Russia’s Future Trials

June 22, 2015

According to Vladimir Putin, Russia has escaped a major economic crisis and has the “inner strength” to prevail over the current one that he believes has already stabilized. Putin, of course, is famous for living in his own hermetically-sealed mental universe, but this statement of confidence appears to be particularly misplaced. Unless this is a piece of characteristic political bravado, Putin’s observations also evidently validate a claim made by many observers that he really has no grasp of economic policy or understanding of its interconnected dimensions except as it affects his power and wealth. For in fact several events that have occurred last week suggest not only future trials and challenges for Russia amidst a deepening crisis, but also gathering opportunities for the West and Ukraine to strengthen those challenges and future trials that Russia will face.

Beginning on June 18 France, Belgium, and Austria have started seizing Russian non-diplomatic assets in conjunction with Moscow’s refusal to pay the $50 Billion judgment imposed by the Hague Arbitration Court for seizure of Yukos. Naturally Putin claims that this court had no authority to impose such penalties on Russia. But as far as Putin is concerned nobody has the right to hold Russia or him to account. While Russia will resist or retaliate; this is a damaging precedent because other creditors will start seizing assets and it will embolden other victims of the Russian state to file suit abroad. And this will certainly further depress foreign interest in investing in Russia.

The second sign that portends negative implications for Russia was the European Court of Human Rights finding that Armenia had occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and was thus liable for the destruction there. Regardless of the merits of each side in that war, there is no reason why Ukraine cannot now appear before that court to find Russia guilty of occupying Ukraine and therefore liable for the destruction and loss of life there. Moreover, upon invading Crimea, Moscow immediately seized all the assets of Ukraine’s energy explorations there and took them over (that may have been a motive for the invasion of Crimea). This action opens a third front for legal and political action against Moscow, not only by international courts but by the European Commission for there is no doubt that Russia’s projected Turk Stream pipeline will contain some of that gas as do Russian oil shipments to Europe, If the Commission could block South Stream on the grounds of its failure to conform to EU guidelines, it can certainly block a pipeline that utilizes the fruits of unmitigated aggression. And courts can easily declare those as stolen assets and impose penalties on Russia and anyone benefiting from them.

Here the West might also consider that a fourth avenue of legal-political action might be to investigate FIFA’s Russian connection. Given FIFA’s exposure as having been (if it is not still) a sewer of criminal corruption and bribes, there is little reason not to believe that, despite Putin’s claims that Russia fought honestly for its right to host the World Cup, large bribes were paid by Russia to FIFA to secure its right to host those games in 2018. If the FBI or other competent investigative organizations could be persuaded to follow up on their original investigation of FIFA it is quite likely that they could find the “smoking gun” proving such corruption. Moreover, the last time Moscow committed such egregious corruption, i.e. against Afghanistan in 1979, the US and many others boycotted the Moscow Olympics. A Boycott of FIFA or taking the games away from Moscow would be a major economic and political blow to Putin and his cronies who stand to enrich themselves again to the scale they did so at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Finally this leads to a fifth consideration. Palestinian activists and their anti-Israel supporters have launched a noisy worldwide campaign to boycott, induce shareholders divestment, and sanction Israel. Another so-called BDS campaign could easily be launched against Moscow for its aggression and it would have considerably more justification than does the anti-Israel campaign, as Russia’s aggression is not open to any doubt except for from Moscow and its trolls.

All these precedents are already out there and constitute the contemporary phenomenon of so called “lawfare”, i.e. waging war or its equivalent by the use of the means of international law and courts. They entail no violence but put Russia under immense and wholly justified economic and political pressure since Putin still blames the West for Ukraine and denies Russia’s involvement. The added advantage of waging lawfare against Russia is that it forces Russia and Putin to account for their behavior and continues to throw it on the defensive. The fact that British lawyers have flown to Ukraine to prepare a class action suit against Russia for shooting down the Malaysian Airline Flight 17 last year indicates that such actions are already under active consideration. Such lawfare also offers the West and Ukraine another arrow in their quiver against Russian aggression without inflaming (if they still believe that legitimate defense is inflammatory) the military situation. However, what is perhaps most important is that the international community and the West intensify the pressure upon Russia for its actions in Ukraine, not merely to punish it, but to hold it to account. If we are to work towards a democratic non-imperialist Russia, we must create conditions for future Russian leaders to grasp that neither they nor their state can act autocratically and without accountability in domestic or world affairs. The opportunities before us now offer us such a chance, and if we fail to take it then not only Russia but its neighbors and the rest of the world will continue to pay the price of Russian irresponsibility and autocracy.