Ukrainian prime minister: Russia using Covid vaccine for influence

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Russia is trying to use its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to gain political influence in the embattled territories of eastern Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said.

Shmyhal, who arrived in Brussels on Tuesday for three days of meetings with senior EU officials, told POLITICO in an interview that the EU’s credibility hinged on being able to help partner countries like Ukraine that are struggling to obtain vaccines on their own.

“It is important to admit here that the Russian Federation is trying actually to impose its own domestically produced vaccine especially as a tool for influencing some of those regions, specifically those that are not currently controlled by the Ukrainian government,” Shmyhal said. “And that is the case not only here but also in many Eastern European countries.”

He added, “To counteract this political propaganda, it would be important for us to get a very strong signal that we are getting support from the European Union in terms of vaccination, and the best signal and the strongest one probably would be if we started to get the vaccines from the individual member states under the support of the Commission.”

Shmyhal’s comments echoed those of Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, who said Tuesday that her country would not be rolling out the Sputnik jab even if the European Medicines Agency approves it, because she has “no doubt” Russia’s efforts to sell the vaccine to Europe is “yet another geopolitical game.”

Ukraine is counting on the COVAX facility, which aims to guarantee equitable access to coronavirus vaccines and treatments worldwide, for at least 8 million doses of vaccine, but that is still far short of the country’s needs. On Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised that EU countries would help Ukraine.

“The EU is on the side of Ukraine, as it always has been, especially in the difficult moments of your recent history. Because we are all one European family,” von der Leyen said in a video message to a forum on the pandemic being held in Kyiv.

But while von der Leyen has urged EU countries to donate vaccines, the EU’s own vaccine rollout is moving slower than anticipated after manufacturers, including AstraZeneca and BioNTech/Pfizer, announced production shortfalls.

The EU last summer issued €190 million in grants to Ukraine to help fight the pandemic.

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