Russian Warfare: Comedy & Death

Douglas Adams has one of his characters say ‘I’ve seen the future. It’s the same as the present, but with better gadgets’. This also applies to breaches of the laws of war.

On 25 May 2018 the representatives of Australia and the Netherlands at the United Nations presented a statement to the representative of the Russian Federation. The statement concerned the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. It noted that

An investigation into the causes of the downing of flight MH17 was carried out by the Dutch Safety Board (DSB)…. The report of the DSB has revealed that the aircraft was shot down with a missile launched from a BUK-installation from the territory of Ukraine in an area that was under the effective control of separatists…. The Joint Investigation Team announced on 24 May 2018 its conclusion that the BUK-installation belonged to the Russian Federation Army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

Based on these facts, Australia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands consider that the Russian Federation, through its role in the downing of flight MH17 on 17 July 2014, has breached several obligations under international law …. That responsibility gives rise to legal consequences for the Russian Federation to …[p]rovide Australia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands full reparation for the injury caused by these internationally wrongful acts.

It remains to be seen whether reparations of any sort will be forthcoming, although under the ‘bearish’ United Russia government one would not be hopeful. That said, a long-ago international case might give room for hope.

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By Source, Fair use,

In the early Twentieth Century Russia and Japan went to war. To bolster its Pacific fleet, the government of Tsar Nicholas II dispatched part of its Baltic fleet around the world. The fleet was commanded by Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, although early on he seems to have relinquished command to the Three Stooges: before the fleet had left European waters – and despite being 20,000 miles from Japan – it had fired on Danish and German fishing boats and merchant vessels from Sweden and France, believing all of them to be Japanese warships, carefully navigated a non-existent minefield, and observed Japanese military balloons (apparently the Three Stooges brought along some hallucinogenic drugs).

Farce turned to tragedy on the night of 21-22 October 1904 when the fleet encountered a group of British trawlers, concluded that they were Japanese torpedo boats and opened fire. One trawler was sunk and four others damaged. Two fishermen were killed and six were wounded (one of whom later died of wounds). Presumably for comic relief, the Russian fleet also concluded that two of its own cruisers were Japanese warships and opened fire on them as well.

An International Commission of Inquiry was established to investigate the incident. Its ruling concluded that

[T]he vessels of the fishing fleet did not commit any hostile act, and the majority of the commissioners being of opinion that there were no torpedo boats either among the trawlers nor anywhere near, the opening of fire by Admiral Rojdestvensky [sic] was not justifiable. … [However] Admiral Rojdestvensky personally did everything he could … to prevent trawlers, recognized as such, from being fired upon by the squadron. … Nevertheless, the majority of the commissioners regret that Admiral Rojdestvensky, in passing the Straits of Dover, did not take care to inform the authorities of the neighboring maritime powers that, as he had been led to open fire near a group of trawlers, these boats, of unknown nationality, stood in need of assistance.

Following this finding, the Russian government paid compensation of £66,000. That sum would have a modern value of £7,629,032.26.

The Dogger Bank Case (Great Britain v. Russia), 2 Am. J. Int’l L. 931 (Int’l Comm’n of Inq., 1905).