The last couple of years I have experienced Russian soft power firsthand through various NGO-programs. Here is what I learned – and how I was influenced.
There are two kinds of people: The ones who are curious about the unknown and the ones who are afraid. The first category includes the ones who are open towards strangers and the second includes the ones who would rather stick to their own.
For centuries it has been a core component of democracy that we can openly exchange worldviews and discuss how our society should be organized. This makes us able to understand each other – also if we disagree – and it makes us able to find solutions to current problems.
The point of engaging in discussions is often either to learn from others or to convince the counterpart that your own argument is better. In other words, the point with having discussions is to be influenced or influence another. But the last couple of years along with the fast emergence of online and social media a lot of discussions have been disrupted by so-called ‘disinformation’ and there for ‘foreign influence’ has become a matter of national security – especially in countries where the government is elected by the people whom might be easily influenced or manipulated.
In the West, and in many other places in the world, fear of the foreign is increasing. The appearance of disinformation and so called ‘influence-campaigns’ means that if we are not careful, we will be manipulated by outsiders into abandoning our true beliefs and into turning against our own. What a lot of people fail to see is that if we are too careful, we will all find ourselves in the second category of the two types of people mentioned above. If that happens, all foreign information will likely be perceived as disinformation and we might as well go offline and isolate ourselves in small homogenous societies. A core component of dialogue-based democracy is at stake–on a global level.
From state to people
I allow myself to represent “the West” in this article even though I know this is academically questionable because there are many countries, divergent opinions, and different approaches within the West. Some of the influence we “in the West” seem to be most afraid of is ‘Russian influence’. But what we often see as malign Russian influence-attempts, Russia often sees as legitimate use of soft power. And since the West also possess and uses soft power, Russia sees our fear and our accusations as a double moral standard.
Soft power involves the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion (Nye 1990).It includes promoting your countries culture, political values, and foreign policyto become an attractive and reliable partner. Soft power has some advantages to hard power because it is cheaper and more legitimate to convince people to voluntarily work with you than to force them to do so by for example military power or economic extortion or bribery. Why invade people’s territory with military means if you can ‘invade’ people’s minds by being or at least appearing favorable?
Russian soft power strategy was launched during Vladimir Putin’s second presidency in 2004-2008. Kremlin launched an active policy towards countries in the post-Soviet space to improve the image of Russia among its perceived compatriots. At first the strategy was directed towards regimes. For example, Moscow established the customs union that later became The Eurasian Economic Union and the Nord Stream gas pipeline to promote itself as an attractive economic partner and a reliable energy supplier. After the Ukraine crisis and Viktor Yanukovych’s departure other regimes started to play an anti-Russian card to consolidate their power (Sergunin & Karabeshkin 2015: 349). Thus, the soft power strategy had to change.
Today Russia’s soft power strategy is more people-oriented and stretches further than the post-Soviet space. Within this strategy public diplomacy plays a huge role meaning any government-sponsored effort to communicate directly with foreign publics to promote a government’s strategic objectives – or said in another way: a governments effort to influence foreign public opinion (Osipova 2014).
Make no mistake though: Russia is not the only country engaged with public diplomacy. More and more countries are competing to win over public audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from attracting tourists, students, or foreign investment to promoting national image and influencing international affairs.
Here is where it gets tricky because public diplomacy is considered legitimate but conducting influence-campaigns in foreign countries is not – but theoretically the two concepts look a bit like each other. When a foreign country wants to influence domestic public opinion up to an election it isseen as an effort to undermine democracy. It seems logical though– and even legitimate – that foreign governments want people in other countries to choose leaders that favor them. It is the methods used to do so that vary in legitimacy.
From digital to physical
In my time as a student of political science in Copenhagen I heard and read a lot about Russia. Russia’s image in Denmark is not very favorable. Russia is often perceived as an enemy trying to undermine democracy and as a regime that does not live up to human rights obligations. Russia is also quickly impersonated as Vladimir Putin: strong but unfair. Russia is a country far away, difficult to understand, but easy to fear. Said in another way: Russia does not have a lot of soft power leverage in Denmark and I imagine it is the same in many other countries in the West. Whenever and whatever good we hear about Russia; we don’t really believe it.
