The continuing deterioration of bilateral relations between the EU and Russia paralyzes, with cumulative effect, the mutual trust. The ongoing destabilization of security in Eastern Europe (particularly in Ukraine) by the Russian factor keeps the dialogue with the West frozen. At the same time, the consolidation of authoritarian traits, recently materialized by the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny (IPN, February 2021), makes the EU resort to diversifying sanctions (EU, March 2021), not to building "bridges". In the recent book signed by the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell, it is noted that Russia acts from a position of sovereigntist with the outside world (as well as China and Turkey), and domestically, in an authoritarian fashion. In the same critical tone, the EU perceives disinformation facilitated by the Kremlin-controlled media, which instrumentalize the pandemic for geopolitical purposes. Thus, the EU considers that Russia is using "vaccine diplomacy" to improve its "reputation" and "economic positions" at the international level, but also in order to denigrate vaccination efforts in the West and the allied Eastern European states.
Russia's "vaccine diplomacy" is adaptable and more flexible than the cautiously moving of European bureaucracy, which follows strict rules and is subject to multidirectional surveillance. So, the EU cannot act behind the backs of national governments, but in collaboration and with their permission. In contrast to the European co-decision model, the Russian authorities emerge from centralized orders and the setting of fluid tactical objectives. In this way, Russia manages to be in several places at the same time, adjusting its plans according to region and country. While in Latin America or the Orient the Russian vaccine has enjoyed comfortable confidence, in the West and its surrounding areas things seem rather forced. The more inefficient the pandemic is contained, the greater becomes the interest in "Sputnik V", promoted as the most effective remedy. Preventive measures to bring the Russian vaccine included misinformation about the epidemiological restrictions applied by Western governments. Thus, there is an increased perception of the possibility of social outbreaks, propelled by Russia to reduce the resistance of Western and pro-Western governments to the Russian vaccine. The hypothetical feasibility of such disturbing scenarios allowed Vladimir Putin to discuss with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron the eventual prospects for the registration and "joint production" of the Russian vaccine (Kremlin, March 2021).
Sputnik V in Moldova - which are the three major goals of Russia?
Almost a month after the registration of the Russian vaccine in Moldova (February 26, 2021), the Russian authorities finally broke the silence by promising a donation of 180 thousand doses of Sputnik V, including 60 thousand for the Transnistrian region (Socialistii.md, April 2021). Although the Russian donation is slightly below the volume of aid offered by Romania (200,000 vaccines), the popularity of the Russian vaccine among Moldovans is double that of vaccines received from the EU or through international platforms (COVAX). The latest polls show that confidence in Sputnik V is three times higher (31%) than in Pfizer/BioNTec and AstraZeneca (10%). Although in separate ways, the involvement of Moldovan political forces in requesting the donation of Sputnik V fuels Moscow's pride. Thus, while President Maia Sandu sent a request for help to Vladimir Putin and 29 other country leaders (March 25, 2021), the leader of the Socialists in Parliament, Speaker Zinaida Greceanii - addressed Russia strictly, at the end of February. Both political camps run their own "vaccine diplomats." President Sandu is seeking support in as many countries as possible, including Russia, but Western ones are preferable because of ideological reasons. Conversely, the Socialists Party emphasizes the Russian dimension (followed by the Chines one). Due to this fact, Moscow allowed the politicization of the Russian donation by the Socialist leader of the ex-president Igor Dodon (April 2021). However, neither the Putin administration nor the Russian producer rushed to confirm immediately the announcement of donations. Consequently, Moldovan pro-Russian forces can capitalize politically on this event, monopolizing the transfer of a positive image from the future reception of Sputnik V donations.
The “vaccine diplomacy” that Russia carries out towards Moldova (IPN, March 2021) has different geopolitical connotations than those pursued, for example, in Serbia or Hungary. In the latter cases, Russia's interest is to deepen divisions within the EU, discredit EU efforts to support vaccination in the neighborhood or stimulate Euroscepticism towards the European model of (crisis) governance. Russia's plans are based on another set of strategic calculations in Moldova:
First, Russia intends to exploit the consensus between pro-EU and pro-Russian forces on the approval of Sputnik V. Both President Sandu and the Socialists led by Igor Dodon need the Russian vaccine. In addition to accelerating vaccination among the sceptical population pursued by Sandu-Dodon, the Socialists want to use Sputnik V to glorify Russia and give it legitimacy in future Moldovan political narratives. In Moscow's view, Maia Sandu's support for the Russian vaccine serves regional geopolitical goals. Associated by Kremlin with European integration, President Sandu and her (recently) benevolent position towards Sputnik V already receive the qualification of a “pragmatic” gesture in the Russian press (RIAN, March 2021) and is used to condemn the reluctance of Ukraine and Georgia. Seemingly, Russia is eager to try to use the "Moldovan case" and the "pragmatism of pro-EU President Sandu" to stimulate pro-Sputnik V desires among Georgians and Ukrainians.
