Why Putin’s arrest warrant matters

In May 2022 Putin issued a new decree to make it easier for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children. In addition, Russian officials announced it would extend government support to Russian families who adopt kidnapped Ukrainian children resulting in more than 16,000 being deported to Russia. The abducted children are forced to learn Russian, are denied contact with their families to “Russify” them by providing “patriotic education” and is considered an act of Genocide.

Although some children are being taken from orphanages, many have parents who were coerced into allowing their children to go and others were simply murdered. Daria Gerasimchuk, a Ukrainian government ombudswoman, told the Observer: “They kill the parents, for whatever reason, and kidnap the child. In other cases, they just grab the child directly from the family, perhaps to punish that family.” Such reports are similar to the Canadian Residential Schools and the Nazi Lebensborn program.

This led the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant on March 17th for Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, on suspicion of unlawful deportation of children and unlawful transfer of people from the territory of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

Unless Russia undergoes a major regime it is highly unlikely that he will ever face justice for the crimes he committed not just in Ukraine but also in the UK (Salisbury poisoning), Georgia and to his own people. This raises the question of what the point of issuing the warrant was. Is it just an empty gesture or will it have reason consequences? I think it is the latter for three key reasons.

Travel

No one is going to come knocking on the Kremlin’s door with handcuffs, but what if Putin comes to them? If he travels to a state that is party to the ICC, that country is advised to arrest him and turn him over to the court. This year, the annual BRICS submit is being held in South Africa, a signatory of the ICC. This leaves Putin with three possible options; he could attend and risk being arrested, send a proxy and look weak, or he could withdraw from BRICS which would further isolate Russia diplomatically and economically.

Media attention

Most people, especially in the West, are aware of the war in Ukraine but in the winter of 2022/3 news from the frontline started to slow due to a lack of major developments. It is no secret that Ukraine is reliant on western support and western governments will likely only continue sending aid to Ukraine so long as there continues to be grassroots support for Ukraine within western democracies. By issuing the warrant, the ICC has made the Ukraine war headline news again and highlights to crimes committed by the Putin regime which in turn would increase western support. After all, if your average Brit or German stops caring about the war, our governments may stop caring and support for Ukraine may slowly dry up.

Makes exile harder

Dictators often have escape plans in case things go wrong for them. The ICC arrant makes Putin’s possible exile much harder. If, and that’s a big if, Putin is removed from power and the new Russian government wants to had him over to the ICC – like when Slobodan Milošević was arrested by his country and sent to the ICTY. So, if Putin is forced into exile, where would he go? He couldn’t go to any of the 125 ICC members or the US. The Belarusian and Syrian governments would likely collapse without Putin’s support, leaving only China and North Korea. Beijing seems to be only tentatively backing the Putin government because of Russia’s natural resources rather than any ideological support for Putin himself. It is, therefore, possible that if an anti-Putin Russian government were to assume power and demand Putin to be handed over to them and the Chinese government could do so in exchange for a trade deal. The signing of Statue of Rome in 1998 saw the number of world leaders guilty of crimes against humanity etc in exile drop (Krcmaric, 2018). The takeaway message from Krcmaric’s research is that organisations like the ICC makes the world a smaller place for tyrants and the constant risk for being arrested for their crimes means exile is no longer the safe golden ticket it once was.

To conclude, the ICC’s warrant is not merely an symbolic gesture, showing the world’s unity against the tyranny of Vladmir Putin’s illegal war but has some very real consequences, even if Putin and his cronies never face justice.

Speaking at the 1948 Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the American Chief Prosecutor Joseph Keenan issued the following indictment:

It is high time that the promoters of aggressive, ruthless War and treaty-breakers should be stripped of the glamour of national heroes and exposed as what they really are—plain, ordinary murderers.

This assessment was true then and still holds true today. Putin and his supporters are murderers and they need to be exposed as such.

* Jack Wilkin is a PhD student at the University of Exeter researching past environmental change around the island of South Georgia. He is a registered supporter of the Lib Dems.

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2 Comments

  • Mel Borthwaite 28th Mar '23 - 6:40pm

    Everything stated is true, but….
    The major weakness of the ICC is that it is seen as a tool of the collective West and the decision to go after Putin while completely failing to after Bush and Blair for the illegal and unprovoked invasion of Iraq, or to go after any Israeli leader for anything (not even the massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps after the Israeli Defence Forces surrounded the camp and then bussed in the militia to commit the atrocity.)

  • Russia supported the ICC almost from its inception in 1998 (they signed it in 2000) and its entry into force later in 2002; in 2016 Putin decided to withdraw their signature. This was more of a symbolic move because Russia never actually ratified the treaty so they simply cooperated with the court while staying out of their jurisdiction.

    Two days before the withdrawal, the ICC’s lead prosecutor said in a report that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine developed into an international armed conflict. The occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol became a delicate international matter and the ICC had to speak up.
    At the time, Russia was also accused of war crimes during their military intervention in Syria and this too might had triggered their final decision to no longer be part of the court. That same week, a few days earlier, Putin launched an offensive in Syria and that action resonated in the organization as much as the conflict with Ukraine.

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