The establishment of an international tribunal would be a dangerous precedent and might lead to Russia being forced to give up some of its special privileges as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Russia vetoes a draft resolution in the Security Council that would create a tribunal to prosecute those found responsible for the MH17 downing over eastern Ukraine on July 29, 2015 at UN headquarters. Pictured: Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Photo: Reuters

 For a very different take read: "The MH17 tragedy has become a geopolitical game"

Russian has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to set up an international tribunal to find and convict those responsible for the MH17 tragedy. Only the Russian delegation voted against the resolution, with two countries friendly to Russia - China and Venezuela - merely abstaining.

Many have interpreted Russia’s blocking of the resolution as an indirect admission of guilt. Moscow does not want a tribunal for fear of being condemned by it, the argument goes. And only the guilty need be afraid.

Despite the obvious logic, the real motives behind Moscow’s veto are quite different. Russia has little reason to fear accusations of involvement in the MH17 crash as such, especially since international public opinion fingered Moscow within hours of the tragedy without any kind of tribunal. The UN vote was about a much more fundamental issue: the future configuration of the system of international relations and Russia’s place therein.

The establishment of an international tribunal on MH17 would be a precedent, since no previous tribunal has envisioned representatives of a permanent member of the UN Security Council as potential defendants. It is this fact, and not the official explanation that the resolution did not qualify the Boeing tragedy as a threat to international peace and security, which was the main reason for the Russian veto.

For modern Russia, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is one of the two cornerstones of the country’s international status, along with its strategic nuclear potential. An international tribunal could easily turn into a tool to loosen the first of these cornerstones. Russia’s consent would be tantamount to a voluntarily renunciation of its special privileges as a great power, earned by the generation that sacrificed itself in World War II.

The very fact of some international institution combing through the Russian army for guilty officers would be a serious blow to national prestige. Regardless of the outcome, there would be the question of who could give orders to the military, which would turn the international tribunal into a trial of the state and its political leadership.

In such a climate, the long mooted plans for UN reform would inevitably acquire a solid foundation. The validity of the present configuration would be challenged as unrepresentative of the new international realities. The long cherished hopes of applicants wanting to raise their international status, such as Germany, Japan and India, would be bolstered by the huge reputational problems of one of the existing permanent members of the Security Council. The upshot could be, if not an outright lowering, then at least a blurring of Russia’s status through the addition of new UN Security Council permanent members.

Weakened by an international tribunal, Russian diplomacy would be powerless to prevent it. By wielding its veto, Russia has managed to postpone this extremely unpleasant (for it) scenario, but its opponents still hold the trump cards.

Recommended: "A year after MH17: The lessons for Russia"

The situation is overly complicated by the fact that the proposed tribunal is favored not only by the “hostile” West, but also countries that Russia considers as friends and partners. That means that Moscow can only rely on itself. There are bound to be attempts to set up an international tribunal in circumvention of the UN Security Council, whose activity would also be a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

It should be recognized that this mounting pile of problems is largely the result of the unduly upfront and uncompromising position of Russian diplomacy, which in recent times has drawn inspiration from the legacy of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, a.k.a. “Mr. No.”

Russia’s full and categorical denial of any (even indirect) involvement in the MH17 disaster in no way contributed to international acknowledgement of its arguments and versions of events. Too many facts Moscow simply left without comment, which effectively confirmed international observers’ suspicions of guilt.

However, it should be noted that the driving force behind the broad international campaign to find the perpetrators of the Malaysia Airlines tragedy is not “Russophobia” at all, as Russian propagandists try to portray it, but a sense of the injustice committed against the families of the deceased, who not only lost loved ones, but also became victims themselves of a big political game.

Anti-Russian forces are exploiting these natural human emotions, but at the same time, the Russian authorities are doing absolutely nothing to mitigate and resolve the situation.

Until international public opinion is convinced that the guilty have been punished, and the relatives and friends of those killed fairly compensated, the problems for Russian diplomacy will continue to mount. And the right of veto in the UN Security Council should not be relied upon as a barrier against any attacks.

Moscow would be advised to desist from stubbornly confronting the world on MH17, which does not befit a great power, and instead to seek a compromise, regardless of whether or not it played a part in the tragedy. At stake is not only Russia’s reputation, but also its place in the future system of international relations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.