As the coronavirus rises again, governments across the European Union are struggling to ensure vaccine supplies. Few Member States are likely to meet the Brussels target of vaccinating 70 percent of their adult populations by the end of the summer. Russia and China, wanting to take advantage of this struggle to procure shots to sow disagreement within the EU, have introduced their own vaccine diplomacy. Nowhere does this strategy work better than in Central and Eastern Europe.
Several countries in the region, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have battled some of the world’s worst COVID-19 infection rates this year. As vaccination programs have stalled due to problems with the EU’s common procurement system, some desperate leaders have seized the opportunity to import the Russian vaccines Sputnik V and Sinopharm into China, which are not approved by the European Medicines Agency. Agency (EMA) of the EU.
Russia’s initial delay in applying for EMA approval has already devastated regional governments. This week, Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic became the first world leader to step down for dealing with the pandemic. In early March, he arranged a secret dispensing of Sputnik V cans, which violated the regulations applicable to EU countries and violated objections from members of his own government. (At the time, then Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok called the Russian vaccine a “tool of hybrid war”.) The secret treaty sparked a month-long political crisis in which seven ministers, including Matovic, officially resigned on Tuesday.
Fragile democratic institutions and developing countries have long made Central and Eastern Europe a weak link in the EU chain. Although the region’s small countries are far from rulers, their membership in the EU and NATO make them vulnerable targets for Russian and Chinese influence operations. The availability of the Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines has cornered some governments, others broken EU ranks to import them. If Brussels cannot get its own vaccination program back on track, more Member States could follow suit as cases pick up and public pressure builds.
Along with its € 1.8 trillion ($ 2.1 trillion) recovery fund, the EU intended its joint vaccine-sourcing plan to build on its strength after the bloc’s uncertain response to the first wave of coronavirus last spring to clarify. Instead, the slow rollout threatens to expose its weaknesses.
Russian and Chinese vaccines have become more attractive as Hungary, which received emergency clearances for both shots in January, speeds up vaccination progress. The authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long shown favor with Moscow and Beijing, often opposing EU or NATO policies. By March 28, when the EU average vaccination rate approached 16 percent, Hungary had vaccinated more than 27 percent of its own population.
This success helped start the chaos in the Czech Republic, which had the highest new employment rate of any country in the first few months of this year. President Milos Zeman, a populist who has long used his largely ceremonial office to bring Czech foreign policy closer to Russia and China, set out in early March to ask both governments to send their vaccines to the Czech Republic. Resistance from Health Minister Jan Blatny has delayed deliveries, but Zeman is shaking the weak minority government with demands for Blatny’s head.
The Russian and Chinese vaccines have tempted others in the region. Just a month after the Croatian Medicines Agency said it had no plans to use the Sputnik V vaccine without EMA approval, the government opened talks with Moscow about imports. Croatia’s vaccination campaign is becoming more urgent with advances in neighboring Serbia, where Sputnik V and Sinopharm, as well as Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, have resulted in one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe. Belgrade has taken on a proxy role in the vaccine conflict, offering shots to people from all over the Western Balkans, just beyond the EU’s borders.
The widespread anti-Russian sentiment in Poland means Sputnik V is unlikely to land there anytime soon, but Polish President Andrzej Duda has spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the Sinopharm vaccine, which created confusion when the Minister of Health rushed the Chinese vaccine disabled limits. With Poland seeing a surge in some cases in March, the right-wing government’s determination to adhere to EMA guidelines is still open to scrutiny.
The EU continues to urge caution when it comes to Russian and Chinese vaccines. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed skepticism about why Moscow and Beijing exported their recordings around the globe while neglecting their own people. And although Sputnik V has been shown to be 92 percent effective in studies, an EMA official said Russia did not provide data to the regulator, comparing vaccine use to “Russian roulette.”
Health officials have also raised concerns about why Russia and China were so reluctant to get EMA approval. Russia only made a preliminary application in early March, and China has made no effort at all. “I have no idea why they didn’t apply for approval sooner,” said Petr Smejkal, senior epidemiologist at the Prague Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine and advisor to Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, adding that he had Babis before using vaccines warned without the EU green light.
As security services in Central and Eastern Europe point out, both EU and NATO membership make countries in the region valuable targets, and Russia and China’s vaccine diplomacy may have influenced both forums. In March, the EU struggled to impose new sanctions on Moscow and Beijing, which were facing Hungarian obstacles. Given the increasing likelihood of discord, a last-minute strategic review of EU-Russia relations scheduled for a bloc leaders’ summit last week was removed from the agenda.
Analysts have warned that if the EU is to hold its own against Russia, it needs unity among its members. Similarly, Russia and China’s vaccine diplomacy poses a challenge to NATO unity as its members forego other political measures, a concern voiced by Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “Our multilateral solutions must be successful if we do not want to lose our ground to those who argue that authoritarian regimes can better cope with such a crisis,” said Maas on March 9, describing European solidarity as the basis for the transatlantic Partnership.
As Brussels updates its vaccine sourcing, it urges EU member states to stay on course. The EMA has approved a fourth option, the one-off Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and member states have now set up their own individual distribution systems. EU officials warn that the alternate scenario – ending the joint procurement program and relying on the Russian and Chinese vaccines – would push smaller states aside from bigger, deep-pocketed rivals.
Meanwhile, Russia and China may have covered their hand – they could undermine their own agenda by failing to keep their promises. Moscow claims it has received orders for 2.4 billion cans of Sputnik V from 50 countries, but its limited production capacity could disappoint the same states it hoped to impress. In Hungary and other early customers, there were already delays in the delivery of the Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines.
Russia is in talks with potential manufacturing partners, including Germany and India. However, the discussions depend on the perception of production quality in Russia, which is the main concern of the EMA. Without the swift approval of the EU, Russian and Chinese vaccines could heighten skepticism about vaccines in the region. A December 2020 survey in the Czech Republic found that only 40 percent of people were willing to get a shot, and another found that the majority of Poles would not accept the Russian or Chinese vaccine.
Vaccine diplomacy may have brought Russia and China a short-term victory in Central and Eastern Europe. In the long term, the extent of the damage to the EU’s reputation as a world power – and the confidence of member states in European cooperation – will not depend on Moscow or Beijing, but on Brussels’ ability to accelerate its vaccination program.