Europe's Covid-19 vaccine struggle plays out on front line with Russia

Ukraine is the biggest of only a handful of countries on the continent not to begin injecting its people. PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Europe's effort to ramp up vaccinations to combat Covid-19 has opened the door to another opportunity for Russia on the front line of its confrontation with the West.

Ukraine is the biggest of only a handful of countries on the continent yet to begin vaccinating its people.

Failure to resolve the issue risks geopolitical consequences, as well as increasing domestic pressure on President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already scored a win by rolling out his state-backed Sputnik shot in the Crimean peninsula he annexed in 2014. Deliveries are also due in eastern regions of Ukraine where a Kremlin-backed conflict with security forces grinds on.

That comes as Moscow ally Serbia has requested Sputnik V shots and Hungary last week became the first European Union member to authorise doses.

A Ukrainian pharmaceutical company backed by Mr Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian opponent of Mr Zelenskiy, asked for permission to produce Russia's vaccine locally, something the government is unlikely to allow. Mr Medvedchuk, a friend of President Putin, travelled to Crimea to be vaccinated.

After coming to power in 2019 with a promise to clean up corruption and stand up to Russia, Mr Zelenskiy has come under attack for everything from tackling graft to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He said on Monday (Jan 25) that Ukraine will get vaccines next month.

Ukraine expects to receive 100,000 to 200,000 doses of vaccines next month from Pfizer-BioNTech under the World Health Organisation's Covax vaccine programme, and vaccinate the first 367,000 people against the coronavirus in the first stage, said Prime Minister Denys Shmygal.

Mr Shmygal told the parliament the country also expected to receive 700,000 doses of Sinovac's Covid-19 vaccine in three-four weeks.

The slow start means that most of Ukraine could follow the advent of vaccinations in Donetsk and Luhansk. About 145,000 Sputnik doses will be supplied to the administrations in the breakaway regions this month, according to Russian state-run newswire RIA.

In the capital Kiev, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said he is using "all my international contacts" as a former heavyweight boxing champion to purchase one million vaccine doses for city residents.

A separate contract to buy vaccine from India was cancelled after the health minister opted for a Chinese one and then caused an uproar by using a middleman.

Indeed, Ukraine had sufficient cash available and was ready to purchase vaccines, according to Ms Inna Ivanenko, the executive director of the Patients of Ukraine organisation.

"Other countries which started talks with producers almost at the same time as Ukraine did have already had portfolio of several vaccines and have started vaccination," she said.

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