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As per recent news:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged war crimes in Ukraine, a move dismissed by Moscow as meaningless.

The Hague-based court said in a statement on Friday the warrant was issued over Putin’s suspected involvement in the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

For all practical purposes, there's no chance Putin would be arrested and handed over for trial, as this would be an incredible humiliation for Russia. So what's the point of issuing said warrant? Does the ICC really believe they'll ever get to try Putin in their court?

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8 Answers 8

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Slobodan Milosevic thought so, too, and he did end up on trial. Right now Russia is unlikely to hand President Putin over for trial, but that might change. Or at the very least, he might find his ability to travel restricted.

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    – JJJ
    Mar 20, 2023 at 20:09
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    Your answer would be better if it noted that Slobodan Milosevic wasn't tried in the ICC. Moreover the court tribunal that tried him was setup under the orders of the UNSC which means all the 5 powers unanimously approved that he should be tried (an international unanimity that is kind of rare in the UNSC). Obviously in Putin's case there will be no such unanimity in the UNSC as both Russia and China will veto any such move against Putin.
    – sfxedit
    Mar 21, 2023 at 17:04
  • @sfxedit it's worth noting explicitly that the resolution establishing the ICTY was adopted by unanimous vote in favor (without abstentions), and that at the time of the vote the president of Russia was Boris Yeltsin.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2023 at 9:41
  • @phoog I didn't get your point - are you saying that if someone other than Yeltsin was the Russian President, Russia would have vetoed the setting up the court tribunal?
    – sfxedit
    Mar 22, 2023 at 12:32
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Does the ICC really believe they'll ever get to try Putin in their court?

What the ICC really believes is included in the video statement of ICC President Judge Piotr Hofmański (link, YouTube video) (highlight mine):

The ICC is doing its part of work as a Court of Law.
The judges issued arrest warrants.
The execution depends on international cooperation.

In simple words: the ICC never arrests anyone. The states do, either as an obligation (members) or at their convenience (others).


The question claims that:

[…] given that the chances of him getting arrested are effectively zero […]

This "effectively zero" probability consists of a sum of several possibilities, each of which is far from being zero. The sum of non-zeroes can't be a zero. Here's some, in random order:

  1. Out of 193 UN Nations, "only" 123 states are ICC members. Each Member state is obliged to execute the arrest. Albeit there are historical cases of member states' failures to execute the ICC warrants, I find the ratio of 123/193 far from being "effectively zero".

    ICC Member states
    Image from Wikipedia

  2. Consider the fact that the arrest can only be executed on legitimate territory. This is very true. And it is also very true that:

    • Today: Any President Security Service member would be tempted to see Putin's neck as a chance for himself. As a ticket to Witness Protection Program, War Crimes Rewards Program, or other similar state-supported projects that guarantee a changed identity and a quiet life for his entire family somewhere in rural US/Europe.
      Unlike his colleagues who will be taken to trial along with Putin.
    • Tomorrow: Any opposition leader, be it in the "Russian Federation" or any post-Russia state, will be tempted to trade Putin's physical presence in the ICC for discounts his new state would pay as post-war reparations and contributions.
  3. Consider Xi Jinping's anticipated visit to Russia. The entire Chinese foreign policy is being about building its reputation as a strong world leader.
    It requires quite a lot of courage for a world leader to put himself on the same level with a potential convict, and this is precisely what happened in the past. Putin himself declined to help Milošević back in 2000 when Milošević attempted to negotiate his escape to Russia, and Putin was focused on his effort to achieve EU/NATO membership for Russia. In an authoritarian country, only a personal decision of Putin himself was needed to let Milošević live a quiet life in Moscow, just like it happened in 2014 with Yanukovich.

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    – JJJ
    Mar 24, 2023 at 23:41
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This is not unfamiliar waters for the ICC.

ICC usually operates under the circumstances in which those it accuses of crimes are well-protected in their home countries. The purpose of ICC is to bring to justice war criminals from the countries in which war crimes are not prosecuted. Obviously any country which harbors its own war criminals provides them with sufficient support and protection.

If the claim of "no jurisdiction" were enough to dissuade the ICC, well, it would lose its purpose altogether. Its jurisdiction is international and it is exercised by the signatory states against international criminals precisely when their home countries do not prosecute them.

If any of the people accused by the court were to travel to a signatoy country, the authorities of those countries would not be legally able accept the legal claim of a head of state immunity, or of a sovereign immunity.

So any future travel arrangement that Putin (or any of the "child services" officials indicted by the court) make, when going to any of the signatory countries, will require negotiating a special status, which may or may not be legally possible or even politically viable.

Political winds change.

Slobodan Milosevic didn't think he was in any danger as the leader of Serbia, but Serbia ended up surrendering him to the court. A lawyer by education, he put up a robust legal defense during his trial, but he ended up dying in jail 1 day before his verdict was to be rendered.

