MOSCOW—On a quiet spring morning, Moscow's famous “summer snow” of poplar fluff swirled peacefully around the country's most famous prison, Lefortovo. The former KGB jail is hidden in a sleepy part of the old town and reserved for high-profile prisoners, political detainees, corrupt bureaucrats and today 24 Ukrainian sailors whose detention has become one of the stumbling blocks to peace in Europe's only active war, in eastern Ukraine.
Last week, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled that Russian authorities must “immediately” free the sailors, who were detained in waters contested by Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea. But days passed and President Vladimir Putin showed no sign of obeying the court’s order.
It was hardly the first time Putin ignored an international organization. Even as the Russian leader has been blaming the United States for breaking international laws, Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe has been suspended since it annexed Crimea in 2014. and now the Kremlin is ignoring a United Nations convention, which the USSR signed back in 1982, to settle maritime disputes.
The direct defiance of a U.N. tribunal's ruling, says Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, might seem more shocking if such institutions were not also under attack by the United States.
“Just like President Trump, Putin withdraws from international agreements, ignores treaties and conventions—the two of them seem to play in a team here. They both believe that might makes right," Golts said.
The Kremlin has been ignoring decisions made by international courts, for example, refusing pay compensation, including $1.8 billion, that the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to fork over to shareholders of Yukos oil company for imposing expensive penalties and not giving it a chance for a fair legal defense.
“Thanks to Putin’s shortsighted policy, disrespect for international law, our country’s reputation has been destroyed,” Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician, told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile the isolation of Russia continues apace.
On Thursday, the Pentagon moved to prohibit cooperation with Russia on space launches, beginning from 2023; the U.S. will also start banning Russian satellite services.
Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, blamed the U.S. for being “unfair” since the ban would deprive American manufacturers of a chance to work with the Russian rocket and space industry.
“The Kremlin cannot admit that thanks to Putin’s cowboy-like behavior pretty soon nobody would treat Russia as a reliable partner,” Yashin said. “The last investors will leave. It will take years for a new generation of politicians to fix the damage caused by Putin’s mistakes.”
But Putin’s defiant attitude has supporters, who see a show of power in ignoring the ruling. “The sailors are citizens of a foreign state, they intruded on Russia’s territory, so the International Tribunal was wrong to even consider the case,” a member of Putin’s Council for Civil Society and Human rights told The Daily Beast. “If we did not show power on our border last year, there would have been more aggressive acts, so now it is up to the Russian court to decide the punishment for the intruders.”
For now, the Ukrainian sailors are still behind bars in Lefortovo prison.
Ilya Novikov, a defense lawyer, emerged out of the fluffy cloud of poplar down outside the jail last Tuesday. He had just applied for a client meeting with one of the sailors.
“Putin should not violate the convention and disobey the tribunal’s decision, Russia has to immediately free the sailors,” Novikov told The Daily Beast. “Otherwise, the next time Russia’s navy gets in trouble, say somewhere in Africa, criminals would know that nobody in the international community is coming to defend Russian sailors.“