Ilya Shablinsky: On the important events of the past week

13 February 2022

by Ilya Shablinsky, doctor of legal sciences, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Спектр]

The European Union embargo on supplies of oil products from Russia – fuel oil, petrol and diesel fuel – to the global market came into force on 5 February. Two months ago an embargo on Russian crude oil was also imposed. The main purpose of this measure is to reduce the revenues of the Russian state that allow it to wage war. This is an event that is very serious for the economic life of Europe as well as for the Russian economy. It’s worth noting the reaction of Russian state media: they are obliged to demonstrate a dismissive attitude towards this measure. What does a European embargo mean for us when we can do so much trade with non-European countries? And there are, by and large, enough buyers. Maybe, but these buyers give us prices approximately half as much as before. The price ceiling set by the embargo is working. The Russian economy has been deprived of its most profitable partners. And its companies have been cut off from access to European tankers, insurance, financing and trading.

A few days ago, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak said Russia would voluntarily cut its daily oil production by 500,000 barrels ‘to restore normal market relations.’ Funny wording. In fact, the reason is that it is extremely unprofitable for Russian oil companies, forced to trade at a huge discount, to sell oil at around $40 a barrel, and the production cut gives little hope of a price increase in the market as a whole. But it certainly will not affect the price of Russian oil.

No one expects sanctions to have a quick impact. And there is no danger of a catastrophe for the Russian economy. But it is a long game. Losses to the Russian budget are already evident. The Russian Ministry of Finance, which has not yet been banned from reporting unpleasant truths, published information about the serious budget deficit the day after the embargo was imposed. The publication said that revenue receipts at the beginning of 2023 are 35 percent lower than in January 2022. At the same time, oil and gas revenues amounted to 426 billion roubles, 46 percent lower than in January last year. There has never been such a drop in revenues in the last 80 years of Russia’s history (and whoever wants to can remember the USSR).

Will the Russian dictatorship have to somehow adjust to this gradual but obvious weakening of the economy? Yes. The budget, of course, is being constantly revised, but the war will not be stopped by the dictator because of this. The war has become the main raison d’être and objective of this regime. And it is only a question of weakening its capacity for mass killings and strikes against the civilian and energy infrastructure of Ukraine. Or at least weaken it.

So far, these strikes are being carried out regularly. While the front is moving very little. On 10 February, Russian troops launched another massive missile strike against Ukrainian territory, specifically targetting Kiev, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Vinnitsa, Ivano-Frankivsk and other cities. The targets seemed once again to be energy infrastructure facilities but, as before, there were reports of destroyed residential buildings. The overriding objective of this rocket terror remains, apparently, psychological pressure on the population. One can only assume that the Kremlin is still hoping to redirect the irritation and anger of the Ukrainians against the leadership in Kiev, as well as to increase the price of support for Ukraine on the part of its allies in Europe. After all, those thousands of generators and other equipment needed to rebuild the heat generation network system CHP must be costing EU budgets a pretty penny.

In my opinion, these expectations, if that is what they are, are based on a fundamentally flawed assessment of the situation. The people of Ukraine are well aware of who is shelling them and who started the war. And, let’s say, the residents of mostly Russian-speaking Kharkiv know this particularly well, where the city centre has been literally blown apart and there is a great deal of destruction in all neighbourhoods. Is someone counting on the city’s residents coming to hate Zelensky and not Putin after all this? Is someone counting on the Ukrainian citizens demanding that a peace agreement is signed with Putin and a fifth of the country’s territory is given up? That’s just not going to happen.

And when it comes to the amount of support – in connection with this shelling – from Ukraine’s allies, the most powerful states in Europe and the world, for them this support is simplly an insignificant amount in the overall costs of the war.

In fact, these conclusions are pretty obvious. Therefore, a quite obvious thought also comes to mind: whoever gives orders to hit Ukrainian cities with Calibres is simply appeasing his sense of revenge. Relieving their feelings.

Turning to the legal side of things. Article 8(2)(b)(ii) of the Rome Statute, the international legal instrument that determines the status of the International Criminal Court, created in The Hague in 2002, describes the war crime at issue here thus: ‘Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives.’ Yet, the Russian Federation is not a party to the Rome Statute, and I do believe the Kremlin will have taken this into account when deciding how to retaliate. However, this does not make it any less of a war crime.

That same point applies to another incident. On 8 February, the Joint Investigation Team that led the criminal case into the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 disaster held a press conference in The Hague. JIT representatives said they believed Russian President Vladimir Putin to have been involved in the MH17 flight crash and to have personally decided to supply the Buk air defence missile system to Ukrainian territory. Investigators pointed out that they only had circumstantial evidence for this: namely, radio intercepts consisting of a snippet of conversation between the head of occupied Crimea, Aksenov, and someone else, as well as other data. But Putin, as the head of a sovereign state, cannot be subjected to criminal prosecution. This follows from several rules in acts such as the 1961 Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the 1963 Convention on Consular Relations, and the 1969 Convention on Special Missions, but chiefly from international legal customs. While there are international legal norms that allow for the prosecution of sitting heads of state, this applies only in cases where they are accused of crimes against the peace and security of mankind. Thus, no new charges will be brought – for now.

