The Vaccine Waiting Game: Why Ukraine Banned Sputnik V

The Ukrainian government bans the Russian Sputnik V vaccine in hopes to limit Russian geopolitical leverage over the region. Meanwhile, the EU’s slow vaccine roll-out, disinformation, and internal challenges leave Ukraine without a concrete vaccine supply. 

Ukrainian authorities prohibited the registration and production of the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine on February 10th. Officials expressed concern that Russian jabs are a form of “hybrid weapon against Ukraine.” Ukraine enforced the official ban shortly after approving the special vaccine registration law, which can inhibit approval of an individual vaccine, on January 29th. 

The Russian vaccine, controversially the first success in the vaccination race, has the highest percent of skepticism among Russians. The Levada Center, a polling organization, concluded that only 38 percent of surveyed Russians claimed they will be vaccinated. Russia also has a disproportionally low vaccination rate of 2 percent of the 146 million population. 

However, the Kremlin began an intense international vaccination campaign, planning to administer its version to Mexico, Hungary, Belarus, and others. Russian importers offered the African Union up to 300,000 doses. The New York Times reported that over 50 countries in Asia and Latin America ordered more than a billion Russian doses. Despite high demand, Russia is incapable of high-volume production of vaccines for export even if it ignores domestic vaccination needs. The European Union officials frequently express their distrust for Russia’s readiness to distribute the vaccine while Russian COVID-19 infection numbers surpass 4.1 million.  

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a TV interview on January 12th that Ukraine will not obtain Sputnik V even if the vaccine is internationally approved, calling it a “propaganda factor.” Kuleba said by accepting vaccines from an aggressor-state, Ukraine will contribute to the Russian narrative that Western states did not provide adequate assistance to Ukraine in a time of need.  

In the evaluation of Russian donorship, the charitable organization Oxfam reported that Russia often overestimates the scale of their humanitarian help abroad, providing only 51.6 million dollars in 2012 compared to U.S.’s 3,922.1 million. Oxfam noted that the Russian humanitarian agenda is motivated by a goal of becoming a ‘great power,’ erasing the history of receiving humanitarian help from the West and forming a forced relationship with the aid recipients. The organization highlights that Russia seeks to publicly demean countries accepting their offer. 

Alliance for Securing Democracy researcher Thomas Morley wrote that since last spring, Russia was no stranger to “mask diplomacy” or donation of medical goods for combatting COVID-19. On March 22, Russia sent military ‘specialists’ and supplies to Italy to portray the EU’s response to the outbreak as weak in the media. Reportedly only 20 percent of medical goods were effective. 

Last April, Russia also sent an AN-124 Russian military plane to New York full of protective equipment and ventilators. The Kremlin’s propaganda deemed Russian humanitarian help as an act of kindness until the Foreign Ministry in Moscow announced that the U.S. paid for the supplies. The U.S. sent back the Russian ventilators due to reports of the machines catching on fire in Russia. The U.S. also sent over 200 ventilators to Russia in May when the country’s COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.  

Pavil Kovtoniuk, head of the Health Economics Center in Kyiv warns that accepting Russian vaccines will further define the geopolitical vector towards Russia or the West. Kovtoniuk said although Ukraine only secured eight million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, opting for a Russian vaccine could inhibit any other Western vaccine supply. Currently, 13 EU member-states in Central Europe and the Baltics urged for immediate allocation of vaccines to Ukraine. Similarly, Moldova was able to procure Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines via Romania.  

By banning Russian vaccines, Ukraine retains leverage to petition the EU for vaccinations. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on the EU to supply Ukraine with Western jabs to combat Russian political influence in the region. Although many publications claim that Ukraine will be left without Russian and EU vaccines, there is no guarantee that Ukraine would receive Sputnik V faster given its slow production and distribution rates. Furthermore, Russia’s COVID-19 humanitarian campaigns to Italy and the U.S. confirm propaganda and espionage objectives alongside poor medical quality records.  

Sputnik V already inherently violates Ukrainian nationhood as it is allegedly administered in non-government-controlled regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Although the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a Sputnik V vaccine sponsor abroad, claims that Donbas did not receive any dosages, self-proclaimed leader of Donetsk Denis Pushilin said the region receives new supplies daily. Russian occupation officials did confirm that residents of Crimea will be vaccinated. Ukrainians in Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk as well as Moldovans in Transnistria are deprived of an opportunity to attain European vaccinations. 

It is also important to note the credibility of Ukrainian officials in procuring the Russian shot. Russia-leaning opposition leader Viktor Medvechuk petitioned the Ukrainian government to approve Sputnik V in January. The Ukrainian government recently sanctioned Medvechuk, who financially supports the pharmaceutical company Biolik, for his role in the proliferation of Russian disinformation through three TV channels. That he allegedly owns. The National Security and Defense Council and Ukraine’s state security service (SBU) is investigating Medvechuk for the alleged illegal sale of coal from non-government-controlled regions in Luhansk and the supposed privatization of the state PrykarpatZakhidtrans oil product pipeline.  

Vaccines are becoming a geopolitical weapon separating countries into regional and economic blocks. For Ukraine, Sputnik V bares no effectiveness despite recent studies proving 91.6 percent success. Instead, it is a way to uphold Ukrainian dignity on the international level and remain consistent in its foreign policy towards aggressor-states.  

Image Source: Pharmaceutical Technology 

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