“Of course, it is impossible to explain to Ukrainian society why, when America and Europe are not giving you vaccines, you shouldn’t take vaccines from Russia.” — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine has been embroiled in a war with Russia that is nearing seven years. Competing forces of oligarchs, politicians, and separatist groups have turned the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine into a no-man’s-land where international organizations and aid groups struggle to get the necessary supplies to citizens. People living around the line of contact or “buffer zone” — the demarcation line separating government-controlled areas from the separatist-controlled areas — have braved freezing winters without heat due to indiscriminate artillery shelling, lacked access to clean water, and access to essential health services. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made things worse.
The Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts in Eastern Ukraine were occupied by Russian forces and Russian-backed separatist groups after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moscow has flip-flopped over the past seven years, initially denying that Russian forces were in the region, then admitting that they had to protect Russian-speaking people living in Ukraine, then claiming again that they had nothing to do with the separatist forces. This sentiment was very different from the aftermath of the invasion of Crimea where a “referendum” was quickly held after the peninsula was occupied and 97% of voters voting to join Russia — a number that is roundly dismissed as being too high. But the main point here is that two days after the referendum was held, Crimean and Russian officials signed a treaty of accession officially making Crimea a subject of the Russian Federation — though not recognized by any international governing body.
The invasion and subsequent conflict in Donbass was different.
Referendums were held in both the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts controlled by pro-Russian separatists. They claimed that 89% of voters in Donetsk and 96% of voters in Luhansk voted for “self-rule,” meaning that the region was neither a part of Ukraine nor becoming a part of the Russian Federation as Crimea did. Immediately after the referendum was held and the outcome determined, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic — the pro-Russian separatist group — declared that the region wanted to become a part of Russia. But Moscow wasn’t nearly as interested in Donbass as it was in Crimea.
The Kremlin issued a statement saying that it “respects the will of the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” and suggested that the vote for autonomy be decided between the separatists and the government of Kyiv. There are strategic reasons as to why Moscow wasn’t as interested in Donbass, the main one being the warm-water port of Sevastopol in Crimea. The port of Sevastopol is critical to Russian movement in the region, economic and militarily because most of their ports freeze in the winter. Should Ukraine have moved towards the European Union after the Euromaidan protests in early 2014 and turned their back on Russia, denying them access to the port, Russia would have lost something of great strategic importance. The Donbass region didn't have the benefits that Crimea had, and because Russia didn’t integrate the region as the separatists had hoped, some parts of Donetsk and Luhansk are considered unrecognized “proto-states” — neither part of Ukraine nor part of Russia.
This then leads to the question of which government vaccinates the people still living in these stateless areas. The government in Kyiv or the government in Moscow?
Because Russia is active in the region yet doesn’t have governmental powers over it, they can say, “Sure, we have the territory, but Ukraine is a sovereign nation. The Ukrainian government needs to take care of its own people.” Then when Russia swoops in with whatever aid they wish to give, which might also include vaccinating those living in the separatist-controlled areas, they can again claim that they are saving the people in Donbass from a disinterested Ukrainian government. In December of 2020, Vladimir Putin committed to continuing on the current path stating, “Russia will keep supporting Donbass as it has been. We will even increase our support. This includes supporting manufacturing, resolving social and infrastructure issues, etc…”
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Oleksiy Reznikov said about the geopolitical issue, “Our observations make it clear that Russia treats these territories as temporarily occupied. They do not see them as in need of development, attention. Equipment is taken out from there, production facilities are destroyed, and mines from which water is not pumped out are closed. The issue is at the level of an ecological disaster. Therefore, I do not think that they will care about the population. People living in the temporarily occupied territories are strange to them. From a pragmatic point of view, even in a situation of a severe epidemiological situation, they will simply close the border, and that’s it.”
The Ukrainian government figured that Russia would not be the one to vaccinate the residents so they came up with a plan. Vaccines are set to be administered in the government-controlled areas of Donbass, also along the line of contact where people from separatist-controlled areas could cross the checkpoints and get a vaccination. The problem is that the latest information coming out of the region suggests that only two of the seven checkpoints on the line were operating. If the separatists were to close all of the checkpoints or refuse occupants access to the government-controlled areas for a vaccine, those people are again stateless.
Lastly, Ukraine as a whole has experienced the issue of vaccine distribution. With Donald Trump’s executive order stating that Americans would get priority of any vaccines, hampering exportation efforts by companies such as Pfizer and Moderna, which left Ukraine’s previous agreement to receive vaccines to fall through. That, of course, presented an opportunity for Russia to offer vaccines to the Ukrainian people, but the government of Kyiv has been skeptical of the safety of the Sputnik V vaccine and the longer the population goes without a vaccine, the more intriguing Russia’s version becomes. Ukraine has since struck a deal for 8 million doses of another vaccine with Covax, a global initiative to provide vaccines to poorer countries, a small number compared to Ukraine’s 42 million people. Something as “simple” as administering vaccines has become a delicate geopolitical political flashpoint between Ukraine and Russia which might impact the direction of the conflict in the future.