20 years under Putin: a timeline

IMR is releasing a new report titled “The rise and fall of Sputnik V: How the Kremlin used the coronavirus vaccine as a tool of information warfare.” It is the first report in IMR's a new series dedicated to examining the strengths and weaknesses of the Putin regime. Based on rigorous content analysis of the coverage of Sputnik V by Russian and Western media, this study highlights the limits of the Kremlin's propaganda and disinformation campaigns as well as the Russian government's eschewed priorities, which resulted in the deep public mistrust for Sputnik V and the failures of the domestic vaccination campaign.




Executive summary

The global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has become a litmus test for all political systems—from democracies to dictatorships. Essentially, the global fight against the pandemic has hinged on the outcome of the so-called “vaccine race”—scientific efforts to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine as soon as possible. The fact that Russia was the first country to register a COVID-19 vaccine (Sputnik V) shocked the world, allowing the Kremlin to seize global attention. However, the highly publicized early registration—before completion of all necessary clinical trials and thus bypassing international standards—laid the foundation for deep mistrust of the Russian vaccine, both at home and abroad. 

This report, the first in a new series by the Institute of Modern Russia (“The Kremlin complex: strengths and weaknesses of the Putin regime”), examines the Russian government’s information strategies to promote Sputnik V. These strategies are analyzed in the framework of information warfare (the so-called “discursive Cold War”), in which the Kremlin presents itself as a victim of Western aggression. In recent years, Russian disinformation campaigns have come to be regarded in the West as a threat not only to national security, but to the very foundations of democratic states, while the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is perceived as a powerful weapon employed by the Putin regime—one of its strengths. In turn, the Putin regime, which heavily relies on the projection of power, only welcomes such an assessment. In practice, however, this “weapon” is far less hard-hitting, and the story of the Sputnik V promotion showcases the regime’s actual strengths and weaknesses.

The report is based on original research of the coverage of Sputnik V by Russian and Western media (using media content analysis) in the course of five key media events: vaccine registration, the announcement of a “large-scale” and then “mass” vaccination in Russia, The Lancet’s favorable review of Sputnik V, and the news of Vladimir Putin’s inoculation. Our analysis identified the key speakers who have become the main advocates of the Russian vaccine (all of them are connected with the Russian state), as well as five key narratives about Sputnik V promoted by the Kremlin in the media. These narratives claim a Russian victory in the global “vaccine race” and portray Sputnik V as a victim of the West’s information war against Russia, despite it supposedly being a “vaccine for all mankind” and destined to “save the world.” Only one of the narratives calls on all “conscientious Russians” to get vaccinated.


Key takeaways:

  • Promoting Sputnik V internationally, rather than vaccinating Russians domestically, was the Kremlin’s top priority.
  • Sputnik V was used by the Kremlin as a tool of information warfare against the West and as a product with which the Putin regime sought to increase geopolitical influence and gain financial benefits.
  • Sputnik V’s early registration was not a strategic miscalculation, but rather a typical “two-mover” (dvukhhodovka) of the Kremlin: first, shocking the world with the premature vaccine registration, provoking criticism and posing as a victim of Western Russophobia, then using the positive review in The Lancet as a means of validation and to score geopolitical points against the West.
  • By betting on the “discursive Cold War” with the West, the Kremlin has achieved some success: drew global attention, proved Sputnik V’s effectiveness and safety, made agreements with dozens of countries to supply the Russian vaccine.
  • However, the Putin regime failed on mass vaccination at home: the government’s effort turned out ineffective, and state propaganda, which promoted conspiracy theories and scary side effects of Western vaccines, backfired by contributing to the already high vaccination hesitancy in Russia.
  • Despite the victorious rhetoric of its propaganda narratives, the Kremlin has lost the race for influence. The irony is that Sputnik V could have been promoted on merit—for its safety, efficiency, affordable price, ease of transportation. If the Kremlin had followed international protocols and not rushed to register the vaccine, Russia would have finished the vaccine race, if not the first, then among the first. At the same time, it could have genuinely impressed the world with its scientific achievements and gained trust for years to come. Instead, the Kremlin opted for a high-profile PR stunt that sparked fierce controversy and irreversibly undermined confidence in the Russian vaccine.

Russia remains a land of paradoxes, and its behavior is notoriously difficult to explain and predict. Our analysis tracks the “binary optics” of the Putin regime that present Russia as both a great power and a victim of Western aggression. This model can be defined as “political narcissism”—a “diagnosis” that explains the country’s dualism of grandeur and victimhood. In practice, this means that establishing a constructive dialogue with the Putin regime remains a futile effort for the West. However, given Russia’s integration into the global economy and international affairs, cutting ties with it is impossible. The Putin regime is a challenge for the West, but the key issues are located in the political and communication realms. Solving them requires a better understanding of the regime’s dual nature and the belief system that underlies its behavior.