How to win friends and inoculate people: Russia’s vaccine diplomacy in Africa

Charmaine Manuel | Europe & Eurasia Fellow


Image credit: Marco Verch

Writing in Foreign Policy in 2001, the global health advocate Peter Hotez

made the case for stronger international alliances to eradicate diseases. Citing various unusual historical precedents, like the United States collaboration with the Soviet Union to develop the polio vaccine, he argued that cross border co-operation to develop vaccines could go beyond improving global health and could prove to be a powerful tool for global cooperation, even amongst countries with tense relations. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved otherwise. Instead of the kind of global cooperation advocated by Hotez, we have seen competition, nativism and rising powers jostling to further their own interests through vaccine diplomacy.


While COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines of global inequality across all bases, nowhere is this more apparent than in the distribution of vaccines. As wealthier countries have purchased more than what they need to inoculate their populations, poorer nations have been left under resourced and scrambling to contain the virus. In this vacuum, countries such as China, Russia and even rising powers such as India (before its disastrous second wave) have seen a golden opportunity to win influence and project a positive global image in developing nations that are key to their strategic aims. In the case of Russia, its overtures to African nations provide an interesting study in how ‘vaccine diplomacy’ might help the Kremlin to re-invigorate its ties with the African continent.


Under First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, the Kremlin took an enthusiastic approach to relations with the African continent, creating opportunities for African students to study in the Soviet Union, providing military and infrastructural aid and hoping to steer fledgling African nations into a socialised model of development. However, the breakup of the Soviet Union caused a long hiatus and significantly reduced this two-way dialogue. Several decades later, Russia looks to revive those ties in order to expand its sphere of influence.


Souring relations with the West have opened up opportunities for China and Russia to cement friendships within Africa. Paul Stronski from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that “contemporary Russia has tried to capitalize on a lack of association in the minds of many Africans with colonialism and imperialism”. Africa is a promising market and this new ‘Scramble for Africa’ sees former colonial powers trying to retain their links to the continent against new competition from Russia and China.


Russia has many incentives to re-engage with African nations-access to abundant raw materials, a market for Russian arms and the potential to establish Russian energy companies in the region. Russia has cancelled around $20 billion worth of debt in Africa which goes a long way towards bringing the continent into Russia’s orbit. The cancellation of debt has been particularly influential in fuelling Russia’s diplomatic activities in the United Nations (UN). African nations make up a quarter of UN member-states and bi-lateral agreements in other spheres can help bring them in Russia’s corner in international settings such as the UN. For example, at the UN’s 2014 General Assembly, 35 African states abstained, voted against or did not show up to the Resolution against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Stepping up in a time of need not only portrays Russia as a benign alternative to Western nations but also lays the ground for further quid pro quo deals in domestic or international settings.


As wealthier nations strike bilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers, poorer nations are reliant on receiving doses from COVAX, an initiative led by the WHO and other global health organisations, which aims to provide enough doses to vaccinate up to 20 per cent of their populations. While these doses barely scratch the surface, wealthier nations have bought more than 60% of the world’s vaccine supply, often purchasing several times the number of doses needed. For example, the EU, UK and USA have purchased more than three times the vaccines needed for their populations, while Canada has purchased nine times the amount of doses needed. Africa on the other hand had only procured 0.2 doses per person by January 2021.


The West’s vaccine nationalism and COVAX’s limitations provides a perfect opportunity for Russia to step into the breach, cement its existing ties and further its strategic aims. In February 2021, Russia offered 300 million doses with financing to the African Union and claims that it has received orders for 2.4 billion doses of the Sputnik V vaccines from 50 countries. However, Russia’s aggressive promotion of its vaccine is somewhat dampened by the fact that it has only vaccinated around 6.8% of its own population.


The pandemic will re-shape the global order in a multitude of ways with vaccine donations playing an important role for countries like Russia to step up their soft-power diplomacy. In fact, the very name that Russia has chosen for its vaccine-Sputnik V-is indicative of Russia’s ambitions to gain ground during this pandemic. Harkening back to the Cold War Space Race, the Russian vaccine was named after the Sputnik satellite. Its name evokes the pinnacle of Russia’s achievement and its striving for influence against the West and goes some way towards hinting at what Russia hopes to achieve out of this global crisis.


Charmaine Manuel is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.