A couple of years ago I decided to travel to Russia to test and question my perceptions about the country that have mainly emerged from what we hear and read in Western media.One of Russia’s soft power methods is to promote Russian culture and foreign policy through NGO’s targeting for example students and young professionals to promote educational programs and exchange (Simons 2018). I chose to cease this opportunity to get to know Russia better and thus I have participated in various NGO-programs in Russia. And boy; have I engaged in a lot of discussions, I have learned, and I have influenced.
Russian NGO’s are often viewed as illegitimate in the West because they receive economic support from the Russian government. Thus, they are not “non-governmental” people say. What we need to remember is that NGO’s can merely survive in Russia without government support because if they receive money from abroad, they risk being labeled ‘foreign agents’ (Svetova 2018). Surely if they receive government support, they might have some obligations towards their government, but it does not mean that they are deliberately trying to spread disinformation to manipulate people. At least this should not be our starting point.
Official opinions are often also reflected in people’s opinion and by denying those opinions we distance ourselves not only from the Russian government but from the Russian people. Say I disagree; then only by understanding official opinions, I can put forward a counter argument in an understandable way to those who share that opinion. This is what ‘mutual understanding’ is about– which is exactly what is missing in the relationship between Russia and the West.
Blurred lines: false or biased, fact or opinion?
Dialogue fosters mutual understanding, which fosters predictability and credibility, which fosters trust and furthers possibilities to cooperate (Head 2016: 360). But in the digital age credibility is a scarce resource and fear of being manipulated keeps us from cooperating. A Russian acquaintance once said to me: Whatever you say about Russia, the opposite is also true. In other words: Truth can be inflected.
A prominent discussion in philosophy of science is whether and when something can be viewed as knowledge and be defined as true. Positivists argue that when weknow something is true, it is also real. “Influence campaigns in this new digital reality do not try to convince us and win an honest argument. Instead, they question reality itself,” said the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofoed at a conference on how democracies can be protected against foreign influence. But it is questionable whether one reality exists.
In constructivist theory, reality is socially constructed within social contexts which means that different people in different contexts see reality differently. In other words, when people believe something is true, it is also real. Thus, it is difficult to define the line between disinformation and biased opinion. This is for example the case with the ‘annexation’ of Crimea as it is called in the west and the ‘reunification’ of Crimea as it is called in Russia. Those who agree with one or the other see true information, those who see an unfair framing see biased information and those who strongly disagree see false information. Information is interpreted within the framework of preexisting beliefs (Vuorelma2017: 120). Therefor it is questionable whether people are easily influenced by information that they strongly disagree upon, but it is quite possible that they would refer to the information as false.
Good image can be threatening
Things have happened recently that from a Russian perspective could give Russia more soft power leverage in the West. Russia sent medical aid to Italy and to other countries which could be a sign of goodwill. It has alsodeveloped a potential corona-vaccine, which could improve Russia’s image within biomedicine and broader academia – and could potentially put Russia in a position to help the whole planet. But in the West people are not exactly thrilled. In a Western perspective these are things that Russia can use for propaganda purposes meaning the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to achieve the goals of the propagandist (Jowet & O’Donell 2019: 6).
In the digital age aggressive behavior is not only expansionist behavior it is also a state’s intent to impose a good imageand thus, a signal of good intent can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, I did not learn the solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, we should not be blind towards that states or even NGO’s might have an interest in lying about its intentions in order to change or control other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, we should primarily put it upon ourselves to explore the reasons behind divergent perceptions. Though, I suggest this should not take place through online media where misunderstanding rule and disinformation disrupt. What we need is good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings whether between students, teachers, NGO’s or government officials. Because the more we disagree the more dialogue is needed.
Framing foreign influence as pure malign manipulation will keep us both from learning and from arguing our own case abroad. So, let us prevent soft power from turning too ugly. After all the use of soft power is preferable to the use of hard power. And let us hope the covid-19-crisis is over soon so that we can visit each other and engage in dialogue where influence is not always a bad thing.
