Vaccination Divide: How Russia and China Are Winning Vaccine Diplomacy in EU’s Backyard

Written by | Thursday, February 11th, 2021

Calls on the EU have been mounting not to forget about its struggling neighbours in the Coronavirus vaccine rollout and help them cope with COVID-19 pandemic. During a virtual summit in late January, EU leaders debated the ongoing health crisis, including an equal access to Coronavirus vaccines to poorer countries at Europe’s doorstep – some of them, having recorded the continent‘s highest levels of COVID-19 cases per capita, are still struggling to secure vaccination of the population. If Europe does not prioritize its neighbourhood, critics warn, it will be Russia and China that are posed to reap geopolitical gain via vaccine diplomacy. With so few vaccines having arrived from the West, Russian and Chinese ones are now almost the only option for most people in Ukraine, Belarus and Western Balkans.
Globally, the rollout of Russian and Chinese jabs has sparked controversy. Although neither has so far been approved by US or EU regulators, that hasn’t stopped them from making inroads outside the West. Take Ukraine and Belarus, where coronavirus vaccination is more than just a health issue. The two countries are becoming a battleground with geopolitical stakes as Russia and China promote their vaccines in countries unable to afford pricier Western options. While Belarus relies entirely on Russian support, by contrast, Ukraine flatly refuses to purchase Russia’s vaccine to deny Moscow potential security leverage and thus is considering China as a supplier. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been taken up by Belarus, Hungary and Serbia, and further afield also by Argentina, Brazil or the United Arab Emirates. China’s SinoVac, a company with close ties to the government has inked deals not only with Ukraine, but also the Philippines and Malaysia, while another Chinese vaccine, developed by state-owned company Sinopharm, is seeing uptake in countries like Hungary, Morocco and Egypt.
In Belarus, after a brutal crackdown on the opposition and the refusal by Western nations to recognize the re-election of authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko for a sixth consecutive presidential term, the Kremlin remains the dictator‘s only ally in the region. However, not everyone in Belarus is convinced. Although the Belarusian authorities plan to vaccinate up to 1.2 million people by late March and aim for an inoculation rate of 60% of the population, they’re making a risky bet, say critics. For example, one Belarusian intensive care specialist lamented the “political reasons” behind Minsk’s commitment to “only one vaccine — the Russian one.” Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the government is shunning the Sputnik V jab, looking instead to China‘s CoronaVac but also to the pricier Western vaccines. But critics are concerned that Ukraine is “an outsider” to vaccination campaigns rolling out in Europe. Still, despite all the challenges in securing the jab, any chances of negotiations with Russia are “completely ruled out.”

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