Russian President Vladimir Putin is using “vaccine diplomacy” to improve Russia’s global status. Photo credit: Pixabay
The COVID-19 crisis created an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand his sphere of influence. As countries turned inward, consolidating resources and vaccinating their populations first, Moscow chose to embark on a campaign of “vaccine diplomacy.” This new buzzword describes how countries use vaccines to strengthen regional ties and, in the process, enhance their own power and global status.[i] By offering its vaccine, Sputnik V, to countries around the globe, Russia is making allies and creating economic ties. In short, Sputnik V gives Moscow soft power, or the ability to shape others’ preferences through attraction rather than coercion.[ii] Russia has distributed Sputnik V to over 50 countries thus far, including parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.[iii] In contrast, the United States has mostly failed to lead or spread its vaccines worldwide.
But beyond the soft power capability “vaccine diplomacy” offers, Sputnik V plays perfectly into Putin’s playbook for Russia. Putin desires a strong, well-respected, and dominant Russia on the world stage. As an authoritarian leader, Putin needs the Russian people content and enraptured by his own political ingenuity. He also wants threats to this vision (including the United States and our European allies) to lose influence. It is in Putin’s interest to outcompete the U.S. and Europe in spreading vaccines. So far, it is working. European Union countries remain divided over whether to accept Sputnik V, propaganda surrounding Western vaccinations runs rampant, and the United States is conspicuously absent as a global leader. The Biden administration must not accept that Sputnik V will improve Russia’s global status. Instead, the United States can fight back by distributing Western vaccines, combating Russian propaganda efforts, and rebuilding relationships with allies and international institutions. But first, it is important to understand how Sputnik V helps Putin’s vision for a stronger, well-connected Russia.
Expanding Russia’s Soft Power
Exporting Sputnik V enables Russian soft power. Selling vaccines to needy countries lifts Russia’s diplomatic image, wins friends and allies, and offers potential trade ties in the future. In some ways, it is a “cynical ploy” because Moscow is not simply giving its vaccine away out of the goodness of its heart but expects to gain diplomatic advantage.[iv] Soft power is particularly useful to Putin because it has been lacking in years past and Russia has typically favored the hard power of military might or economic coercion through oil and gas exports.[v] But now, Moscow is cultivating relations with important U.S. allies, including the EU and India. Russia has successfully made deals to distribute 1.2 billion doses of the Sputnik V vaccine to more than 50 countries.[vi] It is clear that Russian state television is thrilled by the vaccine’s reach, recently reporting that “Sputnik is entering new orbits!” while showing thousands of doses loaded onto an airplane for Argentina.[vii] Simply put, Russian vaccines are attractive to many countries purely because they are available, and Russia is happy to oblige.
Moscow’s eagerness to spread Sputnik V not only aids its diplomatic image, but also illustrates the West as unsympathetic and incapable at spreading its own vaccines. The Trump administration started an isolationist policy of buying vaccines only for American use, which fed into the narrative that the American-led order is incompetent and withdrawn.[viii] If Russia continues to expand its soft power through Sputnik V while the U.S. remains possessive over its own vaccines, Putin may succeed at sowing doubt and resentment in the West. It seems Russia will be expanding its own sphere of influence at the West’s expense.
Dividing the European Union
Furthermore, Putin benefits from divisions forming in the EU over accepting Sputnik V. Publicly, the EU dismissed Sputnik V as “a propaganda stunt by an undesirable regime.”[ix] Behind the curtain though, the bloc is considering accepting the shot, desperate to vaccinate 450 million people.[x] German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the most influential members of the EU, said in February that she would consider using Sputnik V.[xi] European Union countries Hungary and Slovakia already received shipments of Sputnik V, and the Czech Republic’s president called for its use.[xii] This all comes at a time in which the EU has been criticized for a slow vaccine roll-out, while Parisian hospitals are near overload and Italy is intensifying lockdowns.[xiii]
If many European Union states receive Sputnik V, it would be a diplomatic triumph for Russia, as its image in the eyes of Europeans has suffered recently over jailing Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.[xiv] Having European leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán say that “there’s no such thing as an Eastern vaccine or a Western vaccine – there are only good vaccines and bad vaccines” aids Putin’s goal to expand Russia’s influence over the region.[xv] But just the simple fact of European divisions, unsure of whether to give Moscow a diplomatic win, helps Russia. The United States seeks to keep the EU unified, but divisions eat into Western cohesion. At a time where the EU sanctioned Russia over Navalny, it is beneficial for the EU to be unclear on its next move. And so, Russia will continue to supply Sputnik V to where it can in Europe, as it undermines what is most important to the European Union – unity.
Illustrating Russia’s Technological and Scientific Prowess
Ultimately, Sputnik V’s success creates the perception that Russia is a technologically adept country. Few countries have created successful vaccines, so the fact that The Lancet medical journal recently published data showing Sputnik V to be 91.6% effective speaks volumes.[xvi] Russia also claimed to develop the vaccine last August, beating out similar Western vaccines.[xvii] This means that countries cannot dismiss Sputnik V as a propaganda-driven, poorly tested, and ineffective vaccine. Because Russia wants to be a technological leader, this vaccine is an impressive achievement. It will prove difficult for adversarial states like the U.S. to shed doubt about Moscow’s scientific prestige. Just like its namesake, Sputnik V evokes images of Russia’s glory days, of the space race, and of the country’s technological prowess in sending the first satellite into space.
