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The Week In Russia: The Vaccine, The Kursk, And Belarus

Many critics have raised doubts about Russia's vaccine.
Many critics have raised doubts about Russia's vaccine.

The timing must have been pure coincidence, but the symbolism seemed hard to overlook.

One day before the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the submarine Kursk, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that a coronavirus vaccine had been approved for use by the state, making Russia the first country to claim to have reached that milestone amid a pandemic that has killed more than 760,000 people worldwide.

The Vaccine

Putin mentioned the development at a cabinet meeting ostensibly called to discuss preparations for the start of the school year, and it quickly attracted widespread attention in Russia and the West, where researchers and health-care experts said it was premature to register the vaccine before conducting wide-scale trials in which thousands of volunteers would be given the vaccine or a placebo.

Putin had a response for that in advance, sort of, saying that one of his daughters had been inoculated with the vaccine and suffered no adverse effects except for a moderately high temperature that soon subsided. It was possibly the most specific information he has given in public about either of his daughters, whose lives have been treated as a taboo subject by the Kremlin since he issued an angry warning to journalists to keep out of his family life early in his long years as president.

“Big if true” is a term that could describe Putin’s announcement: As observers pointed out, developing a COVID-19 vaccine first would be a rare soft-power coup for a country that in recent years has attracted attention abroad by carrying out or being accused of belligerent actions, or by delivering warnings of the potential consequences of crossing Moscow.

But the doubts seemed to lend the announcement a ring of rushed propaganda. One journalist described it as “reminiscent of all those super-weapons that are on the cusp of deployment” -- a reference at least in part to a fiery 2018 address in which Putin warned the West about several missiles and other arms that he said were in various stages of readiness.

And if there was any doubt that Moscow saw the quest for a COVID-19 vaccine as a competition with other countries such as the United States, the name -- Sputnik-V -- probably put paid to that.

And the head of the state-run investment vehicle that financed the endeavor hammered that symbolism home ahead of Putin’s announcement, calling approval of the Russian vaccine a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 -- the opening salvo of the Cold War-era Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Kursk

A government that did not accentuate the positive over the negative would be a strange one. But the contrast seemed stark when, one day after his vaccine announcement, Putin made no mention of one of the darkest moments of his 20-plus years in power: the sinking of the Kursk, which occurred three months into his first presidential term, on August 12, 2000.

A torpedo on the nuclear-powered submarine exploded near the bow, sending it to the bottom of the Barents Sea in an accident that killed all 118 seamen aboard -- including 23 who survived the blast and died waiting for rescue as Putin and the Russian military, according to critics, hesitated to respond.

For Putin, the sinking of the Kursk and his sluggish public response were a PR disaster that may have taught him some lessons. And the solemn ceremonies held 20 years later, focused far from Moscow and without an appearance by the president or defense chief, may reflect a long campaign to suppress its memory.

When Putin spoke to angry, grieving relatives of the crewmen who were killed, he suggested that the causes of the disaster lay in the military and economic decline of the 1990s -- before he came to power. And he has repeated that more recently.

The Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, pictured in 1999
The Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, pictured in 1999

But the wreck of the Kursk was one of a long string of disasters that has persisted under Putin’s long rule and in which activists, Kremlin critics, and victims’ relatives say the human toll has been aggravated by negligence, corruption, and corner-cutting. And corner-cutting is exactly what health-care experts have urged countries to avoid, and that governments have pledged to avoid, in the rush for a COVID-19 vaccine.


As the harrowing events in Belarus unfolded in the first few days after a bitterly disputed August 9 presidential election, something like a consensus emerged among experts trying to answer the question of what the Kremlin wants: It wants Lukashenka to prevail over protesters calling for him to step down, but is eager to see his authority undermined, because weakness at home and the opprobrium of the West would make him more pliable for Moscow.

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That would be good news for Putin, who has sought with little apparent success to wrestle the Belarusian strongman and his country into a closer relationship with Russia.

But with pressure on Lukashenka mounting at home as factory workers strike, some state TV journalists quit, and cracks appear in the security and law enforcement agencies amid public anger and dismay at the violence, another set of questions may arise: How weak is too weak to be useful to Moscow, and what will Russia do if it sees that line being crossed?

NOTE: The Week In Russia will not appear for the next three weeks. It will return on September 11.
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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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