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On a chilly Monday morning, the first day of March, airport workers in Košice, Slovakia, unloaded crates marked “Sputnik V” and stamped with the accompanying boast “the first registered COVID-19 vaccine,” from a military cargo plane that had just landed from Russia.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Igor Matovič, a media mogul in office for only a year who had earned a reputation as a showman while heading the anticorruption Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party, staged a press conference in front of the plane to unveil the surprise that he’d negotiated in secret with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government: 200,000 doses of Sputnik V — with another 2 million doses on order.
Telling reporters that Slovakia couldn’t afford to wait for more vaccines from the European Union, the bloc to which Slovakia belongs and usually procures anti-COVID drugs from, Matovič thanked Moscow for “its correct approach,” adding that the delivery proved that Russia is “a stable partner we can rely on in these hard times.”
For the landlocked Eastern European nation of nearly 5.5 million people, the arrival of additional vaccines, wherever they came from, was a welcome sight, at least at first. More than 10,000 Slovakians had died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, one of the world’s highest death rates per capita, and more than 350,000 people had tested positive for the disease. With the flow of vaccines into the EU coming in slower than anticipated, and Slovakia having administered only a little over 300,000 shots, Matovič promised that the boxes of Sputnik V (pronounced “vee”) would quickly boost the country’s inoculation program by 40 percent.
Because Sputnik V is not yet registered with the European Medicines Agency, it is still not widely available in the EU. Meanwhile, the Lancet, the prestigious medical journal, recently published results of a study showing that the vaccine had an efficacy rate of 91.6 percent. So, for a brief moment, the event on the tarmac in Košice seemed like a public relations coup for both Matovič and Putin.
But there was one big problem: The contents of those crates did nothing to help Slovaks snuff out the coronavirus. Slovakia’s State Institute for Drug Control last week announced that upon inspection, the agency found that the vaccine was different from the one reviewed in the Lancet.
"The vaccine batches used in the preclinical tests and clinical studies published in the Lancet do not have the same characteristics and properties as the vaccine batches imported into Slovakia," the State Institute for Drug Control told Yahoo News in an emailed statement.
Even before that revelation, however, Matovič’s surprise deal with Russia was not sitting well with many in his own government.
The delivery was “a real shocker — a big surprise to many,” Daniel Milo, a senior research fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, told Yahoo News. Among those who were flummoxed when they saw the press conference: Matovič’s partners in the country’s four-party ruling coalition, which only two weeks before had definitively nixed the use of the Russian vaccine until it received EMA approval. The cheerleader for transparency had simply gone behind their backs to score his Sputnik V stash.
Slovakian Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, a former ambassador to the U.S., went ballistic when he heard the news, slamming Sputnik V as “a tool of hybrid war,” and added that use of the Russian vaccine prior to approval “divides us here at home, it divides us abroad, it questions processes in the EU.”
And divide it did: Within days of the delivery, the Slovakian government was on the verge of collapse, Matovič was ejected from the prime minister’s seat and relations with Russia bottomed out.
Calling the State Institute for Drug Control’s assessment “fake news,” “an act of sabotage” and part of a “disinformation campaign,” the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which produces Sputnik V, demanded that Slovakia send back the shipment, alleging a breach of contract. But Matovič, who went on to become finance minister, wasn’t done playing prime minister. He jetted to Moscow and devised another plan: to send Slovakia’s vaccine for testing to a lab in Hungary led by pro-Putin Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — a move that undercut Matovič’s own drug authority. And six weeks after the vaccine’s arrival, not one human in Slovakia has had the Sputnik V shot.
Critics of Putin say the chaos that has resulted from the vaccine shipment was part of a calculated plan to sow division in Europe and beyond.
“It’s part of a divide-and-rule strategy,” Pavel Havlíček, a foreign policy analyst at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told Yahoo News. Havlíček, like others who have watched the saga unfold, believes Matovič was played by Putin. “Russia is trying to undermine trust” in leaders, governments and “the state agencies that regulate drugs. They are trying to undermine trust in the EU. They are trying to disseminate mistrust among the member states,” some of whom are now competing to purchase the Sputnik V vaccine.
Milo concurs. “Russia’s strategy seems to be working — using this ‘salami method,’ just cutting deals with one country after the other and entering into bilateral negotiations,” instead of dealing with the EU as a bloc. That, he believes, was “first and foremost their goal from the very beginning.” He remains mystified by what he called the “Sputnik Affair” — including the fact that Matovič is trying to resolve the vaccine questions “by sending the Slovak samples to a Hungarian laboratory — a hugely unusual move.”
The terms of the agreement reached between Matovič and Russia for the vaccine also remain a mystery. “The whole deal is very murky,” Milo said. Despite mounting calls for the contract to be made public, “no one knows how much we had to pay for these 200,000 vaccines or potentially for 2 million doses.”
Russia’s “alleged breach of the contract is also very strange since the contract was not made public,” Milo added. “How could [the State Institute for Drug Control] know that they are breaching a contract if they haven't seen it?”
While Matovič became prime minister in 2020 in part thanks to the public outcry over the killing of muckraking journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, the Sputnik V scandal promptly erased any gains Matovič had made fighting corruption; his approval rating plummeted to 19 percent.
“Only a year ago, Slovak citizens believed in a change for the better — in the return of decency to public life. Igor Matovič trampled that hope,” said Viktoria Jancosekova, a Slovak now working in Brussels as manager for the president of the Martens Centre of European Studies. “The year of his rule is already considered to be the most chaotic year in Slovak politics. Besides tarnished relations with the neighbors, the president and the coalition partners, also Slovak scientists and diplomats are publicly distancing from him.”
The “Sputnik Affair” in Slovakia may not bode well for India, another nation reeling from COVID, which this week gave emergency approval to the Sputnik V vaccine — though that country is already fretting over Putin’s promise to supply Pakistan, India’s neighbor and foe, with all the vaccines it needs.
Russia reports the Sputnik V is currently used by more than 50 countries, despite few public details about its supply and production. Demand for Sputnik V has skyrocketed in recent weeks, with countries such as Austria and Germany negotiating purchases contingent on approval from the European Medicines Agency.
But the vaccine Russia approved for use last August — before undergoing crucial phase III trials with tens of thousands of humans — appears to be just another tool in Putin’s arsenal of political tricks designed to ensure that “Russia is seen as a superpower,” said Agnieszka Legucka, an expert on post-Soviet Russia at the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs. She described a number of other tools, including disinformation campaigns, relief packages sent worldwide and stamped “From Russia With Love,” and military might.
Sputnik V, she noted, is the only new export of value that “Russia has developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Martens Centre, believes that unrest in Russia is what’s powering Putin’s vaccine diplomacy.
“Putin is embattled at home. He’s probably in the worst domestic political crisis of his entire career,” Freudenstein told Yahoo News. “[Jailed Putin critic Alexei] Navalny and his health have taken a turn for the worse. And Putin knows exactly what happens if, God forbid, Navalny should die. That's why he’s doing these charm offensives, on the one hand, to the West, and on the other hand, he’s playing tough on Ukraine’s eastern border and threatening war. All this is definitely to distract from his domestic problems.”
Added Legucka, “Putin changed the Constitution to be able to rule until 2036, and Russians are not happy with that. And they are not happy with the economy, because since 2013 their real income is dropping year by year.” With the pandemic, the situation worsened, she said, “and the potential for protests is still pretty high.”
Late Wednesday evening, the Slovak Spectator reported that Russian officials had reportedly sought to send another shipment of Sputnik V vaccines to Slovakia. Thus far, Slovakia has yet to accept the offer.
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