So, what can the Biden administration do to successfully limit Russian soft power? First, the United States should spread its own vaccines to improve American soft power. This would establish regional ties and globally expand American influence. In February, the Biden administration promised it would donate $4 billion internationally to speed up manufacturing and distributing vaccines.[xviii] Additionally, Biden can donate excess vaccines to needy nations. Taking steps like transferring technological know-how, setting up production lines, and donating vaccines is an important investment that would save lives, revive economies, and protect American lives from new variants while spreading American influence.[xix] The U.S. should take a leaf out of Russia’s book and use the vaccine to restore America’s diplomatic image.
Second, the United States should fight Russian propaganda and disinformation, which threatens to inhibit American vaccination manufacturing and deployment efforts. The U.S. and Europe have accused Russia of state-backed disinformation campaigns directed at undermining Western vaccines.[xx] Ned Price of the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center said that “it is very clear that Russia is up to its old tricks” and is “putting people at risk by spreading disinformation about vaccines that we know to be saving lives.”[xxi] It is in Moscow’s interest to spread disinformation about Western vaccines because it presents Sputnik V as a superior alternative. In addition, it sows discord and dysfunction in the West as governments try to inoculate citizens.
Third, the United States should more broadly rebuild relations with allies in the EU and NATO and resume a leadership role. Because the U.S. was largely absent at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Russia was able to lead in cleanup and support. Now, rising powers like India and Brazil are relying on Russian vaccines to inoculate their citizens. The U.S. should return to the game, use its allies to gain strength in numbers, and work to rebuild divisions in the EU created by Sputnik V by promoting its own vaccines and that of Oxford/AstraZeneca.[xxii] It seems the Biden administration is aware of this goal; Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that Washington is determined to be an “international leader” on vaccinations in conjunction with American allies.[xxiii]
In the end, Sputnik V perfectly aided Putin’s vision for a stronger Russia. The United States should see Russian “vaccine diplomacy” as a hindrance to its own soft power and influence across the globe and act accordingly. Sputnik V is a threat, but it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to resume American leadership and once again put the United States at the forefront of geopolitics. It is time for Putin to come crashing back to Earth.
[i] Michael Jennings, “Vaccine diplomacy: how some countries are using COVID to enhance their soft power,” The Conversation, Feb. 22, 2021, https://theconversation.com/vaccine-diplomacy-how-some-countries-are-using-covid-to-enhance-their-soft-power-155697.
[ii] Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, (Basic Books: 1991).
[iii] Ryan Heath, “Unable to get U.S. vaccines, world turns to Russia and China,” Politico, Feb. 25, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/02/25/global-vaccine-public-relations-war-471665.
[iv] Michael Jennings, “Vaccine diplomacy.”
[v] Andrew Kramer, “Russia is Offering to Export Hundreds of Millions of Vaccine Doses, but Can It Deliver?” New York Times, Feb. 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/19/world/europe/russia-coronavirus-vaccine-soft-power.html.
[viii] Paul D. Shinkman, “Russia, U.S. Locked in Propaganda War Over Vaccines,” U.S. News, Mar. 12, 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2021-03-12/russia-accuses-us-of-propaganda-campaign-to-undermine-its-coronavirus-vaccine.
[ix] Francesco Guarascio, et al., “Unthinkable? EU considers getting a vaccine boost from Russia’s Sputnik,” Reuters, Mar. 15, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-eu-vaccines-insight-idINKBN2B70KV.
[xi] Arne Delfs, “Merkel Says Germany Ready to Look at Russia’s Sputnik Vaccine,” Bloomberg, Feb. 2, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-02/merkel-says-germany-ready-to-look-at-russia-s-sputnik-vaccine.
[xii] Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Michael Crowley, “Biden Takes First Tentative Steps to Address Global Vaccine Shortage,” New York Times, Mar. 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/us/politics/covid-19-vaccine-global-shortage.html.
[xiii] Francesco Guarascio, et al., “Unthinkable?”
[xv] Ryan Heath, “World turns to Russia and China.”
[xvii] Paul D. Shinkman, “Russia, U.S. Locked in Propaganda War.”
[xviii] Andrew Kramer, “Russia is Offering to Export Hundreds of Millions of Vaccine Doses.”
[xx] Michael Jennings, “Vaccine diplomacy.”
[xxi] Paul D. Shinkman, “Russia, U.S. Locked in Propaganda War.”
[xxii] Daniel W. Drezner, “The most important foreign policy decision in 2021,” Washington Post, Mar. 18, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/03/18/most-important-foreign-policy-decision-2021/.
[xxiii] Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Michael Crowley, “Biden Takes First Tentative Steps.”