Head, Naomi (2016). ‘Transforming Conflict: Trust, Empathy, and Dialogue’, in Yohan Ariffin, Jean-Marc Coicaud & Vesselin Popovski (eds.), Emotions in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jervis, Robert (2017). ‘Signaling and Perception. Projecting Images and Drawing Inferences’, in: How statesmen think: The psychology of international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jowet, Garth S. & Victoria O’Donnell (2019). ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ (ed. 7). California: SAGE Publications.
Osipova, Yelena (2014). ‘Russification‟ of „Soft Power‟: Transformation of a Concept’.The Journal of Public Diplomacy, Vol. 5, 56-77
Sergunin, Alexander &Karabeshkin, Leonid (2015. ‘Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy’, Political Studies Association, POLITICS vol. 35(3-4), 347–363
Simons, Greg (2018).‘The Role of Russian NGOs in New Public Diplomacy’, Journal of Political Marketing, 17:2, 137-160
Svetova, Zoya (2018).‘NGOs in Russia: Do They Still Stand a Chance? The Kremlin is steadily ramping up its control over civil society’. Moscow Times. Located on: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/12/ngos-do-they-still-stand-a-chance-russia-svetova-a60471
British Sanctions Against Patriarch Kirill. Forgiveness and Humility in Response
The UK Treasury has published another list of Russian individuals subject to financial sanctions. Along with 11 other Russians, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill is included. The use of restrictive measures against Patriarch Kirill represents is a new stage of escalation in relations between Russia and the West. Sanctions may affect the foreign activities of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, the political consequences are far more important. Whether willing or not, London is adding a religious dimension to the hornet’s nest of its current problems. At first glance, a technical and relatively minor political move can have disproportionately serious consequences.
Sanctions against Patriarch Kirill will do nothing to achieve the stated goals of British sanctions — to counter “Russian aggression” against Ukraine. Church support for the Russian government will only become more decisive. However, they will give rise to additional new risks, which will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control. The British officials, by zealously “punishing” the Russian religious leader, are doing a disservice to their own country and the rest of the Western community. Religion is an extremely sensitive topic, capable of heating up any conflict at an uncontrollable speed.
Let’s start with the possible material consequences of the sanctions for Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church. Blocking financial sanctions mean that individuals under UK jurisdiction are prohibited from engaging in any financial transactions with the blocked persons. Their assets are frozen. That is, formally they remain the property of the blocked person, but it is practically impossible to use them. One of the key questions is whether such restrictions on Patriarch Kirill affect the property of the ROC in the UK, as well as its activities? At first glance, the answer is no. The list of blocked persons did not include the Moscow Patriarchate as an institution. There are no legal entities subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate among them.
However, they may still have problems in connection with the concept of ownership and control. Part 4 of the December 2020 UK Financial Sanctions General Guidelines clarifies that blocking sanctions apply to any entity that is directly or indirectly owned or controlled by a person subject to blocking sanctions. Here we mean, first of all, property relations. The British regulator applies the “50% rule” when the criterion for control is the ownership of shares of 50% or more of a controlled entity. Such a rule is quite applicable for companies and corporations, but not for the Church. Patriarch Kirill heads the Russian Orthodox Church, but cannot be considered its “owner”. However, the Guidelines contain other control criteria. For example, such a criterion could be the expectation that the person may be able to carry out the activities of the organisation in accordance with its requirements. Its decryption is again more suitable for business. So, for example, the concept of such opportunities includes the appointment of a board of directors or key managers, control of the bank accounts of the organisation or its economic resources. But its application to other legal entities, including those subordinate to or associated with Patriarch Kirill, is not ruled out. That is, there is an element of legal uncertainty.
The main difficulty here may arise in connection with the so-called excessive compliance of foreign counterparties of the ROC. Today, the practice has developed when foreign counterparties are forced to excessively comply with the law, due to the threat of administrative and even criminal measures against violators of the sanctions regime, as well as the uncertainty of some rules. In other words, it is easier to over-execute and refuse a transaction than to carry it out with the risk of subsequent problems with the regulator. Especially excessive compliance is typical for banks, which are the most vulnerable due to their large number of transactions, and are frightened off by the experience of some violators incurring multi-million (and sometimes billion) fines for failing to meet the requirements of sanctions regulators.
