On March 2, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a historic resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding an immediate end to hostilities. While the resolution passed with 141 affirmative votes, Bangladesh was one of the 35 countries that abstained. In response, on March 3 the Lithuanian government reversed a decision to donate 444,600 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Bangladesh.
Nobody should minimize the horrors that Russian forces have been inflicting on Ukraine, or the fears of neighboring states that they could be next. However, Lithuania’s decision to withhold vaccines marks an incredibly foolish and dangerous move from both a diplomatic and public health perspective.
First, Bangladesh abstained rather than rejecting the U.N. resolution. Through its vote, Dhaka is not condoning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior. This is especially true after an unidentified missile destroyed a Bangladeshi cargo vessel and killed at least one sailor. For a country that is increasingly involved in and reliant upon maritime trade, the destabilizing impact of war is keenly felt by Bangladesh and its people.
However, Vilnius’ decision either fails to understand or ignores the local context, and the hard geopolitical realities driving Bangladesh’s decision. For one, Dhaka in no position to openly condemn Russia for a variety of reasons. Bangladesh is simply not able to condemn any world power, least of all a country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, second-largest defense industry, and repeated willingness to wage proxy conflicts through elite mercenaries and assassinations. When even other nuclear powers like India and Pakistan abstained, how can states like Lithuania reasonably expect Bangladesh to not do the same?
Furthermore, through its bloody birth, Bangladesh is hyper-aware of the bloody costs of proxy conflicts via great power competition. Since its independence, Bangladesh has been a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement, in large part due to a simple necessity for “strategic survival.” Beyond the need to avoid conflict and maintain stability, the country desperately wants to sustain its economic growth. Both the government and public believe Bangladesh requires all the humanitarian assistance, infrastructure capital, development assistance, and foreign direct investment that it can get. Dhaka feels that it absolutely cannot afford to get entangled into diplomatic spats or “great power competitions,” simply in order to ensure that 170 million-plus people have a future.
The enduring nature of Bangladesh-Russia relations illustrates this point even further. Many Bangladeshis continue to hold fond views of Russia and its people due to the Soviet Union’s active backing of Bangladeshi independence. This included diplomatic support for Bangladesh and India at the United Nations, the deployment of a nuclear submarine to ward off the USS Enterprise from the Bay of Bengal, and demining of the Chittagong port (during which several Russians lost their lives). Despite the fact that the Soviet Union and Russian Federation are two distinct geopolitical entities, Russia continues to be the beneficiary of the goodwill earned through the Soviet Union’s actions.
In addition to this historical goodwill, Russia continues to play an outsized role in Bangladesh’s development. While lagging far behind China’s military exports to Bangladesh, Bangladesh has nevertheless purchased a number of combat jets and other military equipment from Russia – including with Indian financing. Perhaps even more importantly, Russia is building Bangladesh’s only nuclear power plant. That already gives Moscow significant leverage over Dhaka – both in terms of carrots and sticks.
As a NATO member, Lithuania would be far better placed to pressure NATO to take a harder stance against the Russian invasion. Despite legitimate fears of the conflict expanding into a continental or even global conflict, NATO may be able to take certain discreet steps to ramp up the costs of Putin’s invasion. Such steps may include launching humanitarian aid deliveries and civilian evacuation convoys, the imposition of NATO-protected refugee zones in western Ukraine, and ramping up efforts to give Ukrainians the equipment and contractors to impose their own No Fly Zone over key civilian areas while maintaining plausible deniability.
Beyond these geopolitical considerations, the public health imperative is as clear as it is vital. As the vast global disparities in vaccine access continue, it is virtually guaranteed that yet another COVID-19 strain will develop in a country like Bangladesh. There is a compelling public health self-interest for states with vaccine surpluses to bolster access to vaccines in other countries, lest they be hit with future vaccine-resistant strains. This is particularly true when high rates of vaccine hesitancy in those countries present a parallel threat to their own herd immunity, as well as global public health. It is reckless, short-sighted, and self-sabotaging to deny those countries access to life-saving vaccines. Harming global immunization rates in the name of geopolitics is the pandemic equivalent of cutting of one’s nose to spite the face.
As horrific as Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been, the one positive impact has been the global rise of solidarity and humanitarian action. Communities and even entire countries around the world have organized a vast range of collective efforts including refugee assistance, humanitarian provisions, psychosocial support for victims, and military supplies and legions of volunteers to help Ukrainians defend themselves.
Given this overarching unifying trend, it is both counterproductive and dangerous for states to withhold life-saving vaccines to countries that are even more vulnerable than they are. Many Global South countries are already decrying the disparities and double standards in the global reaction to Ukraine versus invasions and occupations of other countries. Coercive steps, like targeting impoverished countries trying to recover from a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the world’s poorest populations, are guaranteed to further fuel those grievances and undermine a broader sense of solidarity within the international system.
As Russian forces try to brutalize the courageous people of Ukraine into submission, empathy and solidarity must win over coercion and realpolitik. Lithuania can and must do better – or risk unwittingly handing Putin a geopolitical and propaganda victory that he himself probably did not foresee. As the world unites against Putin’s imperialist and irredentist agenda, the weaponizing of vaccine diplomacy serves as an unnecessary “own goal” in the struggle against the Russian aggression.