We might recall that the question of responsibility for this crime became more or less clear to millions of people as soon as a certain Strelkov boasted on air on 17 July 2014 that his forces had downed a large transport plane, and then an hour later it was revealed that a South Korean Boeing passenger plane had been shot down. Nonetheless, the Dutch court did everything in its power to uncover all the most crucial details of the crime. The question of Putin’s involvement has been an ongoing subject of debate these past years. The fact is the entrenched hierarchy of power in Russia is such that none other than Putin himself could have made the decision to supply an anti-aircraft missile system to the territory that Putin had separated from Ukraine.

Back to the current war. Supplies of the latest military equipment account for the most significant expenditures of Ukraine’s allies. Scaling up these supplies was the main goal of the visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to London, Paris, and Brussels from 8-10 February. There is a general consensus among the political elites of major European countries on assistance to Ukraine. Still, by meeting with MPs in person, Zelenskyy was able to communicate directly to the minority who doubt or object to the volume and timing of equipment deliveries. Basically, the main argument he has consistently made to various audiences comes down to this: ‘Either give weapons to Ukraine today or fight Putin’s army yourself tomorrow.’

Zelenskyy brought with him to London the flight helmet of an ace Ukrainian fighter pilot. What’s more, he read out an inscription on the helmet: ‘We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it!’ This refers to the supply of new generation fighters that are in service with the UK and other NATO countries. Much remains unclear when it comes to the aircraft, but modern tanks have already been sent to Ukraine. Granted, it’s nowhere near as many as the Ukrainian armed forces were expecting. For example, only 14 British Challengers are so far forthcoming. A slightly higher number of German Leopard-2s are also expected sometime soon. The Russian army continues to have obvious superiority in tanks and artillery, and, despite Ukrainian successes this autumn, this superiority has been maintained. Most of the Russians are fighting with T-72 tanks, but there are quite a few old T-62s on the battlefield as well, and these are no longer considered suitable for today’s anti-tank weapons.

Zelensky was well received. This is probably the most accurate description considering the applause given by the deputies of three parliaments, including the European parliament. It should be noted that the only MEP who neither applauded nor stood up from her seat after the Ukrainian president’s speech was Tatyana Zhdanok from Latvia. However, it is obvious that she is in a clear political minority in Latvia as well.

In this connection, we should note that these days the Swiss parliament is considering a bill that would allow a number of countries (including, for example, Germany) to supply Ukraine with ammunition produced in Switzerland. This is a serious issue for the Alpine republic. Strictly speaking, such a law would not contradict either the Swiss Constitution or its neutral status under the Hague Conventions. But this status is nonetheless interpreted differently by different political forces in the country. Switzerland also has about 100 Leopard 2 tanks, which it could sell to Poland and Slovakia in exchange for those they would supply to Ukraine.

Turning to Russia’s cultural life, a notable and much-discussed event this week was the firing of Zelfira Tregulova, director of the Tretyakov Gallery. Her dismissal was preceded by the publication of a letter to the Ministry of Culture from a visitor to the Tretyakov Gallery complaining about ‘the destructive ideology of some of the exhibits in the museum halls.’ The Ministry promptly responded. It demanded that the Tretyakov Gallery management submit a report on ‘the compliance of the permanent exhibition with ‘spiritual and moral values’ in connection with the complaint. Most likely, such a report was sent, but Tregulova was soon fired anyway. This caused consternation even to Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, who not so long ago swore loyalty to the president and the ‘special military operation.’ But here he nonetheless saw fit to write an article in Rossiiskaya gazeta about the need to protect museums from ignorant visitors. Tregulova, of course, was not helped by this. Among her possible sins, observers recall the fact that last summer she dared to cautiously resist the temporary transfer of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity to the Trinity-Sergius Lavra for services. Generally speaking, in the museum world Tregulova has a reputation as a specialist of the highest calibre. However, now the Tretyakovka is probably in more reliable hands: Elena Pronicheva has been appointed its director. It is known that she was for some time director of the Polytechnical Museum (which, however, was under reconstruction and has yet to open). More important, perhaps, is the fact that, according to RBK, Elena’s father, Vladimir Pronichev, served as Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service and headed the Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service. Yes, in that case, one can be assured the museum business is in safe hands.

A few words should be said about the situation at the front. It turns out that it is now affecting all other areas of life. According to Russian war correspondents, Russian troops launched an unsuccessful attack on Ugledar on 6-7 February. The war correspondents give details of the losses and berate the commanders. It seems quite recently they tried to ban the correspondents from doing such things. The Russian Defence Ministry issues no statements on the matter. The Ukrainian military says only that the offensive has been repelled. At the same time, fighting continues for Bakhmut. Ukrainian troops are in a difficult position there.

Translated by Lindsay Munford and Simon Cosgrove

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