Vladimir Putin has for the first time said that he was inoculated with Russia’s own Sputnik V vaccine as he gave a careful endorsement of the country’s floundering campaign while distancing himself from tough new measures designed to pressure more Russians into taking the jabs.
Putin has cut a mercurial figure during the pandemic, intrepidly donning a medical suit to visit a coronavirus hospital last March and then shunning public events for months, prompting ridicule that he was sheltering in a “bunker”.
He also declined to release photos or videos of his own vaccination, or give details of the vaccine, which the Kremlin reported took place in March. Journalists and others meeting Putin have still been required to quarantine for several weeks, fueling speculation that he may not have received a jab.
During a nationally televised Q&A on Wednesday, the Russian leader denied that he had faked his own vaccination.
“I hope that most of this country’s citizens understand that if I say I got the vaccine, then that’s how it is,” Putin said, adding that he and top military commanders of Russia’s military had been given Sputnik V but had not said so initially in order to avoid giving it a competitive advantage in Russia.
He also targeted widespread vaccine hesitancy by telling Russians that Sputnik V and other domestically made Russian vaccines were safe and that inoculation was the only way to end the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet Putin also said he opposed mandatory vaccinations, said that the use of western vaccines like AstraZeneca and Pfizer had led to “tragic cases,” and supported callers who said they had medical excuses not to be vaccinated.
The remarks, part of a yearly show where Putin listens to Russians’ questions and appeals, showed how the Kremlin leader is caught between Covid’s resurgence in Russia and public opposition to vaccinations.
During the show, Putin also accused London and Washington of trying to spark a crisis after last week’s standoff with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea, but said that even if Russia had sunk the destroyer, it would not have caused a war because the West knew it could not win against Russia.
He also signaled that he would name an eventual successor when he decided to leave the Kremlin but said the choice of Russia’s next president would ultimately lie with voters. Putin has led Russia since 2000 and, following a constitutional referendum last year, could potentially remain president until 2036. There is currently no clear successor to the Russian president.
“A time will come when, I hope, I can say that such and such a person is worthy in my opinion of leading such a wonderful country like Russia, our homeland,” said Putin, 68.
But the main focus of Putin’s appearance remained the coronavirus epidemic, a problem so pressing that one Moscow publication teased it as “Putin’s direct line with anti-vaxxers.”
More than 60% of respondents told the Levada Centre in May that they were not planning to vaccinate against coronavirus and local measures to limit resort vacations and cafe tables to vaccinated customers have ignited a minor culture war in Russia.
Covid has resurged across Russia as Moscow and St. Petersburg have posted record daily death tolls and more than 21,000 new cases of the disease were reported on Wednesday. Despite beginning a mass vaccination campaign in December, just 11% of Russians have been inoculated with one of four domestically produced vaccines. This week, the Kremlin said that the government would not reach its goal of vaccinating 60% of the country by September.
Yet despite a new crisis fueled by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, Putin appeared carefully attuned to political considerations as he distanced himself from directives in Moscow and other cities to vaccinate at least 60% of certain groups including service workers.
“I don’t support mandatory vaccinations and continue to hold that point of view,” said Putin on Wednesday, adding that vaccination targets had been introduced by local governments in order to prevent a total lockdown of the Russian economy. The Kremlin had previously taken a harder line, saying Russians in the service sector should get vaccinated or look for work elsewhere.
Putin usually uses the Q&A show to back ordinary Russians’ petitions for salaries to be paid or schools to be built. On Wednesday, he attacked a Moscow school director for requiring a teacher provide proof she had been vaccinated although her husband claimed said she had a medical excuse. “That’s illegal,” Putin declared. “I hope [the director] hears this and withdraws his illegal demands.”