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Vaccine vs geopolitics? Political ambitions may slow down battle against global pandemic

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Foreign pharmaceutical companies have been vying with one another in being the first to announce the launch of an anti-coronavirus vaccine and having it registered by healthcare authorities. Meanwhile, the Russian vaccine “Sputnik V”, which was the first to be presented to the world, has demonstrated 95 percent efficiency in the third, mass-oriented phase of clinical trials. Presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov has said the Kremlin expects mass immunization against coronavirus to begin before the  New Year». The 2nd Russian vaccine, “EpiVacCorona”, which has been developed by the Novosibirsk-based “Vektor” Research Institute, is to enter the public market on December 10th. «Mass vaccination with this vaccine will begin in 2021». It can be assumed that  the effectiveness of the vaccines, along with their share  of the market, will produce a substantial impact on the positions countries adhere to in  international relations.

According to the World Health Organization, up to 48 prototype vaccines are being put to trial at the moment. 11 vaccines which are currently in the third, most extensive phase of the testing, have been developed in Russia, China, the USA, a number of EU countries, and India.

The first fears over the possibility of vaccine-development efforts being transformed into a race for geopolitical influence emerged in the spring, after President Donald Trump announced Operation  Warp Speed. The White House expected American private companies, extensively supported by the government,  to become the world’s first to develop an anti-coronavirus vaccine, which would enable the United States to radically advance forward in terms of returning to the usual economic and social life, while the rest of the world was plunging into the abyss of the pandemic. Washington’s initiative was quickly dubbed as an attempt to put into practice the slogan “America Above All” in the socio-darvinistic sense of the word. Similar accusations came even from US de jure allies.

Strengthening international influence through “vaccine” diplomacy has a vast potential. According to the German branch of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which Die Welt cites, if the  leading developing countries, and the donor countries, turn out to be unprepared to render a considerable, up to 16 billion dollars at a time, assistance to the rest of the world, «countries with low purchasing power will be able to guarantee vaccination to only  20% of the population». «If the first two billion vaccine doses land in rich countries alone, deaths of coronavirus throughout the world will increase twofold». Let alone trillions of losses for the world economy.

Countries which will succeed in giving priority to a large-scale vaccination of the population, will be the fist to “end the lockdown, open schools and restaurants”, thereby guaranteeing a quick restoration of national economy. Those who will be able to provide the world with effective and cheap vaccines are bound to expand their influence worldwide. A number of countries thus get a chance to “secure recognition as public benefactors and thereby win more influence than they did in the 20th century with the help of ideology”  – Dmitry Trenin, President of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said in an interview published by Der Spiegel.

Under medical estimates, to put an end to the pandemic “vaccination should cover 60-70% of the population”. In global terms, it means immunization of billions of people. The current potential of the global healthcare system is contained in reports by the World Health Organization about vaccination of children. More than 1 billion children have received different kinds of vaccines in the past 10 years. 116 million infants were immunized in 2019, which makes up 85% of all newborns over this period. Considering  the  above estimates, it’s no  wonder there are concerns that the required scope of vaccination will unlikely be achieved in most countries before 2024.

Countries’ readiness to buy this or that vaccine directly depends on trust in the developers. For this reason, they are using political arguments to compromise the competitors. After Moscow became the first to register “Sputnik V” vaccine on August 11th, doubts and  objections regarding the Russian vaccine quickly acquired a political lining. While acknowledging the repeatedly proved competence of the Gamaleya National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology,  many representatives of the  western academic community expressed doubts and launched the traditional accusations against Russia of late.

China has been a target too, being blamed for replacing the “mask diplomacy” with “vaccine diplomacy”. Beijing’s readiness to subsidize the supplies of Chinese-made vaccines to poor countries was interpreted by the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger as an intention  to “shun responsibility for the crisis, improve its reputation and re-write the history of the pandemic”. China is accused of plans to build a world “order in which all he rules and  rights will serve the interests of China. It is a system of dependencies and debts Beijing can resort to at any time in order to cement its own supremacy”. If  the West turns out to be incapable of presenting a trustworthy program of overcoming the coronavirus pandemic through vaccination – “with honest conditions and  without political commitments”, most  of the  world will “find itself fully dependent” on Beijing.

