in the West, because development of Sputnik V was not yet complete and the process in Russia differed considerably from those in Europe and North America (in terms of transparency, credibility of presented data etc.)
Lack of Transparency
The Lancet had to add a commentary claiming that the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine seemed to be safe and effective, but recognising that the Russian vaccine had been criticised for obviously rushed development, including corner-cutting and a lack of transparency.
It is also interesting to look at the sponsors of the Sputnik V project, because Western vaccines are developed and produced by private companies and Western governments play the role of customers.
Moscow claims that the Sputnik V project is financed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), but the list of sponsors in The Lancet includes Sberbank and the City of Moscow Health Board.
The list of sponsors was most likely corrected, because in February (the online version) it also included the aluminium giant RUSAL, whose main shareholder, the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, has also been involved in other Kremlin geopolitical games. Then-president Donald Trump lifted US sanctions against Deripaska in January 2019. It cannot be ruled out that other Russian oligarchs and (state-owned) firms also participate in the project.
The RDIF claims on its webpage to be a “sovereign wealth fund” created in 2011 that organises joint equity investments primarily in Russia, and engages with prominent international and strategic investors. Open sources do not indicate any prominent foreign investors in Russia’s vaccine project, and The Lancet’s interest in promoting Sputnik V prematurely raises some questions. The Kremlin is, of course, very satisfied, claiming that The Lancet deals only with science, not politics.
Mass Production Outside Russia
Mass production in Russia has never been good apart from weapons and weapon systems, which are the country’s main exports in addition to natural resources. Russia now has seven centres for the production of Sputnik V. The latest was opened in Volginsk, not far from Moscow, in late February.
There are undoubtedly lots of qualified specialists and modern technical appliances in these centres, but since Soviet times Russia’s dispersed mass production has always been plagued by uneven quality and, especially, quality control. Is it any different now? Is Sputnik V as sure a saviour of human lives as the Kalashnikov automatic rifle proved as a killing machine? In addition, the Kremlin is exerting political and administrative pressure on Sputnik V production centres to produce as much and as quickly as possible to fulfil a list of foreign contracts that grows longer each day.
Russia’s own production capacity of Sputnik V is probably rather low. This is only a presumption, because it is almost impossible to find any credible and concrete data in open sources. However, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov gave a hint by saying that foreign demand for Sputnik V greatly exceeded the offer (i.e. Russia’s own production capacity). The RDIF announced in February that it had signed agreements with 15 pharmaceutical companies in ten countries for the production of 1.4 billion doses of Sputnik V. Hence, Russia is on the way to organising the mass production of its vaccine abroad.
The largest Western producers (Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna) should produce at least five billion doses of their vaccines in 2021, but their production is under very stringent and effective quality control. There should be no doubt about this because human life is the West’s main value. Anyone may win in court against his or her country in the West, but this is never the case in Russia. That is why nobody should be surprised that Russia is clearly placing emphasis on exporting Sputnik V vaccines, although the level of vaccination in Russia is low (only 1.5% of the population had received at least one dose by mid-February, compared to 43% in Israel, 20% in the UK and 10% in the US).
The Kremlin promised to vaccinate 68 million of Russia’s inhabitants by the end of 2021, but this figure looks like fantasy and is in contradiction with Russia’s policy on vaccine exports. It is true that vaccination is unpopular in Russia (in August 2020 only 30% of the population—including only 25% of medical personnel—supported it), but the state and local authorities seem to do nothing about this.
Even president Vladimir Putin refused to set a positive example. He was finally vaccinated in March 2021, but the Kremlin refused to specify whether he was administered Sputnik V or another vaccine. The old (Soviet) principle still holds: the Kremlin’s political ambitions take priority, not the needs of ordinary people.
In conclusion, Russia’s aim is to grow day by day the list of countries in distress that are willing to buy—and eventually also produce—Sputnik V. Every country counts: San Marino has fewer inhabitants that the small Estonian city of Pärnu, but it is a sovereign state and in severe difficulty due to the pandemic. Russia sells its product at a reasonable price (about 10 US dollars for two doses), which is affordable for many poor countries, especially in Africa.
Western countries produce coronavirus vaccines mainly for their own use, and relatively small quantities of doses are available for sale or for humanitarian aid to poor countries. In addition, Pfizer and other Western vaccines are and probably will continue to be more expensive than Sputnik V. The costs of labour and quality production in the West are considerably higher than in Russia, and vaccines are produced by the private sector as opposed to the state project conducted by the Kremlin.
Saviour of the World
Vaccines against the coronavirus are medicines that are developed and produced for saving human lives. Let us indeed hope that Sputnik V is effective, because millions of people have already had it. The European Medicines Agency has not yet approved it, because the EU’s standards are rightly high.
Some EU member states even tend to overreact, for example in the case of the AstraZeneca vaccine; this increases the pressure to purchase (and produce) Sputnik V in the EU. It is, however, remarkable that the Sputnik V and AstraZeneca vaccines were developed using a largely similar microbiological technology approach, which was different from that used for other types of vaccine.
Russia criticises Brussels for “politicising” the handling of Sputnik V’s certification. The Kremlin seems to ignore the fact that media channels under its control make (or allow to be made) absurd and grotesque claims against Western vaccines. People in Russia’s information space are scared with reports of “poisonous” Western vaccines.
The West prefers not to react to Russia’s (dis)information operations. It is dealing with healthcare while Moscow actively promotes its “vaccine diplomacy”, as it is known in the West. Russia is seeking to inject a greater lack of confidence and more discrepancy and disunity in Europe. The Slovakian government, for example, took two different positions: the prime minister said that Sputnik V had nothing to do with politics, but the foreign minister described the Russian vaccine as an instrument of hybrid warfare.
The West has not learned much from the Kremlin’s propaganda tricks in Italy in the spring of 2020, when convoys of Russian military doctors and other personnel (surely accompanied by GRU officers) made their way from Rome to Bergamo flying Russian flags. Moscow wants to be on the big screen, waving its flag and playing the role of world saviour. The mass production of Sputnik V for export is obviously more a political project than a business one. The high priority accorded to other countries at the expense of Russia’s own population speaks for itself.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).