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    "Political winds change." - isn't that potentially something that Putin himself might now anticipate, unlike Milosevic, meaning the situation is less likely to fall out in the same way as it did for Milosevic? Putin is also the head of a considerably larger and stronger state than Serbia. It's reasonable to think both sides have wargamed the outcomes, and so this answer attempts to draw conclusions from past experience without factoring how behaviour and expectations will have changed precisely as a result of it.
    – Steve
    Mar 18, 2023 at 10:39
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    Politics always trumps legality, especially in international politics. So you can bet that as a head of the state, Putin will be able to get "special status" to travel to any ICC member state that invites it.
    – sfxedit
    Mar 18, 2023 at 10:52
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    @Steve there is little doubt that Russia is playing it by ear at this point. Their initial calculation, of the West accepting Russian victory as an inevitability, have failed. Their reliance on the West's crisis fatigue due to the pandemic measures have run their course. The ICC indictment is already a step in the direction of the system correcting the course towards normality. And there is nothing normal about Russia's value proposition. The statements out of Russia, in response to the indictment, have been thoroughly weak and unconvincing. If this was planned, it was not planned well.
    – wrod
    Mar 18, 2023 at 20:54
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    @wrod, Putin spent years accruing a war chest, so on some level he must have expected the West to wage war against him. It's not clear he ever expected the West to just fold - the events so far are consistent with him believing the West doesn't understand any language except force majeure.
    – Steve
    Mar 18, 2023 at 21:28
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    Milošević wasn't tried by the ICC but by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2023 at 9:28
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The comparable cases are the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir (source, The Guardian).

Gaddafi was toppled and killed months after his warrant was announced. Bashir was ousted and is currently in jail in Sudan. While Putin is likely to evade justice right now, he will face limits on his freedom of travel to the ICC’s 123 member states, further deepening his isolation.

Diplomatic immunity, mentioned in comments, does not turn the ICC decision into void. It can be waived for a crime that is not relevant to the current diplomatic mission like in this or this story, or be said that immunity only protects from local laws, not international. In 2019 ICC has judged that heads of state have no immunity from criminal prosecution by the international criminal courts.

German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann also confirmed that if V. Putin enters the territory of Germany, then he will be arrested. South Africa is also "aware of its legal obligation", as they spokesperson for President Cyril Ramaphosa said. Putin was expected to visit South Africa in August to attend a BRICS summit.

Stephen Rapp, a former ambassador at large who headed the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the State Department, also said that Russia cannot have international sanctions lifted without complying with the court’s warrants.

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    he will face limits on his freedom of travel to the ICC’s 123 member states => would he, really, as long as he's President? See politics.stackexchange.com/questions/78761/…. If Putin is invited to a summit in one of those 123 nations, he'd be covered by diplomatic immunity, so the warrant changes nothing. Mar 17, 2023 at 21:27
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    He would not necessarily be covered by diplomatic immunity if any diversion of his plane from its flight plan would require its landing in, or travel through, the airspace of any one of the countries that recognize the ICC, or have extradition treaties with one or more of the countries that recognize it.
    – Edouard
    Mar 18, 2023 at 3:07
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    @Edouard no he would still be covered even in the case of a diversion. Diplomatic immunity applies to transiting planes as well though of course some countries might refuse his plane permission to cross their airspace. Mar 18, 2023 at 3:28
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    @Edouard the source is the following precedent: web.archive.org/web/20131208035752/http://www.un.org/apps/news/…. “ A Head of State and his or her aircraft enjoy immunity and inviolability, he noted.” There are some limited exceptions to the Vienna Convention but it explicitly says that one may not arrest the diplomat no matter what, with no exceptions to that specific rule. Mar 18, 2023 at 16:05
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    @JonathanReez The Vienna Convention covers only those officially designated as diplomats. That designation explicitly does not extend to a Head of State.
    – Ian Kemp
    Mar 19, 2023 at 14:28
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Like the OP, I have mixed feelings about the wisdom of war crime accusations against Russia's leadership. Yes, all the current answers make valid points and it is a matter of principle. However, as a matter of practicality, Russia is neither Serbia nor Libya and should be given as little reason to continue with their war of aggression as possible, because the reality is that they cannot be compelled by force except on the territory of Ukraine, by the armed forces of Ukraine.

On the other hand, one also needs to consider what specific war crime the ICC is issuing a warrant for, the deportation of children.

Today, 17 March 2023, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (“ICC” or “the Court”) issued warrants of arrest for two individuals in the context of the situation in Ukraine: Mr Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Ms Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova.

... Mr Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, born on 7 October 1952, President of the Russian Federation, is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation (under articles 8(2)(a)(vii) and 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute). ...

Pre-Trial Chamber II considered, based on the Prosecution’s applications of 22 February 2023, that there are reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children. ...

That has four particular characteristics:

  • It's unambiguously included in the Rome Statute.
  • Russia's leadership is on the record talking about committing that crime.
  • It concerns children, whom all cultures aim to protect, making it a very difficult offense to propagandize away.
  • Unlike most of Russia's other crimes in Ukraine, the withdrawal of Russia's forces from Ukraine will not suffice to make it stop.

Applicability of the crime, @ Rome Statute

Note: I originally linked to the UN definition of genocide and was corrected in comment that I should have looked at the Rome Statute instead, and that the indictment did not mention genocide.

