Russia’s vaccine diplomacy is eviscerated as Ukraine invasion rumbles on

Isobel Cockerell


As sanctions begin to bite, Russia is struggling on all fronts. And the steady gains it made in international vaccine diplomacy during the pandemic are being eviscerated. 

Only a month ago, countries like Kenya and Gabon abstained from voting in the UN security council over the Ukraine crisis. “The reason for this is that they were recipients of brotherly fraternalism from Russia and China in the form of vaccine diplomacy,” said Bociurkiw during the London panel. When countries accept vaccines, he said, they have to know the rules. “It was payback time.” 

That all seems to have melted away now. Vaccine diplomacy can only go so far, it seems: Gabon and Kenya were both on the list of countries that voted in favor of the UN General Assembly motion condemning the invasion on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Sputnik V is fighting hard against Western sanctions. In normal times, Sputnik’s Twitter account is engaged in heavy Pfizer-bashing, even making deceptive comparisons between the Western vaccine and erectile dysfunction medication

Right now, though, Sputnik has pivoted to using anti-vaxxer language about “Big Pharma,” suggesting that sanctions against the vaccine’s “non-political” main investor, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, will prevent billions of people from accessing what Sputnik calls the “world’s most effective vaccine.” 

For the record, the Russian Direct Investment Fund is otherwise known as “Putin’s slush fund,” according to the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. And though the basic science behind Sputnik looks good, the lack of transparency and holes in the Russian research project have done much to dent trust in the vaccine. 

The effects of this can be felt in Guatemala, where a million Sputnik doses have gone bad, because nobody could be persuaded to take the vaccine. 43% of Guatemala’s population is vaccinated, and Guatemalans reportedly simply don’t trust the Russian vaccine. Visiting a storage facility where the shots have been left to spoil, opposition leader Orlando Blanco said Guatemala was due to lose more than $26million “due to the irresponsibility of the government that did business with the Russian Investment Fund.” 


As civilians pack themselves into trains to flee Ukraine’s besieged cities, the country’s Ministry of Health has issued a statement urging people not to forget about Covid. “The medical system asks for solidarity and understanding among the population, because now the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine need maximum support. Now you can’t get sick – you need to be healthy!” Unfortunately, the invasion will invariably create a perfect storm for transmission across the region, and the WHO has already warned the country is running “dangerously low” on oxygen supplies. 

Something you might have missed during Sergey Lavrov’s hourlong statement yesterday was his mention of the US’s “chemical and biological facilities built all across the Russian borders,” which he cited as a motivation for the invasion. This narrative of holding up American-built laboratories as an excuse to invade is part of an old Kremlin disinformation campaign claiming the US is waging “germ warfare” on former Soviet countries. The conspiracies are designed to stoke fear and paranoia, and these labs — which are really there for epidemic prevention — have been consistently blamed for every outbreak in their vicinity, be it stink bugs or Covid-19. Claims that Russia is targeting American labs are now being pushed by QAnon adherents, who somehow believe Putin is fighting a war against their so-called deep state.

There have been a lot of attempts this week to get into Vladimir Putin’s head. “Did Covid send Vladimir Putin mad?” ran several news headlines, alongside pictures of him at the end of that now-infamous $110,000 gilded dining table. “After two years of being isolated from Covid, he’s been living in a world of his own,” Michael Bociurkiw, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council said at a London panel this week. The Russian president has whittled down his circle of cronies right down to – well, no one. On Russia’s last independent TV channel, host Mikhail Fishman described how the leader “is alone with only his most loyal people, who basically live with him — his adjutants, his servants in a way, who make his way of life possible…They, of course, think he is sent by heaven to save the world.”


Russian disinformation is tearing families apart. In the New Statesman, Olia Hercules writes a devastating first-person account of how she lost her uncle to the “badly acted nonsense that comes out of their TVs.” She writes: “To me he is dead. Like in a zombie apocalypse movie. He and his family were bitten and they are no longer themselves.” It’s a searing, heartbreaking read. 

Is Putin immune-compromised? Maybe. He’s clearly petrified and paranoid of death, writes Coda’s contributing editor Peter Pomerantsev in Time. Unlike the rest of us, though, Putin can project his fears onto sovereign nations — and the invasion is just a way to “forestall his personal, inevitable demise.”