As the EU looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s vaccine is likely to be a viable tool for many member states.
Soft power, the special blend of cultural, diplomatic, and non-military weight, has been relatively lacking for Russia in the 21st century. However, COVID-19, like most disruptive events, has provided Russia with new opportunities for soft power engagement with the EU, principally in terms of its vaccine. Russia produced Sputnik V, the first registered COVID-19 vaccine globally, and recent studies show a remarkably high efficacy rate of 91%. This is in line with other vaccines produced by Moderna, Pfizer, and is even higher than the trial results for Astra Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
Hungary was the first EU member state to approve Russia’s vaccine last year and is the first member state to sign a deal to buy large quantities from Russia. The European Medicines Agency (“EMA”) has yet to approve the vaccine for widespread distribution within the bloc. However, EU diplomats based in Moscow are now allowed to be vaccinated with Sputnik V, and India and Brazil have already signed deals for millions of doses. Many more countries, both developed nations in Europe, and from the developing world, are expected to follow suit.
In contrast to Russia, the EU has been slow to approve several vaccines, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has apologised for production delays. As the political scientist Bruno Macaes outlined, the EU has pursued a classic procurement approach that failed to recognise technology’s political nature. This is something the bloc has long suffered with, which differentiates Brussels from London, Washington, and Israel, where 30% of the population is already vaccinated.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) also criticised the EU for introducing export controls on vaccines made within the bloc. After a massive outcry, Brussels decided not to trigger an emergency provision related to Brexit that would have controlled vaccine exports from the EU. The provision would have initiated a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, something negotiators of the Brexit deal were keen to avoid. For some in the UK, Brussels’ approach to the vaccine has even vindicated the need for Brexit, and the ability to control vaccine distribution at the national level. The UK’s ability to control the means of its vaccine distribution, coupled with a faster economic recovery, is likely to boost Boris Johnson’s approval rating further. This is not only a win for the Brexiteers but a win for Russian soft power, as Moscow actively supported the Brexit campaign through disinformation efforts.
Putin’s Hold on European Pulse Points
In contrast to the EU, Russia’s rollout has been robust and inspired renewed patriotic fervour. Despite Russia’s internal economic and demographic difficulties, Moscow has produced a tangible asset that can be used to help develop strategic partnerships with nations around the world. The Indo-Pacific, Middle East, and Latin America may all benefit from Russia’s vaccine, but in true Putin fashion, the EU is the principal place of competition. Vladimir Putin has a keen ability to pit EU member states against one another and persuade them to develop a reliance on Russia. He knows the flaws, the internal dynamics, and the societal breakdowns that present pressure points from Paris to Prague. This reliance can strengthen Putin’s influence on the bloc and force an economic relationship of dependency rather than accountability or competition.
From natural gas in Central Europe to the power of Russian money in the City of London, Putin’s economic reach is vast and vital. This economic reach is likely to help revitalise European economies, while further creating chains of dependency that could harm the EU in subsequent crises. Unfettered access to Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine now could lead to further trade links and entanglements for other products in the future. Not all of these products are likely to have the societal benefit of a COVID-19 vaccine, and some may actively harm or undermine European interests. However, in a rush to save lives, a thorough undertaking of Russia’s long-term interests is unlikely.
Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine also comes when Putin is looking to consolidate his control further and escape accountability for his actions. Putin risks further sanctions from the West over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, as well as cyberattacks inflicted upon the U.S. For their respective economic recoveries from the pandemic, the EU may well need Russia more than Moscow needs the EU. This is a devastating indictment of the EU’s power to respond collectively to emergencies and demonstrates to Putin the merits of autocratic governance.
The Long Recovery
As a result of COVID-19, the Eurozone contracted by 6.8% in 2020, and the EU could face a EUR 90 billion loss to its economy unless it rapidly increases its vaccination rate. Given these dire numbers, an additional vaccine with a high efficacy rate could help the EU recover faster this year. Despite the AstraZeneca vaccine’s success, the authorisation of Sputnik V would still be a blow to the EU’s soft power as a medical powerhouse.
Compared with Russia, the EU is still a more open, tolerant bloc where competition, economic dynamism, and scientific development can flourish. However, those same mechanisms can also stymie its growth, and the EU can run the risk of being hobbled by its own bureaucracy. For all its strengths, the EU remains fundamentally technocratic and bureaucratic, and subject to falling into line with its old ways rather than embracing new outcomes. This is a tremendous weakness for Putin to exploit, and a failure of the technological dynamism that still flourishes in many EU member states.
Navigating a Complex Relationship
Recent events have shown the EU to be somewhat wobbly in standing up to Russia. The poisoning of Alexei Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment is one such example. Concerted action and unified sanctions from Brussels remain unlikely when relations with Russia are paramount for economic growth. The EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, also missed an opportunity to visit Navalny on a recent Moscow trip. Borrell claimed that a visit to Navalny in prison would help grant his imprisonment legitimacy. On basic matters of human rights, the EU remains tepid in its support for Russian opposition figures and feeble in the face of the opportunity to challenge Putin. Brussels is caught in a complicated relationship with Russia that will likely have to be redefined long-term.
COVID-19 has accelerated some of the basic truths about the EU’s complicated relationship with Moscow. Moscow can simultaneously threaten the EU’s values and security, yet remain vital for its survival and recovery should the need arise. Unlike the U.S., Moscow is a neighbour and natural partner to the EU, and there is likely always to be some level of interdependency. COVID-19 has shown the risk of complacency and submission for this relationship in the short-term, not taking into account the power dynamics that will invariably affect the long-term.
Both the EU and Russia have deep divisions that the success of a COVID-19 vaccine is unlikely to erase. From the rise of populism, to demographic difficulties and internal dissent, Moscow and Brussels remain threatened by union divisions, and battles for authority, and legitimacy. In its autocratic, strong executive manner, Russia hid those divisions to produce a highly safe and effective vaccine. The hard truth for the EU may be that Russian nationalism is more potent and easily activated than the European project’s supranational passions. This nationalism may be forced or falsified under a leader like Putin, but it is a fervent nationalism, nonetheless. As the EU continues to stagnate, the UK, Russia, and the U.S. may start to move ahead in their recovery from COVID-19. Should that happen, a reckoning over the EU’s long battle with technology, and technocratic governance in contrast to muscular concerted action may well be necessary.