It was one of the oddest political statements of a strange year. Vladimír Lengvarský, the Slovak health minister, announced that, after months of wrangling, Russia’s Sputnik V jab would start to be administered in the country from Monday – but that he would not take the jab himself, and would not recommend it to his acquaintances. 

The statement summed up, in farcical terms, the long-running controversy over the use of Sputnik V in Slovakia. Giving the jab the green light while simultaneously warning the population against accepting it constituted the grand finale in a series of missteps and bitter arguments relating to the Russian vaccine which started when ex-prime minister Igor Matovič agreed a secret deal for two million Sputnik jabs behind the backs of his coalition partners at the beginning of March. 

Since then, the country’s Sputnik V doses have been sitting forlornly in storage, with some being shipped back to Russia and across the border to Hungary for further tests, following the reluctance of the Slovak drug regulator (SUKL) to approve the jab.  

This reluctance – which SUKL claimed was due to insufficient data and concerns that the jabs supplied were different to those evaluated as 91.6 per cent effective by the Lancet in February – sparked outrage from Russia. Sputnik V’s promoters branded the Slovak claims “fake news”, and alleged that deficient Slovak testing procedures were responsible for the discrepancies. 

When the vaccines finally passed trials run by an EU-certified lab in Hungary, Sputnik V’s official twitter account triumphantly claimed the result “confirms that the Sputnik V batch sent to Slovakia meets all health and safety requirements, debunking earlier incorrect Slovak statements to the contrary”, and demanded a public apology from SUKL for its earlier statements. 

Yet SUKL’s uncertainty about the vaccines was only one episode in a long and bumpy ride for Sputnik V, which included the resignation of the prime minister who brought the jabs to the country. When the first batch of Sputnik V arrived, Matovič’s opponents were horrified at what they saw as the welcoming of a “geopolitical soft power weapon” and a “tool of hybrid warfare” intended to sow discord within the EU. 

If dividing the West was Russia’s intention with the Sputnik jab, however, it has failed. SUKL’s prevarication was the first of a recent series of events which brought about a significant deterioration in trust between EU countries and Moscow, putting paid to the possibility of any more countries considering using Sputnik V ahead of EMA approval. 

The Czech Republic seemed set to follow Slovakia’s example in buying Sputnik V, but revelations about the involvement of Russian intelligence in a huge arms depot explosion in the Czech village of Vrbětice forced the Czech government to perform a rapid U-turn. Acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamáček claimed an aborted trip to Moscow to discuss the vaccine had been publicised as a ruse to cover for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the country – but following sustained efforts over the preceding weeks by Russophile President Miloš Zeman to pave the way for Sputnik V, it was clear the developments had scuppered a genuine intention to bring the Russian jab to the the Republic. 

Only days earlier, Austria had concluded negotiations for the acquisition of Sputnik V – but following the Vrbětice revelations and concerns from Slovak regulators, the country quietly backtracked on the idea of using the jab without EMA approval. Bizarrely, having already reached agreement for the purchase of the vaccines, the Austrian government recently confirmed that Sputnik V vaccination would not be accepted as a valid criterion for its own Covid “green pass” immunity card. Sputnik V sustained yet another reputational blow when Brazil’s health regulator rejected the jab at the end of April. 

The vaccine is about to finally see the light of day in Slovakia. But trust in the jab – and in Russia more generally – has declined dramatically throughout Central Europe in recent weeks, torpedoing what once seemed to be an inexorable turn towards the east for Covid vaccines: a recent poll showed that only 25 per cent of Czechs trust the jab (a worse result was only achieved by China’s Sinopharm vaccine, at 18 per cent).  

Such trust issues have been compounded by outrage resulting from the detention of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk by Belarus’s Kremlin-allied regime – yet another instance of eastern hostility, and one which is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of the increased soft power which Sputnik V previously promised to Moscow. Countries which only months ago were looking to the east for vaccines are now turning back towards their EU allies – and with the EMA suggesting a decision on Sputnik V will not be reached until the autumn, a jab which previously looked set to severely disrupt the EU’s vaccine strategy may simply fall by the wayside.