The Russian vaccine is dividing Europe — even before a single dose has been delivered. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has not yet approved the Russian jab and the European Commission says the bloc will not need it. However, this has not stopped a number of member states from breaking away from the EU’s common strategy and striking their own deals.
Sputnik claimed its biggest prize to date last week, when Germany said it would begin talks to secure supplies of the vaccine.
The German move follows in the footsteps of Hungary, Slovakia and San Marino, the tiny landlocked country within northern Italy, which have already ordered millions of doses.
Other European governments, however, have steered clear.
Russia’s critics say Moscow is deliberately using the vaccine to sow division.
They give short shrift to the insistence of Sputnik’s backers that the vaccine has nothing to do with geopolitics.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė even described Sputnik V in a tweet as a “hybrid weapon to divide and rule”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Russian President Vladimir Putin also engaged in a war of words over the vaccine earlier this year.
In February, Ms von der Leyen made some rare public comments about the Sputnik jab, suggesting even Russians don’t want it.
Speaking at a news conference, Ms von der Leyen denied reports that the Russian vaccine’s manufacturer, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), had applied for regulatory approval from the European Medicines Agency.
Then she added: “Overall, I must say we still wonder why Russia is offering theoretically millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating their own people.”
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In a statement the following evening, the Russian Permanent Mission to the EU said it was “perplexed to hear” Ms von der Leyen’s assessment.
It claimed her comments were “either an effort to politicise the issue in an unsubstantiated and, indeed, deplorable way, or indicates an inadequate level of awareness of the top-level official”.
The statement added: “In full compliance with the principles of democracy and humanitarian law, inoculation in Russia is voluntary, and to date, all interested citizens are provided with the vaccine without delay and free of charge.
“An extensive network of vaccination centres has been set up and is constantly being improved, including employing modern digitalisation tools.”
The embassy insisted that efforts to supply the Sputnik vaccine to other countries were “in no way linked” to the availability of vaccines for the Russian population.
However, the statement did not provide any details on domestic or international production.
Questions have been raised around the Sputnik vaccine since Russian regulators first licensed it for limited use in August but without waiting for safety or efficacy data from a phase III clinical trial.
A peer-reviewed study published in The Lancet medical journal found the Sputnik jab to be safe and more than 91 percent effective.
A Commission spokesperson said they had no comment on the Russian statement.
The embassy also took a parting shot at Ms von der Leyen, urging the EU to rise above politics and grant regulatory approval.
It continued: “We presume that production and distribution of vaccines should be beyond politics.
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“So we hope that the EU will evaluate the Russian vaccine on the basis of scientific and humanitarian, rather than political considerations.”
The spat came as EU politicians sounded the alarm over Moscow’s actions in other domains — such as a build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border — and its treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose health is reportedly deteriorating rapidly in prison.
Since February things have not improved and fears of major conflict in Ukraine have surged.
Over the past two weeks, Russian military movements and deployments near Ukraine’s border have increasingly caught the attention of the West.
In late March, such movements were occurring in Ukraine’s east, north, and south – including through the deployment of some Belarussian troops – but, this week, the centre of gravity of Russia’s military build-up shifted towards the occupied Crimean peninsula and the Krasnodar region, which borders Donbas.
German newspaper Der Spiegel posted photos from Planet Labs Inc which show a new Russian camp around 30km from Marfivka in east Crimea.
They report the camp is some 280km by road from Ukrainian territories, and shows elements of Russia’s 58th Army.
Russian researchers have already noted units from the 58th Army have arrived in Crimea, including the 291st Artillery and the 136th Motorised brigades.
Reports hold the area was empty on March 15, with vehicles and structures gradually being built up to April 2.
Ruslan Leviev, an open source analyst with Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), located the photos of the new Russian camp.
Speaking to Der Spiegel, he warned of the “greatest concentration of Russian armed forces since 2014 and 2015″ near the Ukrainian border and called the relocation of troops a show of force by Russia.
Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu admitted the country is mobilising troops at Ukraine’s border but he insisted the unannounced military activity was a response to the “threatening military activity of NATO (…) especially in Poland and in the Baltic states”.
The minister also stated the military exercises are due to come to an end in two weeks.