The West is losing out to China and Russia in vaccine diplomacy
Playing politics with the pandemic ought to be the high road to pariah status. But Russia and China are clawing back prestige despite widespread suspicion of their regimes by a successful and global distribution of their own Covid vaccines.
Meanwhile, the EU Commission and key European leaders like President Macron have misplayed their Covid hand badly. Brussels‘ slow-motion bureaucratic rolling out of vaccines has alarmed stalwart Europhiles because it put lives at risk and is undermining the popular appeal of the EU.
The French President’s public scepticism about the AstraZencea jab, taken up by the German press, sent voluntary acceptance of the few vaccinations available nose-diving. By contrast, Russia and even China have been skilfully playing the world vaccination stakes.
Both started from a weak position. Russia’s reputation for scientific innovation was weak. China was widely blamed for turning the original outbreak into a global pandemic with its secretive and obstructive approach to international health cooperation. Neither country has vaccinated as significant a share of their own people as Britain, for instance.
But in much of the world and significantly inside the EU too, Russia and China are seen as likely saviours by providing millions of doses of their own vaccines to states who can’t get access to them from Western companies or cannot afford them.
Much has been made of how Vladimir Putin’s sponsorship of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is building in a long-term energy dependency between Germany and Russia, but a new drug dependency on Russia and China could dwarf the problems for the West caused by German addiction to Russian natural gas. Europe’s failures to distribute vaccines to combat the pandemic are opening a back-door to Russian and Chinese influence in Europe.
Naming its vaccine after the original Sputnik satellite which caused a global sensation in 1957 seemed at first to confirm Putin’s Russia as a Soviet-throwback. Even if Moscow then had won round one in the space race, no-one around the world got any personal benefit from the Soviet Union’s early lead in space. In fact, by increasing Western fear of Soviet might the Sputnik probably rallied public opinion behind a beefed up Cold War response.
Today, however, there may be very different soft power processes at work. Putin’s Sputnik V vaccine, like China’s Sinopharm vaccine, has found willing customers in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Long-term Western allies like the UAE and Bahrain have accepted the Chinese vaccine. The West has talked a good game about vaccine-sharing with the rest of the world but has been even slower to roll out a supply than the EU has been about helping its own population.
Drug dependency is the new not-so-secret weapon of both the Kremlin and China. Recurrent epidemics of Covid-mutations are to be expected, so the successful distribution of Sputnik V and its Chinese counterpart combined with the underperformance of the core Western providers is going to give Presidents Putin and Xi a psychological hold over many societies.
Propaganda victories can be very temporary. The prestige of the Soviet first satellite was soon overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis. Stalin squandered the immense kudos won by the Red Army’s rout of Hitler’s armies by imposing his own tyranny across Eastern Europe. Maybe the Kremlin and Beijing will fritter away any vaccine PR victory by throwing their weight around abroad or pursuing hardline repression at home.
Nonetheless, Moscow and Beijing will be hoping that the psychological power of a successful global vaccine programme pays dividends in the future. Britain and its allies have to catch up fast to regain the West’s medical prestige.