Among other attempts to undermine Russia’s and China’s credibility are accusations of “stealing data” which allegedly helped the two countries to accelerate the vaccine development process. This summer Britain, the United States and Canada jointly came out with accusations against Moscow. While doing so, western officials “insist that their spy services’ efforts pursue purely defensive agenda”. However, a number of sources in The New-York Times among former and present power officials have acknowledged that “the reality is far from black and white”. One more fabricated story says that not only western media but a number of high-ranking officials have accused Moscow and Beijing of “supporting a movement against vaccinations” in the West.

Until recently, western experts doggedly pushed the idea about “the insufficient reliability” of the vaccines developed by Russian and Chinee specialists. They came up with ungrounded doubts as data credibility in all three mandatory phases of testing the effectiveness of the vaccines. A few days ago, on November 29th, British experts speaking on Canadian CBC, acknowledged the “credibility” of data about the high effectiveness of  “Sputnik V”. Professor Steven  Evans, who deals with pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has pointed out that “Sputnik V data and the results demonstrated by other vaccines impart “genuinely important information for health scientists across the  globe” about the possibility of combating  COVID-19 with the help of immunization”.

Apart from all this, there are considerations of direct business competition. A dose cost of most vaccines, developed in the USA and Europe, will be higher than those produced by Russian or Chinese pharmaceuticals. The price of Pfizer- BioNTech in the EU will total 15,5 euro for a dose including a discount on advance payments of several billion euros. A dose of vaccine from Moderna will cost wholesalers $25–37. Only AstraZeneca promises a vaccine «for 2,50 dollars», but only during the pandemic and on condition there are “considerable” state subsidies. In September, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte accused western manufacturers of giving priority to profit. Meanwhile, there are plans to supply the Russian “Sputnik V” to foreign countries at a price of 10 dollars per dose.

In terms of logistics, an essential feature is storage and transportation temperature. “Sputnik V”, like vaccines from AstraZeneca and Moderna, can be stored in ordinary fridges. By contrast, to preserve the effectiveness of Pfizer-BioNTech the fridge must maintain temperature at -70 degrees Celsius.

Russian officials underscore that Russian vaccines run into a negative attitude only in the West. Meanwhile, the Russian vaccine is welcomed in Latin America, Asia, Africa and in the Middle East.  According to the Russian Direct Investment Foundation, which was a co-sponsor of “Sputnik V”, “over 40 countries” have expressed readiness in obtaining 2 billion doses. Owing to the unprecedented production volume, “it will be difficult not to find clients but partners with sufficient production facilities”.

Limited production facilities, even in countries with an advanced pharmaceutical industry, have triggered a new upsurge of “vaccine egoism” not only in the United States, but also in Europe. According to the German Die Welt, Germany and Europe were quick to reserve the first 300 million doses of Pfizer-Biontech. Accusations against the United States were thus forgotten, and the status of “above all” went to the  Germans. “The arguments are quite similar to the previous ones”. German Health Minister Spahn said openly that  “he would have difficulty explaining” “…….the fact .that the Germany-produced vaccine would be used in other regions of the world earlier than in Germany proper”. Berlin “wants 100 million of 300 million doses reserved for Europe”, “though in per capita calculations the FRG would need only 57 million doses”.

In the opinion of pessimists, given the situation the world  risks disintegrating into “vaccine blocs”. The more costly vaccines, developed on the basis of the new “promising” matrix RNA technology, previously used only in the treatment of cancer, “will be in use mainly in wealthy developed countries”. Most other countries will be unable to independently pay for their production, storage and delivery. The equally effective  but de facto cheaper Russian and Chinese vaccines are likely to become the only options for countries of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Surprisingly, the fact that Moscow and Beijing are ready, unlike the USA, to subsidize the supplies of their vaccines to other countries is seen by western commentators as a plan to create “a system of dependencies and debts”.

