The Russian nyet in the United Nations Security Council, which blocked the resolution on setting up an international tribunal on the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, was entirely predictable (see EDM, July 30). President Vladimir Putin had described the proposed legal body as “untimely,” and many Russian officials and propaganda cheerleaders had elaborated on the alleged politicization and bias of the Flight MH17 investigation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 24). Yet, the damage to Russia’s reputation for casting its veto is devastating because it amounts to Moscow admitting direct involvement in the tragedy, which claimed 298 lives; no amount of diplo-speak can hide this fact. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent envoy to the UN, surprised his peers by expressing hope for “impunity” (beznakazannost) for those who had shot down the plane (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 29). That was certainly a slip of a tired tongue, and he probably meant to say something about responsibility (otvetstvennost); but Churkin’s accidental remark points to a pronounced Russian self-perception: Russia indeed seems to believe that, as a “great power,” it cannot be subjected to any tribunals and has impunity in conducting its foreign and domestic affairs as it sees fit (Moscow Echo, July 31).
It remains to be seen whether Moscow will again block a Security Council resolution in a couple of months, when the final report from the international investigation of the downed Malaysian Boeing 777, led by the Netherlands, will be published, or whether Russia will try to prevent a vote on this issue in the UN General Assembly (Rbc.ru, July 30). It has, however, become quite clear that Russia has destroyed one of the pillars of its own foreign policy, which habitually presents the UN as the main upholder of international law and the ultimate arbiter in major interstate disputes (Forbes.ru, July 29). Moscow has sought to become a champion of a more democratic and fair global system free from the United States’ “hegemony”—but now it has come in conflict with the whole international community (Carnegie.ru, July 29).
It was certainly a major defeat for Russian diplomacy that only three members of the UN Security Council (Angola, China and Venezuela) opted to abstain from supporting the MH17 tribunal resolution, while 11 voted in favor. The Kremlin was quick to express full understanding of the Chinese position. But in fact, China’s refusal to provide direct support in this crucially important moment signifies a failure in Russia’s attempts to build a mature “strategic partnership” with the great East Asian neighbor (Kommersant, July 30). Beijing has not only refused to be associated with covering up a high-profile crime but also expressed disapproval of Russia’s radically revisionist behavior, which departs too far from its own ideas about gradual reform of the global system through a new type of great power relations with the US (Rbc.ru, July 30). This diplomatic demarche has brought into focus the senselessness of Russian hopes for expanding economic ties with China as a way to compensate for the deepening disruption of trade and investment flows with Europe (Gazeta.ru, July 29). Even the natural gas contracts, which were supposed to form a solid basis for a new partnership with China, are stalled—with slim chance of progressing toward implementation (Vedomosti, July 22).
It is Russia’s increasing economic weakness that warns China, India and other emerging Asia-Pacific powers against investing in Russian resource development projects, because for them the decision to abandon the goals of modernization and to adopt instead a self-isolating agenda is most likely incomprehensible. For members of Putin’s regime, on the other hand, the idea of compensating for economic decline with “patriotic” mobilization is entirely natural, and the rejection of Western pressure fits perfectly into this agenda. The downside, of course, is the sanctions; and Washington’s most recent tightening of the economic restrictions targeting companies and individuals profiting from loopholes has irked the Kremlin (Polit.ru, July 31). The government in Moscow promises an “asymmetric” response, like, for instance, the ban on importing flowers from the Netherlands, which is intended to be a “punishment” for pushing the tribunal proposal within the UN (Kommersant, August 1). The Russian population, on the other hand, is growing indifferent to sanctions: a recent opinion poll shows only 41 percent of respondents worried about them, against 51 percent last December (Levada.ru, July 29).
At the same time, an understanding of the deeper causes of Russia’s painful economic decline is gradually emerging among the domestic electorate, and it is the Russian governors who are presently most worried about the possibility of an emergent protest vote in the coming local elections. Opposition candidates and campaigns are unceremoniously banned from partaking in elections, for instance in Novosibirsk or Magadan, which pushes the discontent down into the political underground (Novaya Gazeta, August 1). The opposition has no means to take these blatant violations of its rights to court, because the whole legal system is politically guided to persecute dissent and stigmatize “foreign agents” (Gazeta.ru, July 30). The Russian court hearing of the case against Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko perfectly illustrates this failure of justice (Grani.ru, July 30). Putin’s subordinates undoubtedly believe that Western courts are also following political orders. Thus, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a stern warning to the United States against acting in accordance with the verdict of the Hague international arbitration body, which last year awarded former Yukos shareholders compensation amounting to $50 billion. This ruling has led to arrests in Europe of material and financial assets belonging to Russian state companies (Rbc.ru, August 1).
Exactly 40 years ago, the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), accepting commitments to respect the norms of international behavior and to observe the standards of human rights. The Kremlin had, in fact, no intention to relax domestic pressure on dissidents (who formed the legendary Helsinki group) but saw the document as a matter of pivotal importance to establish the inviolability of European borders. Today, Putin’s Russia is recycling some of the most notorious Soviet methods of suppressing the human rights movement—but at the same time, Moscow also rejects the constraints of international law and violates the borders of its neighbors at its convenience. The Kremlin assumes that Russia’s impunity is guaranteed by the country’s nuclear arsenal, but all these missiles and warheads can do nothing to deter global public opinion, which is increasingly turning against Russia.