SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Russian vaccine propaganda is deepening divisions in conflict-riven Ukraine

Conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and Sputnik V boosterism are a new front in the ongoing war between Kremlin-controlled separatists and government forces

In the village of Milove on the Ukrainian border with Russia in Luhansk oblast, Ukrainian retired sailor Vladimir Tertishnik has not seen his daughters and grandchildren for more than a year. One daughter lives in Crimea, annexed by Russia, the other in Russian-controlled breakaway territory not far from Milove, and coronavirus restrictions have practically closed the borders with them both. 

Tertishnik’s village was once a backwater, best known for smuggling petrol and cigarettes across the poorly guarded border. But, in 2018, a tall barbed wire fence was erected by Russia along a street named Friendship of Nations, splitting the community into two: Milove in Ukraine and Chertkovo on Russian territory. The smuggling has stopped, and now relatives and neighbors on opposite sides of the street have to travel to border checkpoints to visit each other. 

The divisions in the village, and the country, have imposed a heavy economic and social cost on Milove, but when asked how his life has changed, the first thing Tertishnik mentions is the coronavirus — and vaccination in particular. The 73-year-old is angry because Ukraine does not use Russia’s Sputnik V shot, so he has to receive one of the several Western formulas registered for use in Ukraine.    

“I think Sputnik is better, because it’s been through so many tests and is being used in lots of countries,” he said. “These others, their quality is questionable. Even the media often says so.”  

The pandemic has created a tidal wave of disinformation in nations across the world. But in Ukraine, the conflict over lockdowns and vaccinations has been deepened by the fault lines of a war between government forces and Russia-controlled separatists in the east of the country since 2014. So far, the conflict has claimed 14,000 lives. It has also entrenched divisive narratives over whether Ukraine should look west towards Europe or east to Russia, that have led people like Tertishnik to favor an unobtainable Russian vaccine over the ones freely available at their local hospital. 

Tertishnik’s preference for Sputnik V is strongly linked to nostalgia for the Soviet era, which he remembers as a time of order, certainty and harmony. Economic hardship, the new borders separating him from neighbors and family, and conflicting media messaging — he says he watches both Russian and Ukrainian TV — have exacerbated his sense of grievance. Conversations with him are peppered with assertions that Russians and Ukrainians were friends for centuries before the West interfered, and that Ukraine is little more than a Western puppet state. 

To date, less than 10% percent of the population have had one or two coronavirus shots. Pandemic conspiracies and vaccine hesitancy can be found across the nation’s social and political spectrum. A survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in April found that 53% are not willing to be vaccinated, mainly because they fear that the shots have not been sufficiently tested. 

However, the biggest numbers of those uncertain or unwilling to be vaccinated were in the eastern and southern regions which are traditionally more Russia-oriented. A March survey by the independent research organization Rating Group Ukraine found consistently more vaccine hesitancy and refusal among supporters of the three main pro-Russian opposition parties in Ukraine. Those respondents were also more likely to trust Sputnik V than other vaccines.  

Ukrainian politicians don’t have to be pro-Russian to criticize the government’s pandemic response and vaccine policy. But research published in April by the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic service, has detailed how Russia’s “vaccine diplomacy” drive has used state-controlled and proxy news outlets, along with social media, to undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, EU institutions and vaccination strategies. A report from the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre identifies how this disinformation campaign in Ukraine aligns with broader attempts to divide society and turn the country’s vector from west to east.

In February this year, the Ukrainian government announced it would not register Russian Sputnik V. Most of the EU, including France, Germany and Italy, had also not approved it, citing missing clinical trial data. But the Ukrainian government ruling explicitly bans Covid-19 vaccines developed or produced in an “aggressor state.”  

The ban provided a prime opportunity for Russian media, and pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine, to accuse the government of committing “genocide” of its people for political purposes. It also tied neatly into the long-term disinformation narratives that divide the country, accusing the West of pushing Ukraine into war in 2014 and, now, of experimenting on Ukrainians with vaccines, to the benefit of big business. 

While Ukraine negotiated for vaccines from the EU and the World Health Organization’s Covax program, Russia scored a propaganda goal by providing Sputnik V to separatist territories in east Ukraine.

The pandemic had already damaged increasingly tenuous ties between Ukraine and the eastern and Crimean territories it lost to Russia in 2014. Pre-Covid-19, more than a million people, mostly residents of separatist territory, crossed the de facto border in east Ukraine every month. When politicized quarantine restrictions restricted crossings, those people were largely deprived of family contact, jobs, Ukrainian pensions and other benefits, in addition to a shared information space.   

Ukraine initially closed all the de-facto borders with what it refers to as its “temporarily occupied territories” in March 2021, as part of a strict nationwide Covid lockdown. The government was keen to emphasize the alleged disastrous level of coronavirus infections in Russian-controlled territories, although real figures were impossible to come by. Restrictions were lifted after three months, but immediately imposed by separatists in the east and Russian-annexed Crimea, who cite Ukraine’s inability to cope with the coronavirus crisis. 

The separatist-imposed restrictions have remained in place ever since. Currently people must provide numerous documents to justify their trip over the de-facto border in order to obtain permission to cross at a set date and time. Just one crossing there and back is allowed a month. 

