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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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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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