the public health dimension of russia’s war in ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has compounded COVID-19’s devastating toll on Ukrainian citizens. Russia’s armed forces have bombarded civilian buildings and humanitarian corridors, making it incredibly difficult for supplies and critical equipment to reach overwhelmed medical facilities. In addition, over 3 million refugees (and growing) have spilled into other parts of Europe, namely into Poland and other neighboring countries. An unseen casualty of the war is the pandemic’s toll on Ukrainians. Public health capacity is limited as testing capacity is lowered and hospitals are overrun with patients. Reported cases of COVID-19 are spiking to all-time highs in Ukraine and the country’s low vaccination rate has left the already vulnerable population susceptible to the pandemic’s wrath. As Russia’s disinformation operations multiply and intersect with its failing vaccine diplomacy efforts, Ukraine is experiencing the brunt of the deadly conflict as the refugee crisis unfolds.
Russian state media’s disinformation and propaganda to support their invasion complement Moscow’s longstanding effort to undermine Western responses to the pandemic. For example, Russian state media have pointed to U.S.-backed laboratories in Ukraine as potential sources for biological weapons. Seizing the Kremlin’s talking points, PRC state media outlets suggested that COVID could have begun in those facilities, mirroring Beijing’s previous claims that the coronavirus was developed by the United States. The CCP’s amplification of Russia’s allegations allows the party to serve as one of Moscow’s tacit supporters of the war, while also deflecting criticism of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and misleading the public about the origins of the virus. These claims play into Moscow and Beijing’s tendency to weaponize conspiracy theories as well as mis-and disinformation to undermine democratic solidarity with Ukraine. To muddy the information space even further, Russia has spread mis- and disinformation about the pandemic in Ukraine before the invasion, particularly with regard to Russian and Western vaccines. These information manipulation tactics intensify vaccine hesitancy among the Ukrainian populace and alienate the country further from the United States and Europe.
Russia’s aspirations for its vaccine diplomacy, however, have been a casualty of their war and disinformation operations. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has not reaped significant benefits from the relationships that vaccine exports facilitated. During a recent UN General Assembly vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, several recipient countries denounced Russia’s actions, even after abstaining from a similar resolution only a month earlier. In addition, the United States announced sanctions on the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which financially supports Sputnik V, alongside its director, crippling its operations. Several recipient countries of Sputnik V have started searching elsewhere for vaccine doses following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Nature’s Paul Webster writes, with “manufacturing challenges in 2021, and sanctions in 2022, Sputnik’s earthward trajectory seems likely to continue.”
Democracies should collaborate to identify policy responses to the ongoing refugee crisis in Ukraine and assist in their implementation, just as the global alliance came together to find solutions to combat COVID-19. However, as Coda Story and other media outlets have revealed, those attempting to flee Ukraine have encountered inflexible COVID-related restrictions in other nations, such as Germany, Italy, and Canada, all of whom have limited state responses to handle the influx of refugees. Furthermore, countries with WHO-approved vaccine requirements have turned away dozens of people seeking to emigrate from Russia in protest of Putin’s war and to flee the country’s repression. While Ukraine combats Russian aggression, alongside the dangers of COVID-19 amid a crumbling public health system, democracies cannot afford to sit on the sidelines without extending a helping hand.
– Ryan Arick, Assistant Program Officer, International Forum for Democratic Studies