Second, the delivery of the Russian vaccine to Moldova will strengthen the positions of pro-Russian actors, which include the Socialists Party and the leadership of two pro-Russian regions - Gagauz autonomy and the Transnistrian region. Their viability ensures the continuity of Moscow's positions in Moldova. The pandemic has either diminished the political relevance of these actors or risks undermining the balance of power in the face of the country's robust pro-EU forces.
Third, and finally yet importantly, the Russian vaccine is of considerable electoral significance to pro-Russian forces. The announcement of the Russian donation coincides with the end of the attempts to appoint a new government. Once confirmed by the Constitutional Court, the possibility of dissolving the current parliament will create conditions for the holding of early elections, after the end of the state of emergency in June. Unlike the presidential election in 2020, dominated by the debates on fighting corruption, the snap elections (most likely in 2021) will focus on overcoming the pandemic crisis, especially the contribution of political forces to the vaccination of the population. President Sandu certainly keeps opened her political contacts with the Action and Solidarity Party (which according to the law she cannot lead overtly). However, she cannot make any massive transfer of legitimacy about the results of her "vaccine diplomacy" that involved Romania or the EU because of the risks of being accused of using administrative resources for electoral purposes. Therefore, the Socialists could benefit more than other political forces in case of early elections, if they manage to effectively attribute to themselves the merits for bringing the Russian vaccine.
The advance of the Russian vaccine - "diplomacy" or "rivalry"
As one of the few, if not the only effective soft power tool Russia disposes of at the moment, it promotes the Sputnik V vaccine on all political and diplomatic channels. Already approved in 59 states (as of April 1, 2021), Sputnik V has priority over the other Russian vaccines developed later - EpiVacCorona and CoviVak. The Russian side is carefully studying Western rhetoric targeting Sputnik V. French Foreign Minister Le Drian's statements about the Russian vaccine used as a "propaganda tool" or European Council President Charles Michel's remarks about "the limited number of vaccines, contrary to mass publicity" provoked harsh reactions from Moscow side (MID.ru, April 2021). Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said "discrimination" and "propaganda" were applied to the Russian vaccine.
In reality, the reluctance of the European institutions is not only caused by legitimate questions about the feasibility of production or the effectiveness of the vaccine but also by the extent of distrust of Russia's geopolitical intentions. In addition, to direct communication with Member States - Germany, France or Italy - Russia is making massive efforts to popularize Sputnik V. The most recent propaganda act is the publication of a survey conducted by Yougov conducted in nine countries (India, Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, Argentina, Algeria, United Arab Emirates and Serbia). The credibility of this survey is only partial because the selected countries either have approved the Russian vaccine or are in close relations with Russia. According to the survey results, Sputnik V is more recognized (73.6%) than Pfizer/BioNTec or AstraZeneca and ranks second in respondents' preferences (33.2%) after Pfizer/BioNTec. Other Yougov surveys covering a wider range of countries, including the West, show a distrust of vaccine production in Russia ranging from -12% in Spain to -60% in Denmark (Yougov, January 2021).
The rivalry between the "vaccination strategy" implemented by the EU and the "vaccine diplomacy" carried out by Russia demonstrates the contradictory objectives of the two geopolitical actors. Brussels prioritizes the safe and rapid vaccination of its population and the expansion of vaccination abroad. It is not so much the speed of vaccination that matters to Russia; its preoccupation revolves around the spread of the Russian vaccine. Therefore, the emphasis of Europeans is on ensuring sufficient production, while in the case of Moscow it matters the geography of approval and use of Sputnik V. Nonetheless, in both cases, humanitarian aid with vaccines is the expression of soft power, used to help others unconditionally (EU) or with some hidden costs (Russia).
In lieu of conclusions…
The Russian vaccine has a long way to go and is becoming visible and sought after, including by (pro-) Western political actors within the EU and its neighborhood. For this reason, the request for the Sputnik V vaccine by the President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, has taken on a geopolitical meaning for Russia. In doing so, the Russian side will try to weaken opposition to the Russian vaccine in countries led by pro-European forces, such as Ukraine or Georgia.
The rivalry between the EU and Russia in the field of vaccination will last and intensify, especially if Sputnik V is not approved at the European level, continuing to expand at the national level. An effective way to respond to Russia's action would be for Brussels to define its own "vaccine diplomacy", which is possible due to the massive investment in vaccine production and global exports. "Vaccine diplomacy" must not be seen strictly in a negative light. Instead, Brussels can apply it itself in line with European values and EU priorities in the field of external action. The use of the vaccine to promote European values, such as solidarity just as the financial assistance and conditionality serve to promote reforms beyond the pandemic context.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.