However, the position of Russia has nothing to do with such statements. During the G20 online summit  President Vladimir Putin emphasized that “our common goal is to form the vaccine portfolio and provide the population of the planet with reliable protection. This means that everybody will have a lot of work to do, and I think that it is just the case when competition is inevitable,  but we must proceed from humanitarian considerations and attach priority to this in the first place”. Later, Vladimir Putin yet again underscored Moscow’s readiness to “share the experience gained with all countries  concerned and international organizations”.

The officially undeclared “vaccine race” is becoming an important element of inter-state rivalry”. At present, cutting-edge medical technologies embody major components of national power and prestige. They reflect the level of economic, scientific and technological development, the efficiency of government management.

Undoubtedly, inter-state competition has throughout history been a stimulus of economic and technological development. However, the global pandemic cannot become a stimulus for a demonstration of imperial egoism, less so an instrument of guaranteeing the advantages of some nations over others. Judging by the experience of the  past century, such a conduct is fraught with new catastrophic upheavals. 

From our partner International Affairs

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Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba Back to Russian University

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The Russian Foreign Ministry is preparing for the second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, July 2023. At the Russian Foreign Ministry, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Mikhail Bogdanov has held a special meeting with the heads of diplomatic missions of African states accredited in Moscow. 

Bogdanov briefed them on the preparations for the summit, as well as the second International Parliamentary Conference “Russia – Africa” planned for March.

Deputy Chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Alexander Babakov and Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky made presentations on the concept of the second Russia-Africa International Parliamentary Conference. It was noted that the parliamentary event is regarded as an important stage in the preparation of the Russia-Africa summit.

Representatives of the leadership of the Roscongress Foundation, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade, and the Department of State Protocol of the Russian Foreign Ministry took part in the discussion and discussed the entire range of issues related to the organization of the second Russia-Africa summit. 

The African diplomatic corps got acquainted with the architecture of the program of upcoming events, as well as with the organizational and protocol aspects of the stay in St. Petersburg of the heads of state and government of African countries and the leaders of leading regional organizations and inter-African associations.

The heads of African diplomatic missions expressed a consolidated position in support of the speedy restoration of the name of Patrice Lumumba in the name of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. In February 1961, the university was named Patrice Lumumba University after the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, who had been killed in a coup that January. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the name of the Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba, was removed and now authorities are attempting to fix back to influence African leaders to the forthcoming summit.

Established in 1960, it primarily provides higher education to Third World students during the Soviet days. Many students especially from developing countries still come to this popular university from Latin America, Asia and Africa. It is Russia’s most multidisciplinary university, which boasts the largest number of foreign students and offers various academic disciplines. 

In a related development, on January 30, Ambassador-at-Large, Head of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum Oleg Ozerov also held talks with Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister for African Integration Ashraf Sweilim as part of his trip to Cairo, Egypt.

Ozerov emphasized the significant contribution of Egypt, which co-chaired the first such summit in 2019, to the development of this format for coordination of actions and comprehensive cooperation. The progressive build-up of Russia’s economic ties with the African continent, where a significant role in cooperation was played by Egypt, was noted.

A thorough exchange of views took place on the current state of Russian-Egyptian relations and the prospects for strengthening cooperation, including within the framework of joint activities under the auspices of the African Union and the League of Arab States. The second Russia-Africa summit will be held July 26-29 in St. Petersburg, the second largest city, in the Russian Federation.

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Destroying the concept of truth: Russian propaganda uncovered

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Authors: Dr. Maria Alesina and Ivan Kolpakov*

The world has fully realised the power of the Russian propaganda machine only after the 24th of February 2022. The full-fledged invasion of Ukraine would have been impossible without the popular support – or at least silent toleration – of the Russians at home. That this support would be the case was hard to believe. Yet it turned out to be a reality. The reality with far-reaching consequences for Ukrainians, Russians, and the entire world.

