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Vaccine Rollout in Ukraine Plagued by Geopolitical Tensions and Domestic Opposition

Image: Iaryna Grusha Possamai

BY YARYNA GRUSHA POSSAMAI

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that any future vaccine would be not only a weapon wielded against the virus but also an important strategic tool to advance individual countries’ political agendas on the world stage. Russia immediately embraced the idea. In August 2020, after registering the first COVID-19 vaccine, named Sputnik V, it started playing the vaccine card for larger ends. By offering Sputnik V to Italy and countries of Eastern Europe, Russia launched an end run around the EU, which was slowed by its decision topurchase vaccines jointly. Such moves on Moscow’s part seemed intended to destabilize the EU from the inside, and to encourage EU members to bypass the European Medicines Agency, a drug approval body.

Several geopolitical vaccine moves were also tested in Ukraine by domestic opposition factions working with Russia.

Threats from Within
On October 6, while President Volodymyr Zelensky was attending the twenty-second EU-Ukraine Summit in Brussels, Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the Opposition Platform—For Life party, personally met with Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss the purchase of Sputnik V for Ukraine. In front of the media, Medvedchuk said that he and his wife and son had received the Sputnik V vaccine earlier in the summer of 2020 during their holidays in Crimea, and that he had produced enough antibodies to “strangle” the virus. Medvedchuk’s Russia agenda included meeting with Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin about the Russian sanctions against Ukrainian businesses, a tit-for-tat play in response to the Ukrainian sanctions against Russian businesses.

Medvedchuk was quite aware that Zelensky had not been much involved in vaccine talks, and saw a political opening. His efforts to get out in front of Kyiv on a vaccine deal and his approaching Russia about a possible collaboration for same, in violation of Zelensky’s policies, were premeditated political moves carefully timed to take place in advance of the Ukrainian local elections, scheduled for the end of October 2020.

Zelensky and his Servant of the People party, in the middle of the election campaign, were caught off-guard. Zelensky tried to answer Medvedchuk’s moves by reaffirming that the EU with its vaccination program would remain Ukraine’s principal partner for Ukraine, and promised Ukrainians they would get a “real vaccine.”

But the only one real solution Zelensky’s government offered to Ukrainians, at state expense, was a contract signed in the last days of 2020 with the Chinese pharmacological company Sinovac Biotech for the future delivery of 1.9 million doses of CoronaVac for Ukraine’s 44 million population as soon as the Chinese vaccine exited the third phase of clinical trials. A simple mathematical calculation showed the vast insufficiency of the contracted CoronaVac supply to meet Ukraine’s needs and allowed the Sputnik V narrative to reappear in Ukrainian mass media in early 2021, when news broke that the pharmacological company Biolik, based in Kharkiv but with Russian roots, was seeking permission from Ukraine’s Ministry of Health to produce the Sputnik V vaccine.

According to Medvedchuk and his pocket TV channels, Biolik would be able to produce enough doses by the end of 2021 to cover all of Ukraine’s needs. This time Minister of Health Maksym Stepanov took the lead in rebuffing Medvedchuk publicly. Stepanov emphasized that his ministry had never considered purchasing the vaccine from Russian and never would. Sputnik V is nothing more than an info weapon in Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine.

President Zelensky’s subsequent actions were even more clear-cut. At the beginning of February, he imposed sanctions on several opposition-supporting television and media companies owned directly by Taras Kozak, a lawmaker from the Opposition Platform—For Life party and indirectly by Viktor Medvedchuk. Zelensky’s government accused the media of posing a threat to national security as promoters of pro-Russia propaganda and supporters of terrorism. As soon as the sanctioned media lost their signal, the narrative about Sputnik V as the only and best alternative to other COVID-19 vaccines, which were alleged to cause lasting side effects, disappeared from the Ukrainian mediasphere.

Where Ukraine Stands in Its Vaccination Program
Ukraine started its vaccination program on February 24, 2021, with 500,000 doses of India’s CoviShield vaccine—almost two months after the official start of the vaccination campaign in EU countries on “V-day,” December 27, 2020. According to the Ministry of Health, Ukraine will receive from 2.2 to 3.7 million Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses by June 2021 as part of the international COVAX initiative. The 1.9 million doses of China’s CoronaVax reached Ukraine only on March 25, after receiving official approval on March 9. Ukraine is also open to negotiating with other vaccine producers.

For now, the vaccination campaign in Ukraine is moving very slowly. In addition to an insufficient number of doses needed, as calculated by a Ministry of Health that was behind the ball, the Ukrainian vaccination campaign has to deal with the 47 percent of Ukrainians who are not ready to be vaccinated, according to research conducted by the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research. As reasons for hesitating or declining outright to get the shot, Ukrainians name fear of side effects, the dubious safety of “hastily” developed vaccines, the cost (51 percent of Ukrainians are not prepared to pay for the vaccine), and, last but not least, the country of origin.

To promote vaccination, President Zelensky and Health Minister Stepanov took their first injections on television. Other celebrities have joined the presidential vaccination promotion campaign. But the Kharkiv Institute survey found that Ukrainians generally prefer to rely on the vaccination experiences of friends and family or on their physician’s advice, and are unmoved by celebrity cameos on TV advising them to get the shot. A contributing factor to vaccine hesitancy is the lack of a health culture and commitment to disease prevention. Even getting a seasonal flu shot is not widely practiced in Ukraine. (As a result of the pandemic, programs of vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus, measles, rubella, mumps, and polio have also slowed.)

When this cultural disposition is layered with the geopolitical games between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s access to vaccines and with Medvedchuk’s "poisoning of the public sphere" with misinformation, Kyiv faces an uphill battle in getting Ukraine vaccinated.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Image: Iaryna Grusha Possamai

Yaryna Grusha Possamai

Publicist, translator, and cultural manager
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more