Think Tank Review: Falling oil prices, the international tribunal on MH17 and Russia’s deteriorating relations with the West are the focus of Russian experts in July.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin takes part in a meeting of the U.N. Security Council at the U.N. headquarters in New York July 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters

In July Russian experts were focused on the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran, the prospects of an international tribunal on MH17 and the persisting problems of Russia-West relations.

The Boeing tribunal

The prospect of a tribunal on last summer’s downed Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 caused a stir among Russian analysts. Some believe that the veto on the UN Security Council resolution was the right decision to protect the Russian Federation from unfair accusations, while other experts believe that Russia is "fleeing responsibility."

The first group included MGIMO international law expert Dmitry Labin. He believes that there are no grounds for a tribunal in principle, and that Russia was essentially excluded from the process of drawing up the resolution. This neglect and obvious negativity on the part of other UN Security Council members forced Russia to wield its veto. In other words, Russia is protecting itself against unfounded accusations.

“The political situation needs to be taken into account. It is no secret that there is political opposition. The voting of the other UN Security Council members, with the exception of China, was tendentious and an attempt to exert pressure on Russia, whose natural response was to use its veto,” remarks the analyst.

Georgy Bovt of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) also writes about the dubious grounds for an MH17 tribunal, mentioning that other international tribunals (e.g. Rwanda, Yugoslavia) were ultimately discredited by their politicization.

Bovt reckons that even if a tribunal were held, it would suffer the same fate — the clear anti-Russian sentiment of the majority of the UN Security Council members would guarantee it.

The expert regrets that the initiative does not facilitate the restoration of ties between Russia and its Western partners; on the contrary, it incites Russia to revise its subordination to international law, which is increasingly turning against the country.

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center is in the second group. For him, Russia is shirking responsibility, despite being well aware that all the same it is guilty in the eyes of the West, with or without a tribunal.

Baunov also believes that for the sake of Russia’s image in the short term, it would be more logical to support the proposed tribunal, as that would demonstrate openness and the desire to find those responsible.

However, the expert notes that in the long run the lengthy proceedings (after all, short political tribunals are unprecedented) could mar relations between Russia and the West to such an extent that normal cooperation and partnership become impossible.

 Recommended: "Why Russia opposes an international tribunal on MH17" 

Iran’s impact on global energy prices

The end of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in July provoked a mixed response from Russian experts. Although the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough, the consequences of the “Iran deal” for Russia could be less salubrious.

There is doom and gloom over the impending price collapse that could follow Iran’s return to the oil market, yet many think tank experts see the situation in a more optimistic light. From this perspective, no seller in the market, including Iran itself, wants low oil prices.

For instance, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) published an interview with former Russian Deputy Energy Minister turned expert Vladimir Milov, who believes that “the potential impact of the agreement is greatly exaggerated in the public debate.”

Milov points to the large-scale problems of Iran’s oil industry, which will hinder its speedy return to the world markets. What’s more, the Iranians themselves will not want to lose income as a result of price swings, so will try to bring their oil on stream gradually.

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) analyst Yuri Barmin also believes that Iran’s potential impact on the oil markets is greatly overestimated. Barmin also highlights the need to modernize Iran’s oil industry, which will require a tremendous amount of work and foreign investment. The analyst agrees with his CFDP colleague regarding Iran’s unwillingness to force down the price of oil.

“Since Iran needs to sell oil at pre-sanctions prices, it is unlikely to flood the market for fear of triggering a new price shock,” believes Barmin.

Carnegie Center expert Mikhail Krutikhin is not so optimistic in his assessment, pointing to the desire of various top officials to “make up for lost time after years of sanctions.” He predicts an inevitable drop in oil prices, and believes that oil exporters with fully energy-oriented economies will be the most affected.

“Countries like Russia and Venezuela will face enormous challenges,” warns the expert. “Their stranded reserves of oil can only provisionally be described as shale. Their development is cost-effective at a price of over $80 a barrel, and is sometimes simply not possible even with today’s technologies.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama at Schloss Elmau hotel near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, during the G-7 summit. Photo: AP

Russia-West relations, still in the spotlight

The ongoing theme of Russia-West relations was again in the expert spotlight this month.

Tatiana Stanovaya, who writes for the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that Russia’s problematic relations with the West are the consequence of the illusory and ideological foreign policy of the Kremlin, which, guided by momentary objectives and notions, has no eye on long-term tenability.

The West, believes Stanovaya, really has driven Russia into isolation, but Moscow only has itself to blame for “asking the West to recognize as well-founded what it sees as our unreal strategic objectives.”

The analyst foresees a continuation of the standoff with the West, which is gradually becoming a thing and an end in itself, and a means of self-justification for the Russian elite.

CFDP head Fyodor Lukyanov dwells on the accusations of revisionism so often thrown at Russia in recent years, arriving at an unexpected conclusion. Across the whole gamut of issues in a climate of endless confrontation, he says, the labels “revisionist” and “conventionalist” are already blurred.

“Everything is mixed up to such an extent that it’s impossible even to say who the revisionists are and who the conventionalists are. Even more devastating is Western activism with its mission to transform the world whether it likes it or not, coupled with Russia’s retaliatory dagger blows to silence the frisky activist,” postulates the expert.

In another article Lukyanov notes the rise in the aggressive tone of the official discourse on both sides, which, in his expert opinion, is doing nothing to resolve the conflict.

RIAC published an interview with renowned German expert on Russia Andreas Metz, in which he advocates non-confrontation. The analyst points to the existence of some major contradictions between Russia and the West (particularly Germany) in political matters, yet believes that in the economic sphere the opposing sides could seek rapprochement, since that is obviously in everyone’s interests. Metz believes that sooner or later one of the parties will make concessions.

Natalia Yevtikhevich, another RIAC expert, remarks that the best recent illustration of the lamentable state of relations between Russia and the West was the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, which took place without Russia.

The analyst believes that Russia’s exclusion from “Helsinki” runs counter to the very idea of ​​the Final Act, which was intended to establish dialogue between even the most irreconcilable political adversaries.