As the coronavirus surges again, governments across the European Union are struggling to secure vaccine supplies. Few if any member states will likely meet the target set by Brussels to vaccinate 70 percent of their adult populations by the end of the summer. Keen to exploit this struggle to procure shots to sow disunity within the EU, Russia and China have stepped in with their own vaccine diplomacy. Nowhere is this strategy working better than in Central and Eastern Europe.
Some countries in the region, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have battled some of the worst COVID-19 infection rates in the world this year. With vaccination programs all but stalled due to issues with the EU’s common procurement system, some desperate leaders have jumped at the opportunity to import Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines, which haven’t been approved by the EU’s European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Russia’s initial delay in seeking EMA approval has already wreaked havoc on regional governments. This week, Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic became the first world leader to resign over their handling of the pandemic. He arranged a secret delivery of Sputnik V doses in early March, running afoul of the rules in place for EU countries, and going against objections from members of his own government. (At the time, then-Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok labeled the Russian vaccine a “tool of hybrid war.”) The clandestine deal sparked a monthlong political crisis that claimed seven ministers, including Matovic, who formally stepped down on Tuesday.
Fragile democratic institutions and developing economies have long made Central and Eastern Europe a weak link in the EU chain. Although the region’s small countries are far from power players, their memberships in the EU and NATO make them vulnerable targets of Russian and Chinese influence operations. The availability of the Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines has sent some governments into a tailspin, but others have broken EU ranks to import them. Unless Brussels can get its own vaccination program back on track, more member states may follow as cases rise again and public pressure grows.
Along with its 1.8 trillion-euro ($2.1 trillion) recovery fund, the EU intended its joint vaccine procurement plan to illustrate its strength after the bloc’s uncertain response to the first coronavirus wave last spring. Instead, the slow rollout now threatens to expose its weaknesses.
The Russian and Chinese vaccines have grown more appealing as Hungary, which rushed through emergency approval of both shots in January, accelerates its vaccination progress. Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long curried favor with Moscow and Beijing, often defying EU or NATO policy along the way. By March 28, as the EU’s average vaccination rate neared 16 percent, Hungary had inoculated more than 27 percent of its own population.
That success has helped spark chaos in the Czech Republic, which spent the early months of this year with the highest new case rate of any country. President Milos Zeman, a populist who has long used his largely ceremonial post in attempt to push Czech foreign policy closer to Russia and China, took it upon himself in early March to ask both governments to send their vaccines to the Czech Republic. Resistance from Health Minister Jan Blatny has delayed the deliveries, but Zeman is shaking the weak minority government with calls for Blatny’s head.
The Russian and Chinese vaccines have tempted others in the region. Just one month after Croatia’s medicines agency said that it had no plans to use the Sputnik V vaccine without EMA approval, the government launched talks with Moscow over imports. Croatia’s vaccination campaign is made more urgent by progress in neighboring Serbia, where the use of Sputnik V and Sinopharm, as well as the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, has given it one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe. Taking on a proxy role in the vaccine conflict, Belgrade has offered shots to people from around the Western Balkans, just beyond EU borders.
Widespread anti-Russian sentiment in Poland means that Sputnik V isn’t likely to land there anytime soon, but Polish President Andrzej Duda has spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping regarding the Sinopharm vaccine, sparking confusion when the health minister swiftly declared the Chinese vaccine off-limits. With Poland suffering a surge in cases in March, the resolve of those in the right-wing government to stick to EMA guidance may yet be tested.
The EU continues to urge caution when it comes to the Russian and Chinese vaccines. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has expressed skepticism over why Moscow and Beijing have exported their shots around the globe while neglecting their own populations. And although Sputnik V has 92 percent efficacy in trials, an EMA official said that Russia hasn’t provided data to the regulator, comparing using the vaccine to “Russian roulette.”
Health officials have also raised concerns about why Russia and China have appeared so unenthusiastic to secure EMA approval. Russia only submitted a preliminary application in early March, and China has made no effort at all. “I have no idea why they didn’t seek approval earlier,” said Petr Smejkal, the head epidemiologist at Prague’s Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine and an advisor to Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, adding that he had cautioned Babis against using any vaccine without the EU greenlight.
As security services across Central and Eastern Europe point out, both EU and NATO membership make countries in the region valuable targets, and Russia’s and China’s vaccine diplomacy may have already affected both forums. In March, the EU struggled to push through new sanctions targeting Moscow and Beijing, facing Hungarian obstructions. With the increased likelihood of discord, a strategic review of EU-Russia relations planned for a summit of bloc leaders last week was pulled from the agenda at the last minute.
Analysts have warned that if the EU is to stand its ground against Russia, it will need unity among its members. Similarly, Russia’s and China’s vaccine diplomacy presents a challenge to the unity of NATO as its members renege on other policies, a concern raised by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “Our multilateral solutions must succeed, if we don’t want to lose our ground to those who argue that authoritarian regimes are better at dealing with a crisis like this,” Maas said on March 9, calling European solidarity the basis for the trans-Atlantic partnership.
While Brussels gets its vaccine procurement up to speed, it is asking EU member states to stay the course. The EMA has approved a fourth option, the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and member states have now established their individual distribution systems. EU officials warn that the alternative scenario—quitting the joint procurement program and relying on the Russian and Chinese vaccines—would see smaller states pushed aside by larger rivals with deep pockets.
In the meantime, Russia and China may have overplayed their hand—they could undermine their own agenda by failing to follow through on their promises. Moscow says it has orders for 2.4 billion doses of Sputnik V from 50 countries, but its limited production capacity could disappoint the same states it hoped to impress. Hungary and other early customers have already experienced delays in deliveries of the Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines.
Russia is in talks with potential production partners, including Germany and India, but the discussions hinge on perceptions about the quality of production within Russia, the EMA’s main concern. Unless they swiftly secure the EU’s approval, the Russian and Chinese vaccines could exacerbate vaccine skepticism in the region. A December 2020 survey in the Czech Republic found that just 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 scored Russia and China a short-term win in Central and Eastern Europe. In the long run, the extent of the damage to the EU’s standing as a global power—and the faith of member states in European cooperation—will depend not on Moscow or Beijing but on Brussels’s ability to accelerate its vaccination program.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.