New Pivot of the Russian Soft Power Initiative: Covid-19 Crisis and Advantages of Having a Vaccine

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Kenneth Waltz presages that politics affect health and vice versa. This is a regenerating process that would repeat itself. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, the world economy is having tough times, similar to the situation in the Great Depression in 1929. Actually, it is not the only case that a health issue affects the political and economic structure of the world. To exemplify, Thucydides asserted that the plague altered the character of Athenian politics made the policymakers more aggressive, and triggered its decline. Secondly, quite similar to the current Globalization trend, the Roman Empire pioneered the expansion of the global trade web. It had become easy for illnesses to spread easily. Likewise, the Cyprian Plague began in 265 AD led to territory losses, depopulating cities, and even threatened the capital. Also, the Bubonic Plague that happened in the sixth century changed the Byzantine Empire from a rising one to a failing one. Additionally, both developing transportation techniques and the occurrence of World War I enlarged the impact of Influenza in 1918-1920.

In recent years, Russian foreign policy is accused of being an aggressive one. Indeed, compared to the first years of the collapse of the USSR, Russian foreign policy turned into a more active one that focuses on regaining its sphere of influence. Theorized as the “Near Abroad” or “Russkiy Mir-Russian World” policy, inspired from the fear that appeared among the Russian ruling elite following the Orange (2004), Rose (2003), and Tulip (2005) Revolutions happened and labeled as “US-orchestrated” or “NGO-special operation “by Russian bureaucrats (Wilson and Popescu 2009, 319). This feeling of being under a new encirclement policy, even in the post-the Cold War circumstances, changed Russian relatively amicable relations with the West and goals to integrate with the international political community. Albeit, some scholars called this a “Cold Peace” period.

Additional to its “petro-sticks and petro carrots” to secure national interests, Russian authorities created a soft power initiative and related instrumental bodies. At first sight, Russian authorities see soft power as a threat that needs to be resisted and actively countered and as an antidote to the Western efforts (Osipova,2014, p.63-64). For a detailed understanding, it is crucial to remind what soft power is. At the beginning of the millennium, a Harvard Professor, Joseph Nye, referred to a new idea as soft power, which is basically the power to influence other states through cooptation, rather than coercion, and can be divided into three components: political legitimacy, economic interdependence, and cultural values. (Nye,2004, p. 7) . Some scholars and professionals defined it as the formalization of a crucial American foreign policy tool that was used successfully during the Cold War. In order to achieve goals in the Russian national agenda, Russians living abroad (compatriots or minorities), Russian language, common history and culture, Orthodox Church, media, even social media, and recently medical instruments used.

Covid-19 Crisis: Advantages for Russia

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Regardless of the social and humanitarian side of the crisis, professionals and politicians mainly focus on the economic impact of the pandemic. It seems that an increasing number of economic vulnerabilities all over world, would lead to further devastation in all aspects of life. For example, IMF expects about 3% to narrow down in the global economic giants of the global markets like China, the US, or OECD countries. It is anticipated that the unemployment rate in the US would be about 15%, and the national debt would be about %100 of its GDP, which has never been the case since the end of the Second World War. On the other hand, there would be a 6.2% decrease in the Chinese GDP, and considering the supply-chain problems that happened at the beginning of the pandemic, several MNC’s would give up their FDI flows to China, MNC’s lead a production center shift in the world market and Chinese economy would be effected harder. Also, as the interruption in production than consumption, oil prices became the lowest since 2002. In relation to this, a narrow economic down is unavoidable in OECD countries too. It is estimated by WB that the unemployment rate in OECD countries would rise from 5.8% to above 10%. Russia, which is highly dependent on oil and gas prices, would undoubtedly be affected by this too.

Soft power is something that is directly related to economic capabilities. The Russian economy is not performing well even before the pandemic, and Russian prestige has been challenged in terms of hard power applications in Southern Ukraine, Crimea in democratic and ideological matters. In this respect, considering the emergency, Russian technical ability to produce vaccines, provide medical supplies to other states creates room for its soft power initiative.

Russian authorities impose health/”Mask” diplomacy and information diplomacy to achieve their goals. Health diplomacy is sectoral diplomacy about which win-win ideology, coordination, and mutual interdependence are seen properly. In this type of track II diplomacy, non-officials like academic scholars, retired civil and military officials, public figures, and social activists engage in dialogue for conflict resolution. Health diplomacy dates back to the first International Sanitary Conference so as to cope with trending illnesses like yellow fever or the plague, held in 1859. Health diplomacy is a way of both improving bilateral or multilateral relations and public health. Mask diplomacy is a kind of popular saying introduced specifically for the ongoing contagion in which masks are the main protectors of us against the Covid-19 virus and the main material of humanitarian aid.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s first target of mask/health diplomacy was Europe, in which the division and distrust between the Northern and Southern states are growing. It is not a secret that Russian policymakers dream of a divided Europe and used the pandemic as an opportunity for this. It is believed that what Russian bureaucrats are trying to succeed is to lift of sanctions imposed and eventually to become a stronger actor in the European market, specifically in the Eastern and Southern regions. For instance, Russia sent “a long list of medical equipment” to Italy, but authorities did not provide any data about the actual cost of this package. Despite having much less information about the Russian aid, the Italian people were affected much by this move. It is referred by research institute SWG that Italian public opinion changed in favor of Russia; polls detected a 15 percent increase in Russia’s approval rate in comparison to 2019. On the other hand, Italian people’s trust in the EU has fallen from 42 percent last September to 27 percent in 2020 (Baer-bader, 2020 ). However, in the light of the recent developments and rising awareness among EU member states, plans to provide about 3,5 trillion Euros aid to the member states, the impact of this Russian maneuver would decrease.