From supporting Putin’s decades-long rule to enabling his aggressive external actions, Russian state propaganda has become a factor significantly influencing world’s history. Russia’s intervention in internal political affairs and socio-political discourses of other countries is a widespread phenomenon. For years, state-sponsored media outlet Russia Today (RT) has been impacting public opinion in countries across the globe, spreading fake news and alternative interpretations of reality. However, the product offered by Russian media internationally is a child’s game in comparison to the propaganda targeted at Russia’s own residents.

Irresistible power of entertainment

It is not a coincidence that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was followed by shutting down of the last remaining independent media in Russia. The occupation of Ukrainian territories came together with immediate blocking of the access to Internet and Ukrainian media in favour of streaming Russian television. Alongside the system of state violence and political repressions, propaganda is one of the two key elements used by Vladimir Putin to manipulate the society.

The machine of propaganda did not appear overnight. It has been methodically constructed in the course of the past twenty years, since the very moment when Putin got into power. First, he has monopolised the television as a means to control his political ratings and the elections’ results. In the same way, later, he took full control over the national press and the Internet.

Contrary to what many would imagine, the propaganda machine does not work in a rigid and straightforward way. More than anything, it is based on a modern and addictive entertainment industry, providing vast and diverse content about pop-stars, style, travel, food. And in the midst of this flow of entertainment one finds socio-political content with propaganda-infused messages.

Furthermore, political content itself is presented in an entertaining manner. Presenters of the news programs on the major TV channels talk to viewers in a tabloid-style language. In the studios of the political TV shows, opponents are fighting and insulting one another. Shock and outrage are the main drivers behind these shows’ ratings.

Meanwhile, the Russian propaganda machine is a deeply institutionalised ecosystem, where each player has its own ‘niche’: Telegram-channels are needed for introducing fake news, which are later spread through second-rate online media. After that, in an already ‘legalised’ form these fakes are overtaken by the major TV channels.

To an uncritical viewer, it might even seem that this media-curated socio-political discourse includes certain debates and alternative points of view. In reality, any discussions are carefully constructed and controlled. In this regard, radical patriots are as dangerous for the Kremlin as radical opposition, as their performance is difficult to contain. Everything that does not fit into the narrow margins of the official discourse thus simply gets deprived of air time.

Alternative truth – or lack thereof as such?

Russian propaganda does not simply suggest an alternative version of reality. It undermines the very concept of truth as such. State-controlled media relativize concrete events and developments with such messages as ‘nothing is that evident’ and ‘we will never find out the whole truth’. Information about objective facts is commonly substituted with conspirological statements and narratives that do not require evidences and coherency. In this narrative, the West is heading towards moral degradation, Russia’s army is the second strongest in the world, and the Ukrainian nation does not exist as such. This provides Russians with a comforting sense of their country’s moral superiority and the strength of its leadership: ‘everything is under control’, ‘everything goes according to the plan’.

This brings us to the key element of this vicious circle. A common consumer of propaganda is a person who has Soviet-times experience of media consumption: he or she knows that media can be lying. Yet media are not blamed for that, since their role – by history and by habit – is seen differently. Official media is not necessarily a source of relevant facts and information but a source of the general sense of orientation – be it moral, socio-political, or cultural. They are the main channel through which political agenda ‘from above’ reaches ordinary citizens and provides them with ‘guidelines’ on how to interpret reality. 

The state propaganda machine has become closely associated with Putin’s regime. However, consumers’ habits might eventually turn out to be even more long-lasting than his rule. The main problem thus lies not only in delivering and spreading independent information inside the country but in making Russian citizens perceptive to such information. Considering the global spill-over effects of the ‘brainwashing’ inside Russia, this is something that the world needs to be ready to fully understand and properly tackle, at least in a long-term perspective.

*Ivan Kolpakov is a Russian journalist, writer, one of the founders of the Sol newspaper, editor-in-chief of the Meduza newspaper from 2016 to 2018 and since March 2019.

