Vaccine Is Now a Weapon in Ukraine’s Conflict With Russia

Europe’s effort to ramp up vaccinations to combat Covid-19 has opened the door to another opportunity for Russia on the front line of its confrontation with the West.

Ukraine is the biggest of only a handful of countries on the continent not to begin injecting its people. The problem is simple: there’s nothing to give the population of 42 million, since the supplies the government has secured either haven’t been cleared for use or haven’t arrived.

Failure to resolve the issue risks geopolitical consequences, as well as increasing domestic pressure on President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. After coming to power in 2019 with a promise to clean up corruption and stand up to Russia, he has come under attack for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his popularity has fallen to a record low. He said on Monday that Ukraine will get vaccines next month, though he didn’t say from where. 

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already scored a propaganda win by rolling out his state-backed Sputnik shot in the Crimean peninsula he annexed in 2014. Deliveries are also due in eastern regions of Ukraine where a Kremlin-backed conflict with security forces grinds on. That’s asMoscow ally Serbia has requested Sputnik shots and Hungary last weekbecame the first European Union member to authorize doses.

A Ukrainian pharmaceutical company backed by Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russianopponent of Zelenskiy, asked for permission to produce Russia’s vaccine locally, something the government is unlikely to allow. The party led by Medvedchuk, a friend of Putin who traveled to Crimea to be vaccinated, is now the most popular, according to a pollpublished on Tuesday. 

The authorities in Ukraine “don’t have a clear picture of what vaccines will be available and when,” saidEvgeny Komarovsky, a prominent doctor and a former adviser to Zelenskiy. “There’s been so little attention paid to promoting vaccination and the program is so underfunded that I’m very pessimistic about the prospects for inoculation here.”

Ukraine is due to get shipments via the Covax program that aims to deploy vaccines equitably to every corner of the planet, though Zelenskiy hascomplained he didn’t get help from the western countries.

Zelenskiy said that vaccinations will start in February after getting 1 million doses from a “leading international company.” The president, who recovered from coronavirus last year, had sought assistance from London-basedCrown Agents, which helps governments source supplies.

The only shot purchased independently so far is the CoronaVac made by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Tuesday that Ukraine expects a first batch within four weeks. The problem is that it hasn’t yet been registered for use. Only the Russian maker of the Sputnik vaccine has made such an application in the country.

The slow start means that most of Ukraine could follow the advent of vaccinations in Donetsk and Luhansk. About 145,000 Sputnik doses will be supplied to the administrations in the breakaway regions this month, according to Russian state-run newswire RIA. 

In the capital Kyiv, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said he’s using “all my international contacts” as a former heavyweight boxing champion to purchase 1 million vaccine doses for city residents.

A separate contract to buy vaccine from India was canceled after the health minister opted for a Chinese one and then caused an uproar by using a middleman. Indeed, Ukraine had sufficient cash available and was ready to purchase vaccines, according to Inna Ivanenko, the executive director of thePatients of Ukraine organization.

“Other countries who started talks with producers almost at the same time as Ukraine did those already have portfolio of several vaccines and have already started vaccination,” she said.

— With assistance by Stepan Kravchenko, and Volodymyr Verbyany

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