Moreover, British sanctions may also affect the excessive compliance of banks and counterparties in other jurisdictions. The procedure for monitoring a counterparty through databases of sanctioned persons will inevitably reveal to them the connection of any institution of the Moscow Patriarchate with Patriarch Kirill. Again, from a procedural point of view, this will mean, at a minimum, transactional delays, regardless of whether it is under British jurisdiction or not. Such delays today are due to the very connection of the deal with Russia, even if there are no persons under sanctions involved. The appearance of such persons increases the risk of disrupting the transaction.
At the same time, in comparison with the material side of the issue, the political consequences seem to be much more important. Sanctions against Patriarch Kirill make the conflict between Russia and the West a clash of religious values. You can argue as much as you like that these are not sanctions against the Russian people; that the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill are allegedly imposed for supporting the Russian authorities in their policy on the Ukrainian issue, that the British authorities have nothing else in mind, that this is a purely legal issue, and not a reason for a value conflict, etc. This will also include analytical notes by Russophobes on how the ROC is used as a tool of “soft power” in the post-Soviet space and beyond. The problem, however, is that we do not only live in a world of bureaucratic schemes and technocratic politics. We live in a much more complex world, where bureaucratic machinery collides with the psychology of large masses of people, with symbols, with the complexity and diversity of perceptions and, most importantly, the possibility of using all this complexity for political purposes. It is not so important who exactly ends up using all this energy. It is important that a hostile measure against a religious leader will inevitably add fuel to the fire. It will expand the dimensions of the conflict, shifting it from a purely secular arena into the realm of religious feelings. Russia is a rather secularised society. It is difficult to expect that the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill will lead to the effects that a similar move would have, for example, on an Islamic community, in the event of similar actions being taken against an Islamic leader of a similar magnitude. However, it is hardly worth underestimating the religious factor, especially given the difficult historical background. At first glance, technocratic action releases forces that are very difficult to control. The West has already encountered the factor of political Islam, generated by difficult relations with individual Islamic countries. Now the almost-forgotten contours of faults between Christian denominations are added here. It is sympathetic that earlier sanctions against Patriarch Kirill were discussed as one of the measures of the sixth package of EU sanctions, but were not included in the final version. A scaling up of the British initiative is not out of the question, and will complicate things much more.
At the same time, the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill do not bring the British authorities one iota closer to the implementation of the declared goals of the sanctions policy. Formally, they must “change the behaviour” of the person under sanctions. That is, in the bureaucratic scheme, after the imposition of sanctions, Patriarch Kirill must refuse to support the Russian authorities on the Ukrainian issue. At the very least, sanctions should “raise the price” of such support. What will actually happen? The Church’s support for the Russian authorities will only increase. The ROC is likely to face some material damage from the sanctions against Patriarch Kirill, but it will also only increase the energy of the consolidation of Church and state. In other words, the sanctions will have the opposite effect of what’s expected and will be a disservice.
What can the Russians do in response? Surely there will be a temptation to adopt “mirror and symmetrical” actions, such as adding British religious figures to our lists. Such an action on our part will only lend weight to the British move, show that we think in the same terms. If in other areas retaliatory measures can be justified, then in the subtle world of religious issues, caution and prudence are advisable. Linear circuits do harm here. Forgiveness and humility can do much, as a great moral force.
From our partner RIAC
‘Russian Rebellion’: Local and Global Consequences
The military conflict in Ukraine today is at the nerve of relations between Russia and the West, and largely sets the tone for security policy in the Euro-Atlantic region. It also has many global implications. In the ideological sphere, it is increasingly presented as a struggle between the liberal world order and the “rebellion of the discontented”. It is Russia that today has assumed the role of the vanguard of such a rebellion, openly challenging its Western rivals.
The use of the concept of rebellion here is not accidental. The West is promoting a liberal world order based on clear ideological premises. These include the market economy; the globalisation of standards, markets and technologies; democracy as a no-alternative political form for the organisation of states; an open society and a diversity of cultures and ways of life; and human rights. In practice, the implementation of these principles varies from country to country and changes over time. However, the diversity of practice has little effect on the integrity of the ideology. Unlike the West, Russia does not offer an alternative ideological menu. So Russia differs from the Soviet Union, which at one time adopted another modernist ideology – socialism – and actively promoted it as a global alternative.
