Sputnik V’s Biggest Legacy May Be Political Turmoil

In Eastern European countries that have accepted the Russian vaccine, destabilization has followed.

By Dalibor Rohac, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
A Slovak Armed Forces aircraft unloads doses of the Sputnik V vaccine at the Kosice International Airport in Slovakia, on March 1.
A Slovak Armed Forces aircraft unloads doses of the Sputnik V vaccine at the Kosice International Airport in Slovakia, on March 1. Peter Lazar/AFP/Getty Images

Given the European Union’s underwhelming COVID-19 vaccine rollout performance and its shambolic communications undermining trust in the AstraZeneca shot, it easy to understand why the union’s national governments have taken matters into their own hands.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken self-reliance to an extreme. In January, well before the vaccines were ready for shipment, the strongman struck deals for 2 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and 5 million doses of China’s Sinopharm, bypassing both the European Commission’s procurement and the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) approval processes. With 4.2 million doses administered, the nation of 9.7 million people has vaccinated more of its citizens than all other EU member states.

Other governments are following suit: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has reportedly concluded negotiations for around 1 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. And on a recent call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the process of the vaccine’s authorization by European regulators and the prospect for it being manufactured in the EU.

On its face, looking East for an end to the pandemic might not be patently crazy. In a recent opinion poll in Slovakia, Sputnik V came second after Pfizer as the most “trustworthy” COVID-19 vaccine, trailed by Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson. Given the seeming overlap between people against vaccinations and pro-Russian voices in the region, Sputnik V’s availability might be key to bringing skeptics on board and achieving herd immunity.

Yet Russian vaccine diplomacy carries significant risks for countries that become involved with it. As of now, Sputnik V has proven to be far better at destabilizing Eastern European governments than at protecting their populations from the coronavirus.

First, there is the question of the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. While a widely cited Lancet study suggesting a 91.6 percent effectiveness against symptomatic COVID-19 is encouraging, the EMA likely has good reasons not to rush into authorizing its use. The agency lacked sufficient information about the vaccine needed to start its rolling review until early March. It is standard practice to inspect the conditions the vaccine is being manufactured under and pour over the background information on clinical trials conducted in Russia

Yet, as the EMA does its work, red flags are already apparent. Slovakia’s medicines agency, ŠÚKL, assessed the samples from a shipment purchased by the Slovak government and concluded the vials’ content was different from the vaccine used in the Lancet study. Batches manufactured at different plants seemed inconsistent; moreover, basic information, including information about the vaccine’s stability and expiration, was lacking.

Anecdotally, it is hard to reconcile Russia’s possession of an extremely effective and easy to manufacture vaccine with the country’s low vaccination rates. Only 4.7 percent of Russians have received at least their first dose, compared to 15.5 percent in the EU. Those figures may testify to the extremely cosmopolitan and altruistic outlook of Russian authorities, who prioritized offering shots to other nations. It is more likely though that the numbers are an indication of the Russian population’s extreme level of distrust of the vaccine (which may or may not be justified) or the Russian government’s total disregard for its citizenry in its pursuit of geopolitical goals—or a combination of both.

Furthermore, Hungary’s lead in vaccinations, relying primarily on Chinese and Russian shots, has not translated into better performance in curbing the spread of the virus relative to neighboring countries—quite the contrary. While daily cases have fallen lately, the per-million rate of new cases is still among the highest globally, and daily deaths are close to their all-time peak. Similarly, Serbia sped ahead with its own vaccination program using Chinese and Russian-made vaccines earlier this year, yet had to go into a lockdown in mid-March.

Second comes the political question. The Sputnik V vaccine comes with baggage that is proving too difficult to handle by Eastern European governments wary of becoming indebted to Russia. Driven by traditional geopolitical concerns, Poland has ruled out using the Russian vaccine, and the government has been skeptical of the Chinese-made Sinopharm because of a lack of reliable data. Czech leaders, most notably the country’s pro-Russian and pro-Chinese President Milos Zeman, have expressed interest in both, although the Czech governing coalition has been divided on the subject.

Oddly, although the president plays only a ceremonial role within the Czech constitutional system, Zeman started to push the agenda in an unusually forceful way. Last month, he stated in an interview that those opposed to the use of the Russian vaccine (explicitly mentioning Health Minister Jan Blatny and the head of the Czech Republic’s own SÚKL, Irena Storova) were directly responsible for the deaths of Czech citizens. “The solution lies,” he said, “in the dismissal of both,” a prerogative of the prime minister, not of the head of state.

Yet, a few weeks later, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis obliged and replaced Blatny with physician Petr Arenberger, who already started exploring avenues through which the Russian vaccine could be bought and approved for emergency use in the Czech Republic. Escalating the situation on Monday, Babis fired Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, a critic of the government’s outreach to Russia.

Developments in the Czech Republic follow closely those in Slovakia. At the end of February, then-Prime Minister Igor Matovic purchased 2 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, presenting leaders of his party’s coalition with a fait accompli in front of a Slovak military plane that had just returned from Moscow with the first 200,000 doses. The deal had been struck behind the back of the country’s foreign minister, the staunchly Atlanticist and pro-EU Ivan Korcok, who was left with no option but to resign.

In the coalition crisis that ensued, Matovic agreed to leave his position and take over the finance ministry. As a result, the government was quickly reconstituted under a new prime minister, Eduard Heger, who left most of the previously serving ministers, including Korcok, in place.

Yet, that was not the end of the Sputnik V saga. Matovic has continued to attack the leadership of Slovakia’s ŠÚKL, which wanted to defer to the EMA about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. Last week, presumably in his capacity as former prime minister, Matovic traveled to Moscow, sidelining Korcok and Slovak diplomats in Russia once again. Not only that, later that week he also visited Orban in Budapest. He was not accompanied by the Slovak ambassador or another diplomat as would be customary on such occasions. Rather, in his retinue was a Hungarian nationalist member of the Slovak parliament from Matovic’s own party, Juraj Gyimesi. In a Facebook video, Orban said a state-of-the-art laboratory in Hungary would assess Sputnik V vaccines for Slovakia.

This stunning act of vaccine “diplomacy” by a finance minister was possibly illegal as it reached far out of the enumerated competencies of his government department. More importantly, it was an act of domestic political arson, putting both the foreign minister and the prime minister into an impossible situation. It also prompted an unprecedented open letter by the country’s current ambassadors, who called Matovic’s improvised outreach “an insult of Slovak diplomacy, … a humiliation of Slovakia, and a threat to its national interests.”

Whether Sputnik V ends up fracturing Slovakia’s and the Czech Republic’s fragile governing coalitions for good is unclear. Yet, the New York Times has it exactly backward when it calls recent developments a “setback” for Russia’s vaccine diplomacy. With two Eastern European governments in disarray, one pro-Western foreign minister gone, and another one placed between a rock and a hard place, the Kremlin could hardly have hoped for a better outcome.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies European political and economic trends. He is also a research associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels and a fellow at Anglo-American University in Prague. Twitter: @DaliborRohac