‘Closer than ever to Moscow’: How Sputnik V is helping Russia regain foothold in Latin America

Rio de Janeiro: Russia has been trying to get its coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V into Brazilian arms for months, and been repeatedly frustrated by legal, regulatory and possibly even diplomatic obstacles.

That began to change as the South American nation played catch-up in the global race to snap up shots. Receiving little help from the US, which was struggling to get a handle on its own outbreak, Sputnik V seemed as good as any; Brazil’s federal government and a group of nine north-eastern states signed two deals with Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, RDIF, for a total 47 million doses. The shot is moving towards regulatory approval.

Workers place a box containing doses of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V into a refrigerated container after unloading it from a plane, at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela.Credit:AP

The vaccine has now been purchased by at least nine Latin American nations, with Brazil its greatest uphill battle.

That growing adoption reflects Russia gaining a greater foothold in the region the US has traditionally viewed as within its sphere of influence — and where the American government had boasted of steering Brazil away from Russian vaccines. It’s similar to China’s success in achieving wide use of its own vaccines in Latin America.

That has caused consternation in US diplomatic circles, although it remains to be seen if Russia’s vaccine outreach will yield deeper partnerships.

Tom Shannon, a former under-secretary of state whose long diplomatic career included several stints in the region, said the US has largely missed an opportunity to engage with Latin American governments during the pandemic, except for a recently announced plan by President Joe Biden’s administration to provide Mexico surplus shots.

Paramedics carry on a stretcher a citizen who was unable to receive a dose of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V due to health issues in Mexico City.Credit:AP

“For the Kremlin, COVID was a godsend,” Shannon said of Russia’s vaccine outreach. “This was a chance for them to restart their diplomacy in the hemisphere with a whole new face of public health intervention and they are taking full advantage of it.”

“When you have 300,000 dead, you take the help where you can get it from,” he said of Brazil.

Russia’s presence in Latin America has been limited since the 1990s, and in recent years primarily entailed an alliance with Venezuela for provision of arms and energy projects, as well as Nicaragua for arms and building emergency response capabilities. But Latin America’s arms purchases plunged as its commodities boom ended and Venezuela’s economy melted down.

Russian ties were also strong with the government of Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez Kirchner from 2007 to 2015 and appear to be reviving. As current Vice-President, Kirchner spearheaded negotiations to buy Sputnik V even when local scientists initially were skeptical of the early experimental data reported by the Gamaleya Institute that developed the vaccine.

Argentina’s embrace of the vaccine helped convince Mexico — which had struggled to get vaccines from American companies — to sign an agreement for 24 million doses, though they have been slow to arrive.

A container carrying some of the first batch of 300,000 Sputnik vaccines arrives in Ezeiza, Argentina, in December.Credit:Getty Images

Bolivia’s previously tight relations with Russia were reversed under President Luis Arce’s right-wing predecessor, but Arce, who took office in November, agreed to buy millions of doses. After speaking with Putin by phone, he also announced reactivation of a Russian-led project to build a nuclear research and technology centre.

US vaccine outreach, meantime, has been almost entirely indirect, with a pledge of $US4 billion to the World Health Organisation’s COVAX program to provide shots to low and middle-income countries. Recently, such shipments have been delayed.

The US has snatched up more doses than it will eventually need, and Biden has repeatedly said his focus is vaccinating all Americans before sharing vaccines abroad. The US has had almost three times as many COVID-19 deaths per capita as Russia and, even with one of the world’s fastest immunisation rollouts, Americans have complained about the pace.

By contrast, Russia’s own vaccination program has lagged because of widespread scepticism of the vaccine — a February poll showed only 30 per cent of Russians were willing to get the shot — and drugmakers being slow to ramp up production.

Only recently did Biden’s administration agree to provide 2.7 million surplus AstraZeneca doses to Mexico. Brazil has been trying to negotiate the same for itself, according to its Foreign Ministry.

“Although I truly think that the US and European countries are the preferred partners in the region, if there is a vacuum, there isn’t the slightest doubt that China and Russia will seek a way to take advantage,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the head of the Inter-American Development Bank.

The US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2020 annual report said in a section titled “Combatting malign influences in the Americas” that it had convinced Brazil to not buy the Russian shot. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said other countries faced similar coercion, without naming them.

“The pressure has been unprecedented, tough and devoid of any diplomatic niceties,” Peskov said last month. “We are categorically against politicising the situation with vaccines.”

Fabiano Mielniczuk, a professor who specialises in Russian international politics at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, said suspicion of Russia represents an outdated Cold War mentality. He sees its moves to introduce the shot “much more as a market-oriented action than as geopolitical action.”

Despite the assertion in the “malign influences” section, it’s unclear what action the US took. The US embassy denied exerting any pressure regarding vaccines approved by Brazil’s health regulator, which has not yet signed off on Sputnik V. The Brazilian government denied even being consulted.

Frustrated by the speed and bureaucracy of health regulator Anvisa, the Russians conducted phase-three trials of its vaccine elsewhere, according to Bahia state’s Governor Rui Costa, who had worked closely with the fund. At the time, Brazil still required local phase-three trials for regulatory approval.

In a last-ditch effort, RDIF’s director Kirill Dmitriev reached out to former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, according to Alexandre Padilha, an MP and former health minister who joined their subsequent meeting. That led to the nine states’ eventual deal for 37 million doses. RDIF declined to comment for this story.

“The north-eastern governments already have various investment partnerships with the Chinese,” Padilha said. “I think without a doubt this can open doors for north-east governors to establish other partnerships and technology investments with the Russians.”

Putin meantime heaped flattery on Bolsonaro at a multinational summit in November, saying the Brazilian had “expressed the best qualities of masculinity and determination” by putting citizens’ interests before his own health. Bolsonaro posted video of the praise to social media.

Courting the rival former and current presidents simultaneously reflects Putin’s pragmatism, said Mielniczuk, the political science professor.

Brazil’s federal government agreed to buy 10 million doses of Sputnik V.

Even after Anvisa dropped its demand for local phase-tree trials, the Brazilian lab that would produce Sputnik V locally — Uniao Quimica — struggled to clear hurdles.

RDIF’s Dmitriev told Brazilian magazine Veja in mid-March that he felt his vaccine was still facing political bias. But Anvisa said delays were technical, caused by lacking documentation. On March 23 it held a five-hour meeting with Uniao Quimica and Gamaleya to iron out problems. A week later, Anvisa certified Uniao Quimica’s manufacturing practices.

On April 6, Bolsonaro spoke with Putin by video call and said afterwards that his government was working to resolve “some obstacles” to importing the shot. The leaders also discussed broader trade, defence industry cooperation and technology.

After the call was first reported, the former director of Brazil’s trade and investment promotion agency, Marcio Coimbra, said on Twitter, “Now distant from Washington, we may be closer than ever to Moscow.”

Some documentation is still missing, but Sputnik V is inching closer to approval in Brazil — and another soft-power score for Russia. It serves as a wake-up call, said Eric Farnsworth, who has developed and implemented US policy in the region.

“We’re not the only ones that Latin America can interact with and they’re showing it right now,” said Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based organisation promoting business in the region. “There is much ground to be recaptured, and the only way to do that would be to overwhelm the region with generosity in combatting the pandemic.”


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