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Putin Uses Russia's COVID-19 Vaccine To Increase Its Global Influence

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have a story on the geopolitics of distributing vaccines. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, oversaw an effort to develop a vaccine, which he is now rushing to get into the arms of his fellow citizens, but also exporting around the world. NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Russia has the fourth-highest COVID-19 caseload after the United States, India and Brazil. Officials say more than 60,000 Russians have already died. But even amidst so much gloom, President Putin has found a reason to be proud.

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VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: At a government meeting Wednesday, he called the Russian-made vaccine, Sputnik V, the best in the world. For Putin, the vaccine is not just about saving people's lives. It's also an opportunity to project Russian soft power.

ALEXANDER GABUEV: It's definitely Putin's product, and it's kind of like Russian national champion. Here we have a vaccine which has the backing of the Kremlin and the whole state-run PR machinery to promote it.

KIM: That's Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.

GABUEV: It addresses the genuine concern to provide vaccinations for the Russian population. But it's also a tool to improve Russia's position in the global competition for influence.

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KIM: Hardly a day goes by without an announcement on social media of a new international deal for the vaccine.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Argentina began vaccination with Russia's Sputnik V vaccine. Mass vaccination...

KIM: According to the makers of the vaccine, it's already been registered in half a dozen countries. And there are plans to jointly produce it in India, Brazil, China and elsewhere. The required double dose of Sputnik V costs less than $20. And Russia is approaching countries that have not been able to secure supplies of more expensive Western vaccines.

But Alexander Gabuev says Russia has an image problem in the United States and Europe.

GABUEV: Russia developing an reliable vaccine is something that most of the advanced democracies won't believe in. And because Russia is not the only country that provides this vital commodity, they turn to reliable suppliers.

KIM: Gabuev says The Kremlin has used its English-language TV channel, Russia Today, to spread disinformation in the West. And now it's using the channel to advertise Sputnik V. The makers of the vaccine claim it has nothing to do with politics. But recently, the scientist who led its development, Alexander Ginzburg, made a telling remark on Russian TV.

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ALEXANDER GINZBURG: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Once Europeans realize Sputnik V can save their lives," he said, "they'll vote for politicians who also understand that."

Ginzburg may have been referring to neighboring Ukraine, which Russia invaded in 2014. Ukraine has found itself at the back of the line for Western vaccines, and Putin's allies there are pushing Kyiv to take up the Kremlin's offer of Sputnik V. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a TV interviewer, Ukraine will pass.

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DMYTRO KULEBA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He said, "Russia is more interested in using Sputnik V as propaganda than helping Ukrainians." But that kind of resistance is not deterring Putin. Russia is now asking the European Union to approve its vaccine.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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