Nevertheless, reminding the popular phrase as “No one is safe unless everybody is safe,” it seems mass vaccination is the sole solution to eradicate the virus and give an end to the crisis. Currently, there are three Russian vaccines against Covid-19. The first one of them is called Sputnik V, probably a referral to the Cold War ( Sputnik was the first missile sent to space by USSR in 1957), announced to be “working effectively enough” in August 2020. However, it is criticized by several Western and supranational scientific bodies that during the production process of the Russian “sputnik” vaccine, authorities skipped the third stage of a human-testing part. The second Russian vaccine against the Covid-19 virus is named EpivacCorona, launched in October 2020. The third Russian alternative is introduced in February 2021. Unlike the previous vaccines, this one is the whole-virion vaccine, asserted to be more effective against mutations and called Covivac.

It is widely accepted that vaccines are a matter of competition, and even what a country chooses to buy, whether Chinese, American, European or Russian alternative, become a determinant of tendencies and future political agenda. As a part of this understanding, vaccines become a resource of pro and counter state or wing propaganda. In the light of such tendency, even technical measurements and criteria are used. For instance, at first, the Russian Sputnik V vaccine criticized for not being tested on “enough” people, not completing the third phase of the vaccine-making process. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the Russian alternative became more trustworthy. For example, in November 2020, an offering coming from British AstraZeneca to have a joint study with the Russian Gamaleya Institute (Sputnik V’s maker) strengthened Kremlin’s hand in terms of recovering its prestige. Another issue about vaccine competition is because of the technology difference between Russian Sputnik V and Western rivals like Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna. It is well-known that American and European alternatives mainly focus on mRNA technology while the first two Russian products use vector and the last one use the whole-virion method. Some professionals advertise these mRNA vaccines as being modest technology and claim superiority over the other alternatives. Albeit, Russian authorities and media outlets continuously explain the details of the method and its innovated nature from the classical vector method. Also, on social media, competition, and endless assertations about all Russian, Chinese and Western vaccine solutions. It is claimed that Russian bots are using anti-vax hashtags to undermine trust in both government and science in Western countries.

Similar to energy politics, the first target of Russian marketing professionals in competition to have a great share in the vaccine market is the European Union (EU). With about 450 million population, two important vaccine formulas (Astra Zeneca and BioNtech), interruption in the production process due to the lack of capacity, the union is far from ensuring its citizens’ lives. As BBC reported, Hungary became the first Eu member state that led Russian vaccines to be used in January 2021. Following, Slovakia bought the Russian alternative, Czech Republic seems interested, and it is inserted that Italy might start producing the Russian formula in its largest bioreactor at a ReiThera plant near Rome. On 4 March 2021, European Medicine Agency (EMA) launched a rolling review of Sputnik V, which could be the first step in a process that could lead to its EU-wide approval.

Even though these developments started a new wave of discussion, if the Russian alternatives got visa for going to the EU, it would be a triumph for the Kremlin considering strengthened relations with the EU following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Europe tries to get rid of its energy dependency on Russia, enormous tries for environmentally friendly energy projects and ongoing crisis about famous Russian opponent Sergey Navalny and so-called unfair treatment of him by the Kremlin. In this circumstance, several European bureaucrats made conflicting press releases. Likewise, on 17 February 2021, the Head of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, questioned Russia’s reasons for exporting millions of doses despite a slow roll-out at home. On the other hand, a member of the European Commission, Thiery Breton, said that Sputnik V is a good vaccine as there are several good scientists in Russia. According to the statistics, the number of people who got both two doses of the Sputnik V vaccine is about 3,5 million, while the number of people who got only the first dose is about 5,4 million people.  The total number of Corona patients in the country is 4,44 million, and deaths are 94,231. Russia has the fourth-largest number of patients and deaths in the world.

Consequently, the Russian soft power initiative is a very clever move to start up, but in time thanks to Russia’s coercive actions, ideological controversies, an increasing number of rivals that care to the regions that Russia has privileged interests, and malfunctioning of the Russian economy. However, Russian political elites failed to evaluate the economy in favor of more productive methods and avoid Dutch disease. Adding, Russian counter moves to block so-called encirclement policies and soft power expansionism of the West, such as Annexation of Crimea and support given to the secessionists in the Donbas Region of Ukraine in 2014, drastically dropped the attraction of anything coming from Russia. On the other side, the emergency situation caused by the pandemic would lead to a change of negative perspective towards Moscow.  Also, thinking that there is a global diversion of attention, splits in the EU, increasing competition among China and the US, and a probable power vacuum, might give Russia a chance to take the seat and despite negative propaganda. Vaccines and related technical supremacy would be a tool for it.

İlknur Şebnem Öztemel

TUIC ACADEMY

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