Rwanda with Rockets

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not usually known for biting its tongue. Nor is the Kremlin, for that matter. And so it’s striking that two pieces of news this week – the Netherlands’ proposal for a tribunal on the downing of MH17 in eastern Ukraine, and the UK’s arrest of the Rwandan intelligence chief on war crimes charges – have elicited no reaction from Moscow.

Remember Moscow’s reaction to the investigation into corruption at FIFA and subsequent arrests? Clearly an American plot against Russian interests, said sporting officials. Yet another instance of Washington overstepping its legal bounds and imposing its will on others, chimed in the commentators.

And yet they’ve said nothing about the arrest of Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, on a Spanish warrant on genocide charges. When it has been reported, the reporting has been neutral, even in Kremlin-linked media – and there has been no comment, official or otherwise, from Russian sources. Meanwhile, the only official response to the Dutch proposal for a tribunal on the downing of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 – which most observers believe was brought down by a missile provided by Russia to the separatists fighting in the Donbas – has been to say “no comment“.

Odd, given that both cases have much more at stake for Russia than the FIFA scandal. The MH17 tribunal, after all, would try to ascertain culpability, including establishing who provided the missile and who pulled the trigger; it would also, in all likelihood, look into allegations of coverups and obstruction.

What about the Rwandan case? Russia has never taken much of an interest in that civil war or its aftermath, but the precedent is a startling one: Karenzi Karake is a high-ranking public official. If he can be arrested while in London, what’s to stop someone from arresting, say, FSB Chief Alexander Bortnikov on similar charges?

Were charges eventually to be brought against Bortnikov or his comrades for their role in the Ukrainian conflict, the only thing that would separate him from Karenzi Karake is the political difference between Rwanda and Russia. On the one hand, you’d think that’s a pretty major difference: Rwanda is a small, poor African state with no real international power, while Russia is a large, industrialized nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But the British didn’t arrest Karenzi Karake because they could: they did it because they were made by their public to feel that they should. The Rwandan genocide is an enduring issue of public concern in the UK, as in much of the West, and the Rwandan government is seen as both culpable and illegitimate – both because it hides its culpability, and because its democratic bona fides are weak. Right now, public opinion in the West is rapidly beginning to feel the same way about Russia and its rulers. If a tribunal convincingly establishes Moscow’s role in the MH17 downing – and, by association, the Ukrainian war more broadly – the gap between Bortnikov and Karenzi Karake, indeed between Russia and Rwanda, will narrow still further.

It’s a sobering thought.

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