Putin Fired The Wrong Shot: Make Vaccines Not War 

President Putin seems to think more about hard power than the more subtle influences of soft power. He should think again. He threw away a big soft power advantage when he invaded Ukraine, and now it’s the force of soft power at its most effective that might finish him. Helen Ramscar outlines the issue.

Exactly one year ago, Russia`s Covid-19 vaccine – Sputnik V – was magnetic within international relations. At a time when most of the world did not have access to any Covid-19 vaccine, the soft power appeal of Sputnik V relaunched Russia on the world map. Suddenly countries around the world were desperately knocking on Moscow`s door for help. In offering its vaccine globally, Moscow was making gains in presenting itself as a competent and effective global health leader and in a magnanimous light. No longer was its biochemical reputation synonymous with polonium and Novichok poisoning, these Sputnik V vaccines were coming from Russia with love. Even though Sputnik V was very short on scientific rigour, it was long on global appeal when the world was in the grips of pandemic. 

One of President Putin`s long-term goals has been to divide the EU, and the soft power asset of Sputnik V was doing it. Hungary was the first EU member state to break ranks with EU vaccine solidarity when it unilaterally approved Sputnik V, and administered its first doses on 13 February 2021, prior to approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Slovakia was the second. Germans wealthy enough to embark on `medical tourism` were scrambling to fly to Moscow just for the jabs. Sputnik V’s rapid foray into new markets in Latin America was notable too. By March 2021, reportedly no fewer than 50 countries had struck bilateral deals with Moscow for its vaccine. It was clear then that Covid-19 was likely to circulate for a long time, requiring regular immunisations, and that Sputnik V was altering track lines of global trade. Furthermore, once manufacturing and distributing Sputnik V within new markets was routine, it was reasonable to assume trade deals on a wider range of issues could follow in the vaccine`s wake.

Yet, fast forward just one year and Putin`s amassing of hard power around Ukraine, culminating in the full military invasion in February 2022, has finished Sputnik V`s soft power potential to recast Russia`s reputation. The international community has quickly responded to Putin`s heavy metal attack with unified soft power retaliation. Russia is now the most sanctioned country in the world. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) – Russia`s sovereign wealth fund that invested in and promoted Sputnik V – is among those sanctioned. Putin`s kleptocracy has been shut out of the SWIFT banking transfers arrangement. International sporting events have fallen like dominos to cancel Russian involvement. No shots fired but massive blows to Putin`s body politic.   

The Ukraine crisis has shown starkly just how potent a force soft power can be when deployed effectively. If President Putin had understood the spectrum of power, and had a well-conceived map of modern Europe, by investing in vaccine diplomacy one of his major foreign policy goals could still be underway. Instead, he chose violence and, in a matter of days, united Europe like never before. A revitalised EU has emerged almost overnight – one that has shown it can move at speed and scale in a crisis, and skillfully deploy massive soft power with real impact. 

Helen Ramscar`s latest book, with Michael Clarke, is Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I. B. Tauris /Bloomsbury, 2021.