ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In its foreign policy, Russia tends to favor the hard power of military might and oil and gas exports. But in recent months, the Kremlin has scored a sweeping diplomatic win from an unexpected source: the success of its coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V.
While the United States and European countries have considered or implemented bans on vaccine exports to deal with shortages at home, Russia has earned plaudits by sharing its vaccine with countries around the world in an apparent act of enlightened self-interest.
So far, more than 50 countries from Latin America to Asia have ordered 1.2 billion doses of the Russian vaccine, buffing the image of Russian science and lifting Moscow’s influence around the world.
Yet, in Russia things are not always what they seem, and this apparent triumph of soft-power diplomacy may not be all that the Kremlin would like the world to think. While Sputnik V is unquestionably effective, production is lagging, raising questions about whether Moscow may be promising far more vaccine exports than it can supply, and doing so at the expense of its own citizens.
The actual number of doses distributed within Russia is a state secret, said Dmitri Kulish, a professor at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. Nevertheless, Russian officials are boasting of massive vaccine exports, and basking in the warm glow of the vaccine diplomacy that has generated.
“Soft power is the yawning, gaping hole in Russia’s global status,” Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy and a former American diplomat, said in a telephone interview. “If they play their cards right here, vaccines could be very important.”
With vaccine shortages leaving the world too unprotected, even as dangerous variants spread misery, the Russian vaccine could also be important to the global fight against the pandemic — if there were enough to go around.
On Friday, President Joe Biden provided some relief, announcing that his administration would make good on a promise to donate $4 billion to the international effort to speed up the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines. And new pledges were made by the European Union, Japan, Germany and Canada.
But more is needed, especially as scientists make clear that no country is really safe until all are, since continued spread can lead to more variants.
And European officials — who have been criticized for their own missteps on vaccine distribution — have started to push back on Russia’s aggressive marketing of Sputnik, suggesting it is not the answer to the world’s problems. At least not yet.
“We still wonder why Russia is offering, theoretically, millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating its own people,” the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, told a news conference Wednesday. “This question should be answered.”
Despite the doubts, vaccine diplomacy has already furthered a number of goals for Moscow: It has helped deepen divisions within the European Union, sending a shipment to Hungary before regulators approved it for the entire bloc; stirred domestic discord in Ukraine by highlighting slow Western vaccine supplies to the country; and circulated disinformation in Latin America that undermined public confidence in vaccines made in the United States.
“We are ready to lay down gas pipelines and supply cheap energy, we can sell you weapons and now we have this other dimension, this soft power: We are ready to offer you vaccine,” said Andrei Kortunov, chairman of the Russian International Affairs Council, a nongovernmental group analyzing Russian foreign policy.
The effort is part of a larger competition to use vaccines for diplomatic gain, with China and India among the top contenders, and the Kremlin has taken every opportunity to highlight its exports, some of them rather insignificant.
A supply of vaccine sufficient for 10,000 people, for example, arrived in Bolivia last month with the pomp usually reserved for state visits — greeted at the airport by the country’s president, Luis Arce, and the Russian ambassador.
“We congratulate the brotherly people of Bolivia for a qualitatively new level in the fight against the coronavirus,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Sputnik is entering new orbits,” a report on state television crowed this month, proudly showing crates of thousands of doses of vaccine being loaded onto an airplane leaving Russia for Argentina.
In Russia, so far at least, there has been little backlash over the exports, even though at the end of 2020 it had the third-highest number of excess deaths in the world after the United States and Brazil.
Only 2.2 million Russians (less than 2%) have received a first dose of the two-shot vaccine, according to the latest figures provided by a Russian official last week. In the United States, by contrast, 41 million people (around 13%) have received first injections, despite a rocky rollout.
The reason for that lack of public acceptance, analysts say, is that many Russians are so distrustful of their own government that they dismiss clinical trials that have shown Sputnik V to be safe and highly effective. In a poll taken last fall, 59% of Russians said they did not intend to be vaccinated.
So deep is the distrust that fully stocked vaccination sites in Moscow are frequently empty. The fears haven’t been helped by the example of President Vladimir Putin, who has yet to take the vaccine himself.
“If mass demand for vaccination emerges, clashing with the shortage of medication due to export, then it could become a political problem,” Ekaterina Schulmann, an associate fellow at Chatham house, a London-based research institute, said of the vaccine’s use in foreign policy. “Now, everyone who wants to get a vaccine can have it, so it’s rather a source of pride that Russia was among the first to have a vaccine and that we help others as well.”
It is unclear how long that state of affairs will last, given the vaccine production problems, which are in some ways emblematic of Russia’s overall economic troubles, stemming in large part from state control.
The license for the vaccine is controlled by two state-run institutions, a research institute and a sovereign wealth fund. They cut both export and production deals, while seven private pharmaceutical factories manufacture most of the vaccine under contracts that provide little financial incentive for innovation or even long-term investment.
Kulish, a consultant to Russian pharmaceutical companies, said several vaccine makers delayed production for months last year while waiting for critical pieces of equipment that are made in China and were in short supply during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, Russia does not produce biotech equipment at all,” he said, adding that he expected output to increase starting this month.
But that remains to be seen. At one site producing vaccine under contract by a company outside St. Petersburg this week, vials of Sputnik vaccine rolled off a production line, each holding five doses and the potential to save lives.
Yet, scaling output has been a challenge. “It’s a very capricious technology,” Dmitri Morozov, the chief executive of the company, Biocad, said. His company received the contract in September and by early February had produced only 1.8 million two-dose sets — a far cry from the hundreds of millions promised by the Kremlin to foreign purchasers.
Morozov said his factory had the capacity to make twice as much vaccine. But the vaccine contracts are so onerous he loses money on production, forcing him last fall to reserve half of his capacity for a profitable cancer medication. He has since added additional vaccine lines.
Longer term, Russia is looking to foreign producers to expand production, signing agreements with companies in India, South Korea and China. But those companies appear to be months away from producing the vaccine.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said last month that future overseas production will meet foreign demand, avoiding shortages at home.
For now, Russian doctors serving overflowing COVID-19 wards complain that they have had to go on working without being offered the vaccine. Yuri Korovin, a 62-year-old surgeon in the Novgorod region northwest of Moscow was never offered a dose before he fell ill in late December.
“Of course, you cannot forget about your own people,” he said of the exports, still coughing and wheezing, in a telephone interview.