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Any “red lines” left for Putin?

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Image source: kremlin.ru

“Red lines” have become a ubiquitous narrative of Russian-initiated conflict with the West. Putin repeatedly used “red lines” as a warning metaphor for the West, trying to establish his boundaries of international influence. The “red lines” acquired this warning connotation in his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly on April 21, 2021, to be repeated several times later up to February 24, 2022. As explained by his press-secretary Dmitriy Peskov and many other Russian politicians and experts, “red lines’ relate to Russian national interests, outlining its national borders. 

And not only Kremlin but the West also talks about “red lines”, though the West sees “red lines” in using nuclear weapons by Putin in his futile attempt to conquer Ukraine. 

When addressing the nation on February 24, 2022, announcing an invasion of Ukraine, Putin said that any “interference” in Ukraine by outside powers would be “a red line” for Russia. However, the West started to support Ukraine long before the Russian invasion supplying Javelins and intelligence information. The West certainly interfered in different ways from the first day of the Russian invasion providing more weapons, ammunition, humanitarian aid, volunteers, anti-Russian information campaigns, sanctions, intelligence sharing, and military training, to name a few. 

All Kremlin’s propaganda targets the inner audience first. When they speak to the West, at the same time, they address ordinary Russians. The apparent importance of “red lines” for the Kremlin, the ability to show that they are not violated, made the West artfully create information campaigns before supplying new deadly weaponry to Ukraine. These information campaigns aim to provide valid arguments for such supplies as a response to the escalation of the war from the Kremlin’s side. At the same time, they shift attention from the weaponry itself to “conflicts” inside the NATO countries around the supplies. They expose various technical problems, such as a lack of trained personnel to master new weaponry, no service maintenance base, and others. Finally, these information campaigns often highlight Kremlin’s atrocities against civilians (Bucha and missile bombing cities, villages, and critical infrastructure).

We have seen these tactics successfully employed more than once. The Kremlin’s loss of information war has become evident from the beginning of the war. However, when one talks about supplying Ukraine with modern tanks to fight against the Russian army, it takes one to be a master of information tactics to supply the tanks and not to break this crucial “red line.” For the last two decades, Putin has made the Victory of the USSR in the Greta Patriotic War (WW II in the Western tradition) the main achievement of recent Russian history, utilizing it as a unifying myth for multi-national Russia. This myth also serves as a justification for its aggressive foreign policy. Furthermore, this makes it very painful for Russia to think of fighting with foreign tanks, especially german tanks, making this red line very thick and visible.

Nevertheless, the West could dilute it without any seemingly essential consequences. Let’s see how it was done.

The German play: at first, Olaf Sholz, Chancellor of Germany, said that Germany would allow Leopard tanks to be sent to Ukraine only after US Abrams; this statement gets immediately refuted by the German Minister of Defense; the refutation followed by supporting statements in the US media that even go as far as saying that the German position irritates Washington.

The Polish play: first, Poland says that it can send a Leopard tank to Ukraine; then it refutes it; then Poland threatens that it would send the tanks even without Germany’s consent, to be followed by a statement of Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs that Germany would not block Poland sending tanks to Ukraine.

All these “conflicts and disaccords” happen before an official decision-making session in Rammstein format. Then the plays continued with Boris Pistorius, recently appointed Germany’s Minister of Defense, who, after the meeting at Rammstein, not only said that there were other countries besides Germany to disagree on shipping tanks to Ukraine (although he never revealed which ones), but also hinting later that the decision on tank shipping could be negative. In such a case, the decision would become irreversible. They even remembered a previous German Minister of Defense who allegedly refused to conduct an inventory of available Leopard tanks.

Less than five days later, a positive decision is taken, making it hard to believe that such significant disagreements and confusion could exist not only inside Germany’s government but also between leading European countries and the US. Of course, conflicts and disagreements might exist, and they do exist for different international topics. However, it is hard to imagine them being so publicly visible on such a vital issue as the Ukraine-Russia war. The war has been going on for almost a year now, and effective mechanisms of communication and decision-making must have been developed, at least in such an essential part of it as military aid.  

