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With Sputnik V, Russia Shot Itself in the Foot

High prices, delayed deliveries, and questions about efficacy raise suspicions about Russia’s vaccine diplomacy in Africa.

By , a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford.
A shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines arrives at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 9.
A shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines arrives at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 9. Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

In the first half of 2021, Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has made significant inroads in Africa. As of May, its Sputnik V shot had been formally authorized in 16 countries there, and its new one-dose Sputnik Light has been approved by Angola and Mauritius. In February, Russia offered the African Union 300 million Sputnik V doses and provided a financing package for countries that wished to distribute these shots. These distributions, which have occurred amid persistently high infection and low vaccination rates in Russia, contrast markedly with the slow pace of U.S. and European vaccine deliveries to Africa.

The proactive nature of Russia’s vaccine distribution program in Africa has alarmed Western governments. In February, French President Emmanuel Macron warned of a “war over vaccines” and urged Europe to supply COVID-19 doses to Africa in order to counter Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy. And when asked about Russian and Chinese vaccine deliveries in March, White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed concerns about those nations’ use of vaccines as a tool of diplomatic engagement.

A closer examination of Russia’s vaccine diplomacy efforts offers a more ambiguous picture. On the surface, Russia has two advantages over its competitors. First, the Kremlin has centralized its vaccine deliveries under the umbrella of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). Centralization helps boost Russia’s image as an aid donor and allows the Kremlin to take full credit for innovations, which in the United States would be achieved by universities or private companies. Second, Russia has a long history of successful medical diplomacy in Africa, which originated with its dispatch of doctors after the First Italo-Ethiopian War in the 1890s. The Soviet Union played a pivotal role in eradicating smallpox in Africa and constructed hospitals throughout the continent. At the Dejazmach Balcha Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a portrait of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hung proudly during his time in office. More recently, Russian aluminum giant Rusal has overseen Ebola vaccine trials in Guinea.

In the first half of 2021, Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has made significant inroads in Africa. As of May, its Sputnik V shot had been formally authorized in 16 countries there, and its new one-dose Sputnik Light has been approved by Angola and Mauritius. In February, Russia offered the African Union 300 million Sputnik V doses and provided a financing package for countries that wished to distribute these shots. These distributions, which have occurred amid persistently high infection and low vaccination rates in Russia, contrast markedly with the slow pace of U.S. and European vaccine deliveries to Africa.

The proactive nature of Russia’s vaccine distribution program in Africa has alarmed Western governments. In February, French President Emmanuel Macron warned of a “war over vaccines” and urged Europe to supply COVID-19 doses to Africa in order to counter Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy. And when asked about Russian and Chinese vaccine deliveries in March, White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed concerns about those nations’ use of vaccines as a tool of diplomatic engagement.

A closer examination of Russia’s vaccine diplomacy efforts offers a more ambiguous picture. On the surface, Russia has two advantages over its competitors. First, the Kremlin has centralized its vaccine deliveries under the umbrella of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). Centralization helps boost Russia’s image as an aid donor and allows the Kremlin to take full credit for innovations, which in the United States would be achieved by universities or private companies. Second, Russia has a long history of successful medical diplomacy in Africa, which originated with its dispatch of doctors after the First Italo-Ethiopian War in the 1890s. The Soviet Union played a pivotal role in eradicating smallpox in Africa and constructed hospitals throughout the continent. At the Dejazmach Balcha Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a portrait of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hung proudly during his time in office. More recently, Russian aluminum giant Rusal has overseen Ebola vaccine trials in Guinea.

Yet beneath the surface, Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy is unlikely to emulate those past successes and could even harm Russia’s standing on the continent. Its vaccine deliveries have been consistently smaller than its lofty targets, and the unit and local production costs of Sputnik V vaccines are excessively high. This makes competitor vaccines more attractive. Moreover, it is unlikely that Russia’s vaccine distributions will overcome entrenched negative perceptions of its role in Africa. And South Africa’s delays in authorizing Sputnik V on efficacy grounds is a significant blow to Moscow’s vision of vaccine cooperation.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia has struggled to convert pledges into action in the medical assistance sphere. In April 2020, the Russian foreign ministry boasted that 12 countries in the Middle East and North Africa wanted Russian assistance against the pandemic, and several African countries had requested medical aid against COVID-19. In stark contrast to China’s, Turkey’s, and the United Arab Emirates’ swift deliveries of humanitarian aid, though, Russia failed to live up to its promises. Russia’s negotiations with Algeria on medical supplies, which began in March 2020, produced no results. On June 18, 2020, Ethiopia said that it was still looking forward to coronavirus-related medical aid, which had been requested on April 16.

