‘Vaccine Diplomacy’: A New Opportunity for Global Authoritarian Influence?

2021 / 03 / 15

Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributor policy analyst, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)


Covid-19 has so far claimed more than 2.5 million lives around the world. While the virus continues to spread actively, vaccines have become the world’s most in-demand commodity. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) projections, advanced economies will have most of their adult population vaccinated only by 2022. By contrast, this timeline extends to early 2024 for middle and low-income countries. Thus, there is a stark divide with regard to vaccine access globally. Western efforts to deliver doses to poorer countries have so far largely hinged on “Covax” – a scheme led by the World Health Organization (WTO) – with only limited success to date. As the organisation stated, the world is experiencing a “catastrophic moral failure”. In this critical situation, for autocracies such as Russia and China, vaccine distribution has opened up a new opportunity to bolster their global influence. The Kremlin and Beijing have already started to leverage vaccines to advance their own authoritarian interests abroad and expand their soft power.


“In the Right Place, at the Right Time”

While in 2020, Russia and China distributed face masks and protective equipment to hard-hit countries in order to boost their soft power, now, both states have adopted a transactional approach to vaccine distribution. Their goal is to achieve supply deals to revitalise traditional political alliances and establish new links. The production issues that challenge Western vaccine manufacturers have created a reasonable incentive for poorer states to turn to Moscow and Beijing.

Low-income countries have tried to secure doses that have been approved by the WHO, which has so far licensed vaccines developed in the West, such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca. Despite that, jab distribution delays have led to much resentment in a number of states, especially when the wealthier order more doses than their national demands require. While Western countries are somewhat failing to deliver awaited aid and are often criticised for their ‘vaccine nationalism’, many small countries are eager to accept what they are offered from other donors from the East. The latter take advantage of the resentment towards “greedy rich Western countries” and show readiness to earn some political goodwill. While Russia and China have found momentum to present themselves as “the saviours of the developing world”, they have actually set out to obtain long-term influence around the world. 

Russia’s announcement in August 2020 as being the first country to authorise a Covid vaccine led to much scepticism due to the lack of testing. The situation then changed so rapidly that the demand for the Sputnik V vaccine has skyrocketed, and many even started to doubt whether Moscow will be able to deliver its promised doses. Russia and China have only vaccinated less than 5% of their populations, as opposed to around 36% in the UK, 30% in the US and 11% in Germany, France and other EU member states. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has agreed to supply about 400 million doses abroad and plans to deliver 350 million more. This is similar to the case of China (See Map 1). It is worth noting that foreign officials are optimistic about the deals with Moscow, which so far has not faced any criticism for delaying Sputnik V supplies.

Map 1. Russian and Chinese vaccine distribution around the world by mid-February (Source: The Guardian)


Vaccine Jabs to “Win Friends”

Sputnik V has become a soft power “gold mine” for the Kremlin. As relations with the EU and US have recently deteriorated upon the persecution of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Moscow has started to actively promote its vaccines to both Western as well as non-Western states. Sputnik V has been marketed as “the best” alternative to western pharmaceutical companies. Even some of the EU member states, such as Hungary and Slovakia, have turned to Russia for emergency supplies to compensate for the plodding process of receiving jabs from the West. Serbia, after receiving Sputnik V jabs, has even negotiated with Moscow on building a manufacturing facility. Moreover, European diplomats in Russia started to be vaccinated with Sputnik V, which made desired headlines for the Kremlin. Millions of doses are expected by countries in Latin America, Africa, post-Soviet states and the Middle East. Hungary is still waiting for vaccines, yet remains optimistic about receiving them. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated, “the Russians are pretty much keeping their promises.”

Russia and China were among the first countries to make a diplomatic vaccine push, promising to help developing countries. They have targeted their neighbours and nations abound with natural resources or geopolitical importance. For example, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt and Serbia have been guaranteed millions of doses from both. Their queue of clients includes approximately 50 countries with important geopolitical and trade locations, spanning all continents, from Brazil to Indonesia. China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines have also entered post-Soviet states, which has even created a competition between partnering Moscow and Beijing (See Map 1).

Russia and China have set out to utilise vaccines to reinforce existing relationships and establish new linkages. Beijing is eager to repair its status and create new ties with overseas countries for its infrastructure and transport initiatives and FDI. Meanwhile, successful ‘vaccine diplomacy’ for Russia means an opportunity to rebrand itself as one of the most technologically and scientifically advanced powers in the world. Hence, Moscow and Beijing are keen to prepare the ground for long-term leverage to various countries around the world, which might then find it hard to resist possible diplomatic pressure from their Covid “donors” in the future.

While China has mounted a disinformation campaign to sow doubt about Western-made vaccines, Russian international media, as well as Kremlin-loyalist networks, have cited praise from abroad for Moscow and propagated difficulties pertaining to the distribution of Western vaccines. Russian Covid vaccine exports have been actively covered by Russian state TV. The fact that Russia is one of the five countries that have developed a vaccine gives a hand to the Kremlin to appear as a high-tech world power instead of a declining petrol pump.

Picture 1. A tweet of the Russian Embassy in the UK aimed at praising Russian Vaccine SputnikV (Source: Twitter)

Using vaccine jabs to win friends is not a new strategy, and it dates back to the 19th century when empires started smallpox vaccination campaigns for their colonies. While Russia and China cannot even meet the vaccine demands of their domestic markets, they still continue exporting to countries around the globe. In this heated period of ‘vaccine diplomacy’, the question remains as to whether Moscow and Beijing have overpromised and will be able to deliver the millions of orders currently on their waiting lists.

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