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The German push to buy Russia's 'soft power vaccine'

Ian Bateson
May 6, 2021

Early on in the pandemic Germany committed to purchasing all vaccines through the EU despite delays. Now some want to make an exception for the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.

A hand holding vials of Sputnik V
Sputnik V has not yet been approved by the EU's medicine agency, EMAImage: Akhtar Soomro/REUTERS

On a trip to Moscow at the end of April, the state premier of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer , announced plans for Germany to purchase 30 million doses of the Russian COVID vaccine Sputnik V to be delivered in 10 million installments over the summer.

 This announcement sent out ripples of surprise when it came from a state premier and not a federal official. Once back in Germany Kretschmer soon backpedaled stating that he had not signed an agreement and only the federal government could order vaccines abroad.

 Michael Kretschmer in Moskow
Michael Kretschmer, member of Angela Merkel's CDU and premier of Germany's eastern state of Saxony made big announcements in MoscowImage: Pawel Sosnowski/Sächsische Staatskanzlei/dpa/picture alliance

But for months, German state premiers have been pushing for access to the Russian vaccine. That mounting pressure led Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn to announce negotiations with Russia over purchasing Sputnik V at the beginning of April.  

The idea of opening unilateral negotiations with Russia seemed to mark a major reversal after Spahn and Chancellor Angela Merkel previously committed to purchasing all vaccines collectively at the EU level. Despite an early lag in vaccine procurement, Germany had kept to the policy. The EU has not yet approved the Sputnik V vaccine, and Angela Merkel stressed that this would still be the prerequisite for any purchase. 

Strong support in East Germany  

 The state premiers of the east German states of Saxony, Thuringia, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and Saxony-Anhalt have all expressed a desire to purchase Sputnik V. Before reunification in 1990, those states were part of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, which was part of the Eastern Bloc of Soviet-allied Communist countries.

Sputnik V raises hopes in Moscow

Saxony-Anhalt State Premier Reiner Haseloff who is up for reelection next month defended his decision by saying that he was vaccinated against polio with a Russian vaccine in the former East and, as a result, had no issues with Russian vaccines.    

In the east, support for the Russian vaccine goes hand in hand for some with a distrust of the federal government and a sense that East Germany and its accomplishments continue to be overlooked.

 "East Germans became very distrustful of the state over the decades and now that means the government in Berlin," said Silke Satjukow, a Russia expert and professor of history at Halle University who was vaccinated as a child in the GDR with Soviet vaccines. She says many Germans from the eastern states still identify with Russian scientific achievement.

  But Sputnik V also has appeal beyond the east. Last month Bavarian State Premier and one-time chancellor hopeful Markus Söder announced a preliminary agreement between his state and a plant located in Bavaria to produce 2.5 million doses of Sputnik V. Since the pandemic began, state premiers' poll numbers have been closely linked to their management of the pandemic.

But then a new law was introduced at the end of April, giving the national government power to impose restrictions on states to curb the pandemic, ending the patchwork of state-by-state measures which had led to some confusion. Securing their own vaccine supplies seemed to become a way for premiers to prove themselves as effective crisis managers. 

Graphic showing where Sputnik V has been approved for use

Sputnik V as Russian soft power  

 From the beginning, Sputnik V has been a prestige project for the Kremlin. The vaccine was the first to be registered worldwide, and its name is an allusion to another Russian scientific victory, the Sputnik satellite that became the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Russia has prioritized pushing the vaccine abroad to promoting it at home, where only 5% of the population has been vaccinated.  

So far, 61 countries have approved Sputnik V and 28 countries are vaccinating with it. The Russian vaccine plays a particularly important role in developing countries, which do not have their own vaccine programs and have been unable to compete with wealthier countries for more desirable vaccines.  Being able to offer vaccine supplies at a time when many countries are still struggling to procure doses has given Russia a new soft-power tool to promote its influence. 

 Questions about whether to approve Sputnik V have divided governments in the EU. In the Czech Republic, two ministers were fired in a week in part because of their opposition to importing the Russian vaccine. In Slovakia, the prime minister's decision to import  200,000 doses of Sputnik V led to a political crisis and his resignation.   

"Russia is trying to employ the vaccine as a political tool globally to insert instability, division, and polarization in the political scene," Jörg Forbrig, director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told DW. He sees vaccine diplomacy as a new way for Russia to implement its existing strategy to encourage division in Western countries in order to weaken them.

Russia offers all-inclusive vaccine tours

East-West rift

In Germany he sees that conflict playing out between state premiers pushing for Sputnik V and the EU, which has declined to purchase the vaccine, with the German federal government caught between the two. 

Concerns about Russia instigating such conflicts have not been ignored in Germany's government. After Kretschmer's trip to Moscow, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) criticized the move. Speaking to reporters, Maas remarked that he assumed Kretschmer had also brought up the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the situation in eastern Ukraine and didn't simply "allow himself to be used."

Meanwhile, Health Minister Spahn has admitted that the vaccine may not be needed by the time it receives the necessary approvals from European Medicines Agency (EMA). German state premiers have said they will wait for EU approval before administering the vaccine, and Germany is expected to have sufficient vaccine supplies from other sources by the third quarter of the year. 

The EU's European Medicines Agency is currently reviewing Sputnik V but it is unclear how long the process is expected to take.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.