This pattern of overpromising and underdelivering has extended to Russia’s vaccine diplomacy. On Jan. 10, Algeria became the first African country to authorize Sputnik V. Algeria’s budget director, Abdulaziz Fayed, announced plans to distribute 500,000 vaccines free of charge. By April 7, only 50,000 doses had arrived in Algeria, and the large-scale local production of Sputnik V vaccines was delayed until the fall of 2021. This trend repeated itself elsewhere; the combined deliveries of Sputnik V to three of large markets, Tunisia, Algeria, and Guinea, stood at just 100,000 by March 12. Although the African Union recently praised Russia’s stabilizing role in Africa and its eagerness to cooperate with Moscow on security issues, the Sputnik V vaccine deal has so far had little impact.

Another challenge that undermines Russia’s vaccine diplomacy is Sputnik V’s high costs. The cost per dose of Sputnik V is $9.75, or $19.50 for full vaccination, which is significantly higher than $6.75 per dose for Pfizer, $3 per dose for AstraZeneca, or $10 for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Kenya even ordered a halt on Sputnik V use on April 6, as the vaccine was distributed to private companies that charged up to $70 a dose in Nairobi clinics.

Meanwhile, the RDIF overestimated the capacity of African countries to locally produce Sputnik V, which has further delayed deliveries and increased its cost. Although the RDIF signed a memorandum with Pharco Pharmaceuticals in November 2020, which would make Egypt a production hub for Sputnik V in Africa, Russia did not transfer the technological know-how to produce the vaccine to Egyptian public health professionals. As a result, Egypt’s mass rollout of Sputnik V will be delayed until the third quarter of 2021. The RDIF’s efforts to establish local production facilities in Morocco, which was its first-choice African hub for Sputnik V, and Nigeria have faced similar bottlenecks.

Due to these operational challenges, Russia has failed to capitalize on its early distribution advantage in Africa, and other foreign competition has crowded out its vaccines. On March 29, the African Union struck a deal with Johnson & Johnson that would result in the supply of 400 million doses beginning in the third quarter of 2021. The G-7’s pledge to distribute 870 million vaccines to the global south will further marginalize Sputnik V, while Sinopharm has already gained traction in key potential Russian markets, such as Egypt. Even in countries where Russia has an established geopolitical presence, Sputnik V now trails the competition.

Due to these highly publicized failures, Russia’s vaccine diplomacy in Africa is likely to compound, rather than ameliorate, Moscow’s unpopularity on the continent. A 2019 Pew Research survey revealed that Russia was viewed favorably by just 33 percent of South Africans, 38 percent of Kenyans, 41 percent of Nigerians, and 42 percent of Tunisians. Even in Uganda, an authoritarian country that has courted closer relations with Moscow in recent years, Russia’s favorability rating was below 40 percent in 2015, the last year for which data is available. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal popularity was below 30 percent in that year’s survey. Russia’s image has not improved in spite of the rising popularity in Africa of the Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik, and Moscow’s professed interest in partnerships on the continent, including through the October 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia.

These low popularity ratings stem from public mistrust of Russia’s socioeconomic model and backlash against its election interference and involvement in proxy wars. Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts could exacerbate the soft power deficit by undermining key tenets of Moscow’s appeal on the continent. Russia’s standing as a reliable ally to economically isolated and anti-Western countries, which was reinforced by its resolute support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been undermined by its pattern of overpromising and underdelivering on COVID-19 aid. The sincerity of Russia’s stated opposition to Western neocolonialism is also undermined by ever-inflating Sputnik V vaccine prices.

Russia’s faltering vaccine rollout in Africa also undermines Putin’s vision for expanded cooperation in the arena of public health. During the November 2020 BRICS summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, Putin urged the other nations to mass-produce the Sputnik V vaccine and asked BRICS countries to share their vaccine technologies. India has enthusiastically embraced Sputnik V. However, Brazil’s Sputnik V approval was marred by regulatory battles, and China and South Africa have not authorized the vaccine. This ensures that Russia’s and China’s vaccine distribution campaigns in Africa will progress along parallel competitive tracks. South Africa’s non-ratification of Sputnik V, which was due to uncertainties about its effectiveness against its local variant and the World Health Organization’s unwillingness to approve it for use, further undermines Russia’s vaccine diplomacy efforts.

Despite the publicity surrounding Russia’s vaccine diplomacy in Africa, Moscow’s response to the COVD-19 pandemic is unlikely to help it expand its influence on the continent. The impending proliferation of Western vaccines across the global south will likely prevent Sputnik V from capitalizing on concerns about the inefficacy of China’s Sinovac vaccine and ensure that Russia plays a peripheral role in ending the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa.

Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Russia’s foreign policy toward Africa. Twitter: @samramani2

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