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Russia is offering to export hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines, but can it deliver them?

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ST PETERSBURG, Russia In its foreign policy, Russia tends to favor strong military power and oil and gas exports. But in recent months, the Kremlin has marked a sweeping diplomatic victory from an unexpected source: the success of its coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V.

While the United States and European countries have considered or enforced vaccine export bans, Russia has won praise by sharing its vaccine with countries around the world in a visible act of enlightened self-interest.

To date, more than 50 Latin American countries in Asia have ordered 1.2 billion doses of the Russian vaccine, tarnishing the image of Russian science and elevating Moscow’s influence around the world.

In Russia, however, things are not always what they seem, and this apparent triumph of soft power diplomacy may not be all that the Kremlin would like the world to think. While Sputnik V is undoubtedly effective, production is remaining, raising questions about whether Moscow can promise far more vaccine exports than it can supply, and doing so at the expense of its citizens.

The current number of doses distributed inside Russia is a state secret, said Dmitry Kulish, a professor at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. However, Russian officials are boasting of massive vaccine exports and are playing the warm gloss of the vaccine. the diplomacy it has generated.

Soft power is the erosion, the empty hole in Russia’s global status, Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia group risk consultancy and a former US diplomat, said in a telephone interview. If they play their cards here, vaccines can be very important.

European officials have begun pushing back on Russia’s aggressive marketing of Sputnik.

“We still wonder why Russia is offering, in theory, millions and millions of doses while not making enough progress in vaccinating its people,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on Wednesday. This question must be answered.

Despite the suspicions, vaccine diplomacy has already advanced a number of goals for Moscow: It has helped deepen divisions within the European Union by sending a shipment to Hungary before regulators approve it for the entire bloc; fueled internal strife in Ukraine by highlighting the slow supply of Western vaccines in the country; and spread misinformation in Latin America that undermined public confidence in vaccines made in the United States.

We are ready to lay gas pipelines and supply cheap energy, we can sell you weapons and now we have this other dimension, this soft power: We are ready to offer you vaccines, said Andrey V. Kortunov , chairman of the Russian International Affairs Council, a non-governmental group that analyzes Russian foreign policy.

Giving up its critics, the Kremlin has taken every opportunity to highlight its exports, some of them quite trivial.

An adequate supply of vaccine for 10,000 people, for example, arrived in Bolivia last month with pomp usually reserved for state visits greeted at the airport by the country’s president, Luis Arce, and the Russian ambassador.

We congratulate the brotherly people of Bolivia for a qualitatively new level in the fight against coronavirus, said the Russian Foreign Ministry in a declaration.

Sputnik is entering new orbits, a state television report aired this month, proudly showing crates of thousands of doses of vaccine being loaded onto a plane departing from Russia for Argentina.

In Russia, at least so far, there has been little feedback regarding exports, although by the end of 2020 it had the third highest number of excessive deaths in the world after the United States and Brazil.

Only 2.2 million Russians (less than 2 percent) have received the first dose of the double vaccine. In the United States, by contrast, 40.3 million people (about 12 percent) have received their first injections, despite a strong outbreak.

The reason for that lack of public acceptance, analysts say, is that many Russians are so distrustful of their government that they reject clinical evidence that has shown Sputnik V to be safe and highly effective. In a poll conducted last fall, 59 percent of Russians said they did not intend to be vaccinated.

So deep is the distrust that full-fledged vaccination sites in Moscow are often empty. Fear has not been helped by the example of President Vladimir V. Putin, who has not yet received the vaccine himself.

If there is a massive demand for vaccines, facing a shortage of medicines due to exports, then it could become a political problem, said Ekaterina Schulmann, an associate at Chatham house, a London-based research institute, on vaccines used in foreign policy. Now, anyone who wants to get a vaccine can get it, so it is more of a source of pride that Russia was among the first to have a vaccine and that we also help others.

It is unclear how long that situation will last, given the problems of vaccine production, which are in a way emblematic of Russia’s general economic problems, which stem in large part from state control.

The vaccine license is controlled by two state-run institutions, a research institute and a sovereign wealth fund. They terminate export and production agreements, while seven private pharmaceutical companies produce most of the vaccines under contracts that offer little financial incentive for innovation or even long-term investment.

Prof. Kulish, a consultant to Russian pharmaceutical companies, said several vaccine manufacturers delayed production for months last year as they waited for critical equipment of devices manufactured in China and were in short supply during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, Russia does not produce biotechnical equipment at all,” he said, adding that he expected production to increase starting this month.

But that remains to be seen. At a site producing contracted vaccines from a company outside St. Petersburg this week, bottles of Sputnik vaccine were rolled out of a production line, each carrying five doses and the potential to save lives.

However, scaling up production has been a challenge. It’s a very capricious technology, said Dmitry Morozov, the company’s chief executive, Biocad. His company took over the contract in September and by early February had produced just 1.8 million double-dose sets far from the hundreds of millions promised by the Kremlin to foreign buyers.

Mr Morozov said his factory had the capacity to make twice as many vaccines. But vaccine contracts are so tough that he loses money on production, forcing him last fall to reserve half his capacity for a lucrative cancer drug. He has since added additional lines of vaccines.

For a long time, Russia has been urging foreign manufacturers to expand production, signing deals with companies in India, South Korea and China. But those companies seem to be months away from vaccine production.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said last month that future overseas production would meet foreign demand, avoiding shortages in the country.

Right now, Russian doctors serving in overcrowded Covid-19 wards complain that they have had to continue working without being vaccinated. Yuri Korovin, a 62-year-old surgeon in the Novgorod region northwest of Moscow, was never offered a dose before falling ill in late December.

Of course, you can not forget your people, he said of exports, still coughing and wheezing, in a telephone interview.

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