Russia is grappling with a resurgence of COVID-19 but its "vaccine diplomacy" is succeeding worldwide


by Ksenia Svetlova | July, 2021

Spotlight: Russia & The Middle East

Vladimir Putin


NATO and Russia are heading for a collision in the Black Sea


It has not been long since the first meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin was held, and the tensions between Russia and NATO are already reaching new heights, this time in the Black Sea. Since Russia annexed Crimea, it has been incessantly active in the Black Sea, often carrying out naval maneuvers on its own or in collaboration with other countries, such as Egypt. This time it was NATO that held a comprehensive naval exercise known as Sea Breeze in the Black Sea.


Thirty-two countries from six continents, some of whom have conflicting interests, participated in Sea Breeze (Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates to name but a few). Moscow views this maneuver as a strategic threat, and an indication of NATO's ongoing expansion. NATO HQ announced in early June that one of the objectives of this exercise was to provide protection from actions taken by hostile elements against the large underwater cable system transmitting huge quantities of communication and information between the United States and Europe.


No NATO member to date has recognized Russian sovereignty over Crimea (some years ago, during the war in the Ukraine, Moscow was still hopeful that they would). Russia is therefore concerned about increased NATO activity in an area it finds both strategic and vitally important – the Black Sea. During the recent crisis between Russia and the Ukraine in April, the United States sent its warships to the Black Sea (in collaboration with Ankara), causing great stress in the Kremlin.


It seems the meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva was not all that friendly after all. Biden is determined to strengthen NATO and reinstate it. Moscow believes this policy cannot but harm Russian interests, inter alia in the Black Sea. Therefore, Sea Breeze is more than just another international naval exercise. It should be treated as a substantial display of NATO's force, aimed first and foremost at Russia.



Russia finds opportunity in Lebanon's nosedive


The political and economic crisis in Lebanon is getting worse by the day, and while the EU is threatening to impose sanctions on senior Lebanese officials, Russia is looking for ways to expand its clout in Lebanon, and bolster its strength in the region. A high-level delegation visited Lebanon in late June, forming a package of technical recommendations for improving Lebanese seaports (a particularly painful subject in light of the huge blast that destroyed most of the infrastructure at the Port of Beirut in August 2020) and building barns. Russia is also offering to build two powerhouses in Lebanon, and improve the infrastructure at the oil refining facilities in Al-Badawi and Al-Zahrani.


Russia views Lebanon as a strategic asset – it is adjacent to Syria geographically and close to it economically. Since the civil war broke out in Syria, business owners have been using Lebanese banks to avoid western sanctions. Many Russian companies are also active in the Lebanese financial field to avoid being blacklisted by the EU and United States. Russia is identifying many opportunities in the chaotic situation created in Lebanon, which, until now, was under western-Saudi influence (as well as Iranian in Hizballah strongholds in southern Lebanon and the Dahiya Quarter). If it were not for the current crisis and western governments' concern over Iran's and Hizballah's growing clout, the senior Lebanese officials would not have frequented the Russian capital as often as they did over the past twelve months.


Now that Russia was able to set roots in neighboring Syria, for instance, in the Mediterranean, where it is constantly increasing its presence, it has its eyes set on Lebanon. The Lebanese may not have cash to pay for Russian services, but they have seaports, as well as considerable deposits of natural gas in the Mediterranean – enough for Russia to want to become involved in Lebanese affairs. Iran's presence does not deter it, since Russia has been able to work with Iran in Syria too, despite their disagreements and conflicts of interest. It is not trying to save Lebanon as much as promote its own long-term interests in the Middle East while Lebanon is collapsing.



The virus is hitting Russia again – how will its resurgence affect Russia's status as a vaccine supplier?


Russia was one of the first countries to introduce an anti-covid vaccine to the world, and even started to market it globally immediately. But now the number of COVID-19 infected cases, as well as the pandemic's morbidity and mortality rates across the Russian federation are soaring, whereas the number of people vaccinated with the Russian Sputnik-V and other Russian-made vaccines remains small. According to official data, it amounts to a mere 16.7 million people (Russia's population is some 140 million), of them just 24% are over the age of 60. Russia is offering its citizens a range of three vaccines – all made locally – but they do not trust the vaccine or the system that produced it, and choose not to get vaccinated.


A shortage in vaccines is being reported in remote areas, even though they are manufactured on Russian soil. The local government has recently begun to make its policy on cafés and restaurants more stringent, requiring that they check customers' vaccination certificates, have them show proof of having recovered from COVID-19, or a valid negative test for the virus. It is also starting to insist that various workplaces demand of its employees to get vaccinated. So far, this change in policy has not led the millions of Russian citizens who oppose the COVID-19 vaccine to change their minds.


The difficulties on the way to vaccinating the population in Russia attest to the local health system's inefficiency as well as to a severe trust crisis between the state and its citizens. Russia is not a democracy; however, when citizens choose not to get vaccinated, they are, in effect, voting against the regime. Will the new breakout of the pandemic in the country that produces and markets vaccines across the globe affect Russia's "vaccine diplomacy" and its status worldwide? Third world countries in Asia and the Middle East who have no other alternative continue to purchase the Russian-made vaccines, and will probably keep buying it for lack of a better option, and because the Russians (and Chinese) were the first to offer and market it.


Despite the difficult state that Russia is in, it is still managing to market its vaccine and advance its ties with several countries around the world using "vaccine diplomacy". Even G-7 countries are lagging behind Russia and China in this area. The West should take a long hard look at Russia's effective and sophisticated foreign policy, which allows it to promote its goals across the globe even when its domestic situation remains extremely complex.




Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.


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