BERLIN — As the European Union's vaccination program stumbles, Russia and China are poised to fill the gap — with Moscow opening talks to produce vaccines in the heart of Europe and both building political cachet as they supply those scrambling for shots on the bloc's fringes.

Vaccines produced in Russia and China are already on the program in parts of the Balkans and Eastern Europe outside the European Union.

Speaking to the Atlantic Council on Thursday, Macron called China’s vaccine efforts a “clear diplomatic success” which is “a little bit humiliating for us.” He and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have expressed their openness to using vaccines from Moscow and Beijing if E.U. regulatory approval is granted.

That prospect may not be far off, though data, particularly on the Chinese vaccines, remains murky. 

Developers of the Sputnik V vaccine — riding high on peer-reviewed trial results published Tuesday in the Lancet that put its efficacy alongside the West’s best offerings — said this week they expect E.U. clearance by March. They have already started knocking on doors in Germany to find a manufacturing partner.

The European Medicines Agency said it is providing scientific advice for applications by Sputnik V and one of the Chinese vaccines, Sinovac, though neither has yet submitted a request for E.U. approval.

From a health standpoint, any vaccine in an arm can help stop the pandemic or save a life. But the E. U.’s struggles to competently roll out its own program — using U.S.- and European-made vaccines — has left Russia and China appearing as possible saviors as well as potentially necessary partners.

The prospect of the Sputnik vaccine’s inroads into Europe comes as Germany is already under pressure to take a tougher line on Moscow following the poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. A planned gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is under particular scrutiny.

“With the controversies, the arguments and the finger pointing, the E.U. looks like a clown show,” said David Fidler, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s no question in my mind that there was dancing on the tables in Moscow and Beijing about this.”

'Global vaccine queue'

Pharmaceutical industry insiders have pointed at slow ordering and haggling over price as the reason the E. U. has stumbled. E. U. officials also have said they have been left with an unfair share of the burden of supply shortfalls by British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

Other vaccine candidates ordered by the European Union have been held up in trials, while deliveries of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine — developed in Germany — were also temporarily disrupted.

Amid the squabbling, it is two countries outside the bloc that are leading the continent’s vaccination charts: newly Brexited Britain, with AstraZeneca and Pfizer, and yet-to-join Serbia, which is using Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm.

In Serbia, slightly more than 7 percent of people have had their first dose of vaccine, compared to 2.4 percent in Germany, a rate in line with the rest of the E. U., according to Bloomberg News’s vaccination tracker. Some 15 percent of people have received a vaccine dose in Britain.

“Serbia is vaccinating faster,” conceded Merkel in a television interviewon Tuesday, citing their use of the Chinese vaccine. “We have always said that anyone who is authorized by the European Medical Agency is very welcome.”

Merkel’s acknowledgment of Serbia’s successful look east also appears to leave little hope for smaller countries that may have been hoping for Western vaccine assistance.

And some in Europe are particularly keen to keep Moscow’s influence at bay.

The parliament in Ukraine, which lost Crimea to Russian annexation in 2014, has banned Russian vaccines, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling on Europe for more assistance. “The richest found themselves first in the global vaccine queue,” he said in December.

Meanwhile, Sputnik V is already being supplied to the rebel-held area in eastern Ukraine, according to local press reports.

Sputnik diplomacy

Russia has made little attempt to veil that it’s vaccine diplomacy is part of a wider push by President Vladimir Putin to assert influence abroad, choosing a vaccine name that evokes the space race during the Cold War with the West.

“The problem is that — especially in smaller countries — pragmatic business with Russia and political influence is hard to separate,” said Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, an independent, Budapest-based think tank. “The Russian strategy to pick at the coherence of the European Union and to find the weakest links and assert influence is clearly visible and already successful.”

Beijing has claimed it won’t use its vaccines for diplomatic leverage, but in public remarks, officials have linked the vaccine to greater cooperation and outreach. Any vaccine partnership in Europe is likely to raise alarms in Washington.

A few months ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had seemed an outlier within the E. U. by opening discussions on possibly having Sputnik V manufactured locally.

But now, Sputnik V’s developers, the Gamaleya Institute and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, are actively looking for a German partner for a possible tie-up on production, according to Germany’s health ministry, which confirmed that they had approached the German biotech firm IDT Biologika. The company declined to comment on the discussions.

“If a vaccine is safe and effective, regardless of the country in which it was manufactured, then of course it can help to cope with the pandemic,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in an interview published Sunday.

Germany’s favorable comments toward Russia’s and China’s vaccines have already been jumped on by Orban, who has charged ahead without approval from E. U. regulators, with both Sputnik V and Sinopharm approved for use in the country.

“With the Russian vaccine at least, Orban can say we were thinking ahead of Europe,” Krekó said. “Right now he can say we were pro-Sputnik, before it was cool.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who has long played the E. U. off its rivals in Moscow and Beijing, was left to appeal to China for help. Beijing responded quickly — although it’s still unclear how much of the vaccine was a gift and how much was a purchase.

European countries later followed up with aid, but it was too late to change the perception in Serbia that China was opening up with assistance at the same time countries in the E.U. were cutting it off.

'A result of policy mistakes'

Now, it’s a similar picture for smaller countries that may increasingly see Serbia’s route as the only path.

The World Health Organization’s Covax program, which aims to supply vaccines to countries that can’t afford it, had received pledges from the E.U. to supply doses. But the aid has not materialized amid chaos and delays in the E.U.’s efforts to buy vaccines for itself.

“They’ve now got to take seriously Russia and China on vaccines,” Fidler said. “That’s a result of how wicked this pandemic is, but it is also a result of policy mistakes.”

In his talk with the Atlantic Council, Macron said that he hopes that in the long run, he believes that Covax can be “more efficient” than other efforts in serving developing countries.

“If we put all together our financing and commitments, we can provide to these countries a number of doses without any comparison to the ones provided by China in the coming weeks and months,” said Macron.

But Russia and China have had a head start. Production and certification of the Russian vaccine in Europe could increase the credibility of Sputnik V and speed up vaccination among Europe’s neighbors, said Joanna Hosa, deputy director of the wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The primary objective that the European Union has is to ensure that the people are vaccinated,” she said. “I think in this case, the European Union will try to close its eyes to the downside of having Russia distribute vaccine.”

It’s not a problem if Hungary and others want to use Russian and Chinese vaccines to protect their citizens, Krekó said.

“The problem is if it’s communicated in a way that it’s only our Eastern friends that can help us in a time of trouble,” he added.

Luisa Beck in Berlin and Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.