By: Isabel Oriol Llonin
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the race to develop a vaccine began. It was expected that the US, Europe, or China would lead. Russia emerged as an unexpected force developing one of the first vaccines to be approved worldwide: the Sputnik V. Named after the USSR’s world’s first satellite, the Sputnik V claims a 91% efficacy after the second dose.
After the Sputnik V’s trial phases results were published, many international health experts were skeptical of the early approval of the vaccine, thus questioning the scientific rigor used in the trials and the safety of the vaccine. The official Twitter account for the Sputnik V dismissed the criticisms, claiming it was ‘big pharma lobby’ and ‘anti-Russian propaganda’.
Figure I: Sputnik V doses arriving to Argentina on March 2021 (Argentinian Health Ministry).
Today, the Sputnik V has been registered in 60 countries around the world, approximately half of them have purchased doses. Latin America is one of the first regions to seriously incorporate the Russian vaccine into their vaccination strategies, with 9 countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela) having purchased collectively 60 million doses so far. But how did the Sputnik V vaccine become so on-demand in Latin America?
Unequal worldwide vaccine distribution
When vaccines began to be approved for mass use and deliveries began towards the end of 2020, numerous health organizations and world leaders, including the WHO, warned about the potential unequal distribution of vaccines around the globe. Several months into vaccination rollouts the warnings were correct: until March 2021 high-income countries, which represent 19% of the global population, had purchased 54% of the globally available doses.
High-income countries were accused of ‘hoarding’ vaccines at the expense of the rest of the world, including Latin America. The Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, called out the inequitable vaccine distribution worldwide at the UN Security Council, of which Mexico is a non-permanent member. Further on, the production delays faced by many western pharmaceuticals exacerbated the unequal distribution of vaccines by prioritizing the supply of high-income countries.
Latin America, just like many other non-western regions of the world began to seriously ponder alternative suppliers to the western-produced Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. This is where the Russian Sputnik V, and other vaccines like the Chinese Sinovac, began to be more attractive for Latin American leaders. Argentina led the way by being the first country in the region to approve the emergency use of the Sputnik V vaccine in the country, followed by a negotiation with Vladimir Putin for an initial 5 million dose purchase. Many other Latin American countries followed.
Sputnik V: a soft power move by Russia?
Sputnik V is providing Russia with much more than just the profit gained from producing and selling the vaccine. A once distanced world power from Latin America has managed to be featured in the front pages of Latin American newspapers, to hold highly media-covered negotiations, to receive the praise of Latin American presidents and leaders, and to be overall, once again talked about. An old-fashioned soft power move.
Soft power is an international relations concept coined by Joseph Nye in 1990. Understanding power as ‘the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one prefers’, Nye sees soft power as ‘the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment’. Soft power has been used to describe the type of influence that some nations have that is not based on military force or economic power or the threat of them (hard power), but rather the positive and attractive ideological or cultural influence of a country.
In a world that is so desperately looking for a way out of the pandemic, with mass vaccination at its core, Russia is capitalizing on the failures of the west by providing life-saving affordable vaccines to millions. While the past few decades the influence of Russia in Latin America has been unremarkable, with the exception of a few countries, current developments point out a shift in dynamics.
Vladimir Putin has received praise from many Latin American presidents for Russia’s role in supplying the region with Sputnik V doses. Mexico’s López Obrador publicly thanked Putin after the initial agreement to purchase 24 million doses while extending him an invitation for an official visit, media outlets were quick to point out that other leaders such as Joe Biden have not yet received such invitation. After being vaccinated himself with the Sputnik V, Argentina’s Alberto Fernández reassured his confidence in the vaccine and thanked Putin for his commitment to supply vaccines to Argentina.
Moreover, citizens of diverse countries in Latin America are increasingly favoring the Russian vaccine. Polls show that the Sputnik V vaccine is the most trusted vaccine in Argentina and Peru, the second most trusted in Mexico, and the fourth in other countries such as Brazil or Chile. While Russia continues to hold negotiations with Latin American leaders regarding the vaccine supply, most recently with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, its widespread use is becoming more accepted among Latin American citizens. The Russian objective of being seen once again as a world power, through scientific leadership and cooperation, could be making its way into the region.
While the US remains the dominant world power in the region, Russia is capitalizing on a power vacuum generated by both the pandemic and the recent Republican American leadership, and while Latin American countries need not choose between one or the other anymore, Russia’s approach should be a cautious one. While the situation is still developing and the Russian Sputnik V vaccine has the potential to be the opening door for closer, more substantive economic and cultural relations with Latin America. This could mark the beginning of a new period for Russian-Latin American relations.
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group, as part of the ‘Russian Strategic Interests in Latin America’ research project led by Alessia Cappelletti and Isabel Oriol.
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About the author:
Isabel Oriol Llonin is a contributing analyst at Dyami. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and has a post-graduate degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has expertise in the Latin American region and the public international law implications of conflict analysis.