At the same time, both liberalism and socialism are Western doctrines. Both are based on the ideas of progress, rationality and emancipation. There are more similarities between them than you might think. Socialists offer a different view of private property, pointing to the excesses of the uncontrolled market. Already in the twentieth century, however, there was a convergence of liberal and socialist ideas in the form of a combination of state regulation and the market. With regards to their political ideation, democracy and the power of the people are no less important for socialism than for liberalism. Traces of the idea of globalisation could be found in the concept of international worker solidarity. Liberation from prejudices and the rationalisation of all spheres of life are expressed as clearly in socialism as in liberalism.
The problem with the Soviet Union was that the implementation of socialist ideas eventually turned into an imitation. The principles of democracy remained on paper, but in reality they were crushed by an authoritarian (and at certain stages – totalitarian) state. In the rationalisation of the economy and industrialisation, the USSR achieved amazing success, but later it ran into stagnation, unable to adapt its economy to rapidly changing world realities. The periphery of the economy, with its raw-material bias, was identified back in the Brezhnev era. Emancipation proved unprecedented, but was also ultimately hobbled by the increasingly rigid social structure of the Soviet state. At the end of the Cold War, the picture was completed by double standards and a cynical attitude towards the ideology of Soviet society itself and its elite.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet project, the policy of the USSR could hardly be called a rebellion. Throughout its history, the USSR still offered a systemic alternative. Relations with the bourgeois environment could be called an attempt at revolution, and then rivalry and competition, but not a revolt. Soviet policy had a positive agenda, offering a holistic picture of the world.
The current “Russian rebellion” is based on dissatisfaction with the established status quo of the liberal world order, or rather, its individual consequences for Russia.
There are reasons for such dissatisfaction. Scepticism about democracy was determined by the practical possibilities of foreign states to “hack” democratic institutions. Colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space only strengthened this attitude. The flip-side of democracy was the possibility of interference in democratic institutions from the outside in order to ‘correct’ the political course. The United States, not without reason, was considered a key “hacker” of national sovereignty through the manipulation of democratic institutions abroad. All the more ironic was the indignation of Washington itself after Russia allegedly also tried to “hack” American democracy.
Russia’s greatest annoyance was its secondary role in the unipolar world order, the disregard for its interests, and that system’s increasingly clear refusal to perceive it as an equal partner. Interestingly, economic factors were secondary for the “Russian rebellion”. In theory, Russia can be considered dissatisfied with its peripheral status in the global economy and its role as a raw materials appendage. In practice, Russia has become very deeply integrated into the international division of labour. However, compared to the stories about democracy, sovereignty and foreign policy, Russia’s dissatisfaction with its place in the world economy was articulated in a very weak way. Liberal emancipation can hardly be considered the main political problem for Moscow. In some aspects, the Russian narrative has distanced itself from the Western mainstream. This concerns such topics as multiculturalism and sexual minorities; although in the West itself, perceptions of these remains extremely heterogeneous. At the same time, in terms of lifestyle, Russia is still more of a European and Western country, so culture, like the economy, can hardly be considered a key source of the problem.
Given the concentration of Russian discontent in the political sphere, it is hardly surprising that it was the Ukrainian issue that became the trigger for the “Russian rebellion”. The Maidans and the change of power were seen by Moscow as a cynical hack into the country’s political system, as well as a threat of such a hack targeting Russia itself. In addition, at the doctrinal level, Ukraine was increasingly positioned as a fundamentally different project, drifting further and further towards Western values. From the point of view of foreign policy, it was with regards to the Ukrainian issue that Russian interests in the field of security were discriminated against in the most acute form. Economic issues here also acquired political overtones: Moscow could put pressure on Kyiv with gas prices and threats to diversify its transit, but it was clearly losing to the European Union and other Western players in the very model of economic integration. It is not surprising that all those contradictions that had accumulated after the Cold War made themselves known in Ukraine.
