The first batch of Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Tunisia on March 9, three days after a phone conversation between Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The shipment of 30,000 doses came nearly a month after its scheduled delivery and after repeated delays of other types of vaccines. Tunisian Minister of Health Faouzi Mahdi had attributed on Feb. 18 the delay in supply of the vaccines to the conditions imposed by the suppliers.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Mahdi said one of these conditions was for Tunisia to issue a law related to setting exceptional provisions on civil liability resulting from the use of vaccines against COVID-19 and reparation for the damages caused by it. The Tunisian parliament passed this law on Feb. 9.
Russia did not set any conditions for the supply of the Sputnik V vaccine to Tunisia. A statement by the Tunisian government on March 3 said that Mechichi and Lavrov stressed during their phone call “the need to intensify efforts and fruitful cooperation in combating the spread of the coronavirus.”
They also agreed to expedite the delivery dates of Tunisia's orders for the Russian vaccine, which are estimated to be 1 million doses.
Many observers believe Russia is engaging in vaccine diplomacy to strengthen its influence in the Maghreb.
“What matters at the moment is not politics, but containing the epidemic by vaccinating the largest possible number of citizens, especially vulnerable groups such as the sick and the elderly,” Mahdi said.
Hamza Meddeb, a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al-Monitor, “The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the weakness in coordination at the global level and the intensity of competition between major powers to exploit the health crisis for garnering influence through the so-called ‘Mask Diplomacy’ (in reference to the delivery of face masks) earlier, and currently through vaccines. Russia has succeeded in supplying Algeria with Sputnik V vaccines, while Morocco chose early on to rely on Chinese vaccines, just like Egypt. Tunisia, meanwhile, has waited for the vaccines from the COVAX initiative supervised by the World Health Organization (WHO)” and has received no shipment as of yet.
He added, “The global health crisis has exposed the WHO’s weakness as an international coordination framework. This pushed Russia to play its diplomatic card wherever it notices a shortfall. Moscow is rushing to meet the countries’ vaccine requirements and by doing so is reaping benefits, including some that are not necessarily related to the epidemic.”
This Russian-based diplomacy based on vaccines prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to express his fear that Europe is facing a new kind of war. “We are looking in particular at Russian and Chinese attacks and attempts to gain influence through the vaccine,” he said, following the virtual European Union summit held on March 25.
Macron’s statement echoes concerns of Russian influence in the Maghreb, which is historically considered a traditional French sphere of influence for historical reasons related to the colonial past of Paris.
In an interview with Radio Franceinfo on March 26, French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian accused Russia of using its locally made Sputnik V vaccine as “a means of aggressive propaganda and diplomacy rather than as a means of solidarity and health aid.”
Meddeb said that Russia has exploited the European division and the retreat of the United States during the Donald Trump era. “Vaccines were a golden opportunity for Russia to keep up its efforts to entrench a strong presence in North Africa and secure areas of influence in the Mediterranean basin,” he said.
“Moscow had already secured a military foothold in Libya and signed a contract in 2017 with Egypt to build a nuclear power plant to be used for peaceful purposes. Now, Russia is using vaccines to stand out as a serious partner to the countries of the region, with objectives that are not only commercial and strategic but also humanitarian,” he continued.
According to Meddeb, vaccine diplomacy allows the Russian government to reap the soft power gains and strengthen its relationship with countries that are historically linked to it, such as Algeria.
He further explained that this diplomacy opens for Moscow new areas of influence in countries such as Tunisia, which, since its independence in 1956, has been part of the map of French influence — and US influence, to a lesser extent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced on March 22 criticism leveled against the Sputnik V vaccine. He stressed that his country was “not imposing anything on anyone,” wondering whether European officials were protecting the interests of “some pharmaceutical companies or the interests of citizens of European countries.”
It seems the Russian vaccine diplomacy in the Maghreb and North Africa has gotten off to a strong start. It succeeded in fulfilling the needs of the countries of the region. Moscow, however, still faces intense competition and tough questions from consumers about whether Russia can keep its promises and whether its scientific claims on the Sputnik V vaccine are credible.
What is certain is that Washington's reluctance to intervene in this area over the past year has widened the margins of action for Russian vaccine diplomacy. If Western vaccines from the United States and Europe were more available, perhaps the countries of the region, especially Tunisia, would have been less interested in going after the Russian vaccine.