After the war’s beginning, the West took a principal position in the war: to provide diverse support to Ukraine to fight against Russia. All sanctions and humanitarian and military aid issues get communicated, coordinated, and then agreed upon. 

According to Francis Bacon’s famous quotation, knowledge is power; this power comes with information, and information comes with noise. The West utterly understands it employing this understanding with art and craft. And the Kremlin fails to play this game. Instead, this wonderful chaos of noise prior to any critical decision allows for diluting more and more “red lines.”

These information tactics allow the West to supply Ukraine with more deadly weapons. We will see another act of this information play before a decision to ship modern jet fighters to Ukraine is agreed upon. Then, of course, there will be the same level of “disagreements and conflicts,” but eventually, one shouldn’t doubt that Ukraine will get jet fighters, starting with Soviet MIG- and SU-fighters from Slovakia and Poland, then followed by F-16s and other NATO models.

The Kremlin’s reaction is precious. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, commented on the decision to ship tanks to Ukraine, saying that it became clear to the Kremlin that there was no accord in the West in general around the issue of military aid to Ukraine. Also, the fact that the West has enough modern tanks capable of fighting with Russian remains obscure for the Kremlin, according to Peskov. This is what the Russian propaganda wants and needs to see: disagreements and conflicts. This conflict’s agenda allows them to lullaby the Russian people with tales that the support for Ukraine will wither soon and that Russians need to be patient just a little bit more. Then Victory will come, exactly like in the Great Patriotic War.

The strategy of the West is clear; no Western country wants to be at war with Russia. At the same time, Ukraine needed support, so the West started supplying it with more advanced weapons. Now the supplies happen much quicker than at the beginning of the war. The “tank case” shows this change in the western approach to the weapon supply, where a silent embargo on offensive weaponry was in effect for 11 months.

The Kremlin’s narrative of “the red lines” failed from the beginning as Russia violated international “red lines” when it invaded a sovereign state. Furthermore, this ‘red line” is not only part of Western values but is one of the pillars of the system of International Law. Another pillar of international relations is that supplying weapons and even using one country’s experienced army officers to help another country’s army in its military actions has never been seen as direct involvement in a war. No one has seen, or described Soviet military support and presence in Vietnam against the U.S., or in Egypt and Syria against Israel  as direct war between the U.S. and the USSR. 

Putin’s several public warnings to respond if NATO crossed “red lines” by providing Ukraine with certain missile strike systems remained just words. Other prominent Russian officials repeatedly made similar warnings, promising to consider U.S. and NATO vehicles transporting weapons on Ukr

The West understands that Putin’s “red lines” are for the internal agenda only. Even the fact that they are not named but outline some obscure “national interests’, allows the Kremlin to interpret them differently, twisting its propaganda around. But the “red lines” do exist. The West should not underestimate them. Inability of the Kremlin to define and observe them. It is quite obvious that the next “red line” is national borders between and Ukraine and Russia as of Feb.24, 2022. This issue lacks accord in the West. Should Ukraine get Crimea back? Should it get it now or later? Should the West publicly announce its “red lines” outlining them as the Russian Federation’s borders as of 1991? 

While these questions are still to be answered, one red line obviously exists for Putin. This line is his personal safety, and in the current power construction in Russia, Putin can secure his safety only if he retains power. When the West challenges his personal power, then he will feel the real threat. One should remember that it might be dangerous to corner a rat, especially one with a nuclear bomb. Putin’s body, ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, regularly reminds us of that, saying that “a nuclear power can never lose a conventional war.” His regular remarks clearly state that the Kremlin acknowledges its possible defeat in Ukraine, but they also warn against such outcome. We should hope that Western leaders have learned how to play with Russia and will continue the winning game, weakening Russia further and successfully staying away from nuclear confrontation.

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