Russia’s coronavirus vaccine is alluring for Eastern Europe, creating a headache for the EU

The European Commission has already warned Hungary, albeit indirectly, against the use of Russia’s vaccine before the EMA has approved it. Back in November, a Commission spokesman told Reuters that “the question arises whether a member state would want to administer to its citizens a vaccine that has not been reviewed by EMA,” adding that public confidence in vaccination could be damaged.

“This is where the authorization process and vaccine confidence meet. If our citizens start questioning the safety of a vaccine, should it not have gone through rigorous scientific assessment to prove its safety and efficacy, it will be much harder to vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population,” the spokesman said, Reuters reported.

Hungary’s decision to go it alone when it comes to the Sputnik V vaccine is not surprising to EU watchers, however. The country’s right-wing leader, Viktor Orban — of the “strongman” sort similar to Russia’s Putin — has had several disputes with the EU executive in recent years, particularly over signs of the government’s increasing authoritarianism. The erosion of judicial independence and freedom of the press in Hungary is of particular concern to the EU. Hungary’s government rejects such criticism, however.

Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC Monday that Hungary’s actions were “part of Orban’s campaign to propagate a ‘decadent, declining EU’ and Hungary’s future in the East, with Russia and China,” a trend he said had been ongoing for some time.

Meanwhile, Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, described the geopolitics around Sputnik V and the EU as “political theater more than anything else.”

“For Hungary and Austria there is an element of foreign policy signaling involved here, as both Kurz and Orban have generally had a closer relationship with Putin than their European peers. In the case of the Czech Republic the impetus seems to have been more to demonstrate that the government is ‘doing something’ in the face of a rapid rise in case numbers in February,” he said.

There are also doubts as to whether Russia has the ability to mass produce and deliver its Sputnik V vaccine to Europe on a larger scale.

“While the Sputnik vaccine seems to be an effective vaccine in principle, Russia has great difficulties getting the mass production right … there is still not enough Sputnik vaccine (being) produced,” Gressel said. McDowell noted that “the issue is whether Sputnik V can make a noticeable difference given regulatory issues and existing logistical problems, and whether the vaccine can be produced in sufficient numbers either by Russian producers or under licence.”