Realising that the game was being played according to fundamentally unfavourable and discriminatory rules from the Russian point of view, Moscow not only slammed the table with its fist and brushed the pieces off the board, it also decided, figuratively speaking, to hit its opponents hard on the head with this board. Rivalry “according to the rules” turned into a fight, the field of which is Ukraine. At the same time, on the part of the West itself, there is a degree of irritation, discontent and rejection of Russia, proportional to its own discontent or even surpassing it. The West is frustrated by the very fact of a decisive rebellion, its senselessness in terms of the balance of benefits and losses, and the ruthlessness of Russian pressure. Hence the obvious non-selectivity and emotionality of retaliatory strikes, a bizarre mixture of sanctions bombings, plans to confiscate Russian property, defeat the “oligarchs” (the most pro-Western wing of the Russian elite) and equally senseless bullying of the Russian cultural, sports and intellectual elite, and society as a whole. Only the threat of a direct military confrontation with Russia keeps them from using military force.
The West has every reason to fear the “Russian rebellion.” Worries about a liberal world order arose long before 2022 and even before 2014. Compared to Russia, China poses a far greater danger. If the “Russian rebellion” is successful, it will become clear that China’s ambitions will be even more difficult to contain. Moreover, unlike Russia, China can offer an alternative economic model, and its own view of democracy, as well as a different ethic of international relations.
The success of the “Russian rebellion” may become a prologue to much more systemic challenges. Therefore, the pacification of Russia for the West has become a task that clearly goes beyond the boundaries of the post-Soviet and even the Euro-Atlantic space.
Meanwhile, in the actions of Moscow, there have been signs of progress that are unpleasant for the West. Yes, the Western blockade will increase the lag and backwardness of the economy. Yes, military operations are costly. Yes, they can cause unpredictable social reactions and even present a challenge to political stability. None of these challenges, however, are capable of knocking Russia off its political course from now on. Moscow is slowly developing an offensive and seems to be determined to integrate the occupied Ukrainian territories into its political, information and economic space. Ukraine faces not only colossal economic and human losses, but also the threat of losing territory. Large-scale Western aid is having an effect, making it difficult for Russia to act. Apparently, however, it is not able to stop Russians: infusions of military equipment are simply ground up by military operations. The longer the conflict drags on, the more territory Ukraine could lose. This presents the West with the unpleasant realisation that it is necessary to reach at least a temporary agreement with Russia. It will be preceded by an attempt to reverse the military situation. However, if it fails, Ukraine will simply not be able to stop the further loss of its statehood.
In other words, the “Russian rebellion” has a chance to end in success in the sense that it may end in a fundamental reformatting of a large post-Soviet state that has recently been hostile to Russia. It will show the readiness and ability on the part of Russia to back up its claims with the most radical actions.
Will the success of the rebellion mean its victory? This will depend on two factors. The first is the international political implications. A military success in Ukraine could set off a chain of global consequences leading to the decline of the West. However, such a scenario is far from predetermined. The West’s margin of safety is high, despite its apparent vulnerability. The readiness of other non-Western players to give up the benefits of globalisation for the sake of abstract and vague political guidelines like a multipolar world is completely unobvious. It is likely that the West will have to endure the new status quo in Ukraine, but this does not mean the defeat of its model. Russia does not systematically challenge this model and does not have a complete picture of how to change it. In Moscow, perhaps, they believe that the model has become obsolete and expect it to collapse by itself, but this conclusion is far from obvious.
The second factor is the consequences for Russia itself. By avoiding promoting a global alternative to the liberal order, Russia will at least have to decide on a programme for its own development. So far, its contours are also built mainly around the denial of the West and its models in certain areas. Given that, the vast majority of other non-Western countries, while defending their sovereignty, are actively developing and cultivating Western practices that benefit them. These include the organisation of industry, developments in the field of science and education, and participation in the international division of labour. The rejection of such practices, just because they are conditionally “Western”, as well as the “cosplay” of Soviet practices created amid different historical conditions and left in the distant past, can only increase the difficulties that Russia is currently facing. The preservation and development of a market economy as well as an open and mobile society remain among the most important tasks.