Konstantin Reutsky, who heads the Ukrainian NGO Vostok-SOS providing assistance to residents on both sides of the frontline, believes there is no epidemiological justification for the separatist-imposed restrictions. Instead, he says, they are just another tactic in the information war. Ukrainian media is blocked on separatist-controlled territory — and even in some adjoining Ukraine-controlled areas — and Russian and separatist media portray Ukraine as on the verge of economic and social collapse. With access closed, people have no opportunity to see that in fact Ukraine is rebuilding and developing areas close to the frontline. 

Russia and separatist authorities “don’t want people to see that things are better on this side,” said Reutsky. “Covid was an excuse.” 

People walk across a checkpoint between Ukraine-controlled territory and territory held by Russia-backed separatists in Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine. Photo by EVGENIYA MAKSYMOVA/AFP via Getty Images

Crossing points and vaccines

After a peak in spring this year, when coronavirus infections were reaching 15,000 per day, it is hard to see how Ukraine’s currently low rates of less than 1,000 new cases a day can justify the ongoing restrictions. Ukraine’s extensive building program in the east includes a whole new crossing point on the de facto border, with banking and postal services and a center for processing Ukrainian documents and benefits. This crossing, however, has never been opened due to disagreements for which each side blames the other. 

Meanwhile, Stanitsia Luhanska in Ukraine is one of only two crossing points with separatist territories now open. Queuing to navigate the jumble of fences and kiosks on the Ukrainian-controlled side, travelers have to contend with a number of coronavirus-related complications on Ukraine-controlled territory too. A free bus service to the Ukrainian checkpoint stopped when the crossing temporarily closed last year, and has not been reinstated. Until recently, Ukrainian authorities required that inhabitants of the separatist territories take a Covid test on arrival, but took months to provide free tests.  

In June, Ukraine hit back in the Covid vaccine propaganda war. It began a long-promised government program of free vaccination for inhabitants of annexed Crimea and the separatist “republics,”, describing the move as a response to “medical genocide” against Ukrainians living under Russian occupation. 

People can book an appointment by registering online or calling a hotline, and can choose locations near the front in east Ukraine and Crimea. Those who have registered for vaccination are allowed to skip the queue at the Ukrainian checkpoint. By mid-July, 393 people had registered for the program, according to the Ukrainian Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories. 

In Stanitsia Luhanska, vaccination with the Chinese CoronoVac is available for people from the separatist “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR) twice weekly in the primary medical center. Located in Stanitsia Luhanska hospital, the center is an island of bright new renovation in a building otherwise much in need of repair. On a recent swelteringly hot day, a family had traveled over 100 km from Alchevsk in the LPR, to renew their Ukrainian bank cards and for their 28-year-old daughter, Yelena, to be vaccinated.

“I’ve been waiting for this program,” Yelena said. The announced supplies of Sputnik V to the LPR ran out in April, she said, when priority groups such as medics and police were vaccinated. Since then, the only option was to travel to Ukrainian government-controlled territory, or, for Russian passport holders, to Russia. 

“I don’t like the propaganda around it,” she added. “But there’s propaganda on both sides.” 

Yelena found out about the Ukrainian program from the social media page of a Ukrainian NGO. “Those who want to find information discover ways of finding it,” she said. “And those who are okay with Russian propaganda don’t need alternative sources of information.”

Yelena said that there was a good deal of anti-vaccine sentiment in Alchevsk, as well as theories that the virus was artificially created or doesn’t exist, and distrust of the Ukraine program. 

“None of my relatives, except my parents, think it’s a good idea to come here,” she said. “Even my father was, like, ‘How do you know they’ll give you a vaccine? There’s a shortage of vaccines in Ukraine’. He’s skeptical, he doesn’t trust the government.”

Yelena’s experience at the clinic did not change her father’s mind, but by the end of their visit her mother, trembling with nerves, also got her first shot. 

While people like Yelena make the complicated journey west over the frontline to get a vaccine in Ukraine, Natalia Kravchenko, a doctor administering the program in Stanitsia Luhanska, would prefer to look east. She yearns for Soviet-era health care and research which she considers to still be effective and strong in Russia.

“I, personally, would like to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. I was born in Russia and have a Russian mentality,” said Kravchenko, who is in her 50s. “But we inject with what they give us. It’s all politics. We were friends and now we’re enemies. What can you do?”       

One village, two vaccine drives

Back in Milove the local hospital, which is being renovated as part of a $235 million European Investment Bank program for east Ukraine, had vaccinated just 410 people by mid-July from a population of 5,800. A mobile brigade from a nearby town is also providing shots.

“Everyone reads on the internet,” said Iryna Smyrnova, the hospital’s head of secondary medicine. “They all call now and ask, ‘What vaccine is it?”

The majority who do get vaccinated in Milove are keen to get Pfizer or AstraZeneca shots manufactured in the U.K. or Europe, according to Smirnova. Not because they think those vaccines are any more trustworthy than others, but because the vaccination certificate will allow them to leave both government and separatist Ukraine and travel abroad. 

Even Tertishnik has registered to get a Western vaccine. “I don’t think it’s better, I think Sputnik is better, but those up top decided,” he said. 

When asked for the reasons behind his decision, he replied, “I want to live a bit longer, and see my grandchildren.”  

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Lily Hyde

Lily Hyde is a British writer, journalist and editor specializing in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. She lives in Kyiv and has written for The Guardian, The Times, Foreign Policy and Politico. She has written extensively on Crimea and the war in east Ukraine.