From our partner RIAC
BRICS creating early warning system for epidemic risks
In their final declaration, leaders of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) at the end of their 14th summit hosted by China, have emphasized their commitment the need for creating complex early warning system for epidemic risks within the group, and underscored that the member states must be better prepared for future healthcare emergencies.
The group also advocated “equitable distribution of vaccines” and called on international agencies and charities to purchase vaccines and boosters “from manufacturers in developing countries, including in Africa, to ensure that the manufacturing capabilities being developed are retained.”
Russia has been advocating for closer collaboration among the members, but China seems to be the fastest in taking actions concerning health related matters. Under the leadership of Russia, it first proposed cooperation on countering infectious diseases as a priority for BRICS. The final joint declaration of the 2015 BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, has instructions by the leaders to work consistently on managing the risk of disease outbreaks.
“We are concerned about growing and diversifying global threats posed by communicable and non-communicable diseases. It has a negative impact on economic and social development, especially in developing and in the least developed countries,” said the 2015 BRICS declaration.
Among the group, China and India were ready to step up the sharing of information, and experience with BRICS countries and conduct joint research and development of drugs and vaccines based on respecting each other’s sovereignty and national conditions.
During the rotating chairmanship of South Africa, it firmly re-proposed the creating of full-scale coordinating research and development center and planned to be located in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Nevertheless, there has not been any practical achievements in that direction. Then Covid-19 began in December 2019 and was declared pandemic the following year by the World Health Organization (WHO). As China took the helm of BRICS, effective from January 2022, experts and research analysts have since showed deep interests and were further discussing possibilities of multilateral cooperation, existing challenges and identifying diverse priorities, the strength and weaknesses of BRICS.
With noticeable efforts, BRICS has consistently been pushing for diverse health initiatives, most especially vaccines, to halt the coronavirus pandemic that has shattered the global economy. There are Chinese and Russian vaccines, both reported as effective and safe, and currently getting ready to ramp up large-scale production.
March 22 marked the launch the BRICS Vaccine Research and Development Centre, involving the heads of relevant agencies from the five countries. The initiative to establish the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center was incorporated in the final declaration of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa (July 26-27, 2018).
The main objective is to share best practices and strengthen practical cooperation in research, development, production and distribution of vaccines to ensure their greater availability. The new format is designed to develop mechanisms for the prevention, diagnosis and prompt response to new viruses, as well as to ensure timely and widespread Covid-19 vaccination.
The launch of the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center is considered as a major achievement of the five-sided cooperation, in strengthening cooperation in the field of healthcare in particular through the implementation of the Russian initiative to establish the BRICS Integrated Early Warning System for preventing mass infectious disease risks, in the Chinese chairmanship of the BRICS.
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin explained, during his regular media briefing on March 23, that the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center and workshop on vaccine cooperation would be a network of internet-based virtual centers, and the establishment of physical centers would only begin later after comprehensive feasibility assessment.
As the BRICS Chair this year, China hosted the 14th BRICS Summit in June under the theme of “Foster High-quality BRICS Partnership, Usher in a New Era for Global Development” and public health and vaccine cooperation are among the key areas of BRICS cooperation this year. At present, the pandemic is still dragging on across the world.
The establishment of the BRICS Vaccine R&D Center demonstrates the determination of BRICS countries to focus on vaccine cooperation, deepen public health cooperation and build a BRICS line of defense against Covid-19.
“We hope that the vaccine R&D center will pool the strengths of BRICS countries, further promote scientific and technological cooperation among BRICS countries, enhance the five countries’ capability of preventing and controlling infectious diseases contribute to the global fight against Covid-19 and make new contributions to international public health cooperation,” Wang Wenbin explained during the media briefing.
The BRICS countries are making efforts to contribute to an enhanced international cooperation to support the efforts of countries to achieve the health goals, including the implementation of universal and equitable access to health services, and ensure affordable, good-quality service delivery while taking into account different national circumstances, policies, priorities and capabilities.
The BRICS member countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) collectively represent about 26% of the world’s geographic area and are home to 3.6 billion people, about 40% of the world’s population and a combined nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$16.6 trillion.
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