Those clauses, which do not mention children are:

8.2.a.vii vii) Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement;

8.2.b.viii The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory;

Additionally, if you look up "children" under Rome Statute, it copies verbatim the UN genocide definition in article 2 under its own article 6 (although it was not mentioned in the indictment):

1. Definition of genocide

Article 6 Genocide

For the purpose of this Statute (Rome), "genocide" means any of the following acts co

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

Killing members of the group;

Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

2. Part of Russia's officially stated policy (TASS):

ST. PETERSBURG, April 1. /TASS/. Mora than 200 orphan children from Donbass may be adopted into families in Russia in the near future, Russian children’s rights ombudswoman Maria Lvova-Belova said on Friday.

"As many as 1,560 children left without parents have arrived in Russia. Some of them arrived with their guardians. It means that these parentless children have foster parents. There are around 500 such children. The rest are children from child care homes. A total of 222 of them have the entire package of documents and can be adopted into families," she said, adding that the list of potential foster families has already been drawn.

Many other offenses listed in the Rome statute are either not under ICC scope for this war. Or they can happen without willful intent during a war. It will therefore be a matter of interpretation. Furthermore, illegal killings of civilians, as in Bucha, can be blamed on "undisciplined troops". Or "staged and falsified evidence". In this case Russia's top official on children is on the record promoting this deliberate policy.

4. Last, but not least, after Russia leaves Ukraine, these children will need to be recovered.

Bringing Putin to trial for atrocities like Bucha would be great, in line with the other answers. However, it might not be realistically achievable, in line with question's wisdom about pursuing such a goal. It may also be hard to prove intent at top of Russia's government. In any case, prosecution will not bring back the dead so might be balanced against the expediency (if at the cost of principles) of expediting Russia's withdrawal.

However, that cannot be said of those children. Their sequestration in Russia is an ongoing crime, which can only be stopped by returning them. As such having the ICC indictment on the books (and the possibility of dropping those charges on their safe return) gives an additional point of pressure to get them back as part of any settlement with Russia.

(note that the same concern applies to civilian adults and POWs held against their will in Russia but those are not genocide-specific crimes)

p.s. and even without an actual arrest, the threat is a hindrance to Russia's diplomacy. To cite Meduza (keeping in mind that they have a strong anti-Kremlin bias):

According to two sources close to the Putin administration, these trips were very important for domestic propaganda, among other things, because Russia’s pro-government media could cite them while telling citizens that Russia “still has more friends that detractors” and that it remains “one of the pillars of the multipolar world.”

“The restrictions on foreign visits will work in the opposite direction. Before the warrant, [Putin’s] trips abroad were combined with foreign leaders’ trips to Moscow. Now, it won’t be possible to keep having meetings with the same frequency — you can’t constantly invite everybody to come to you,” one source said.

Or, Reuters:

JOHANNESBURG, March 19 (Reuters) - South Africa is aware of its legal obligation, a spokesperson for President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday, referring to a proposed visit by Vladimir Putin after an international court issued an arrest warrant against the Russian leader.

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    – JJJ
    Mar 24, 2023 at 23:46
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The probability of arrest is not relevant. The court considers there are reasonable grounds to believe that Putin and Lvova-Belova are responsible for the forced transfer of children from occupied territories. Such a forced transfer is a war crime in international law and is unlikely to be prosecuted within Russia, which is why the court issues an arrest warrant.

Forcibly removing people may be genocide if done with the intent to destroy a nation, but it's still a war crime even if there is no genocidal intent. As far as I can see, there is no accusation of genocide against Mr. Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova from the international criminal court.

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    +1 This is the simplest explanation: basic separation of powers.
    – Schwern
    Mar 20, 2023 at 21:20
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So it's said, Putin currently depends on both foreign mercenary groups and wealthy oligarchs, any of whom might see profit in snatching him up and delivering him to the ICC. We think of strong-men like Putin as immune to consequences, but their 'strength' lies in the loyalty of (often notably corrupt) others. Strong-man leaders are necessarily paranoid, and this ICC move will ramp up that feeling in Putin. All that's needed is for some wealthy, powerful person in Russia to do a cost/benefit analysis in which getting rid of Putin seems safer and more profitable than working with him. The ICC has just made getting rid of Putin both safer and more palatable, since they are willing to do the dirty work of trying him.

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The chances are not effectively zero

There are numerous examples from similar countries, like Idi Amin from Uganda, who had felt infallible, yet he was finally overthrown and found asylum in Saudi Arabia.

Putin is not infallible, his power depends on his accomplices, who are loyal to him as long as they fear him, but fear ceases with war losses, and Putin's position is much weaker than Hitler's at the end of the war, because he has no ideology people believe in, only greed for money and power (which makes Russia much more similar to African dictatorships then to the Third Reich).

Putin's men might find it reasonable to overthrow him if they got the opportunity, and pretend the war is only Putin's responsibility, and the West will pretend they believe it, for the sake of ending the war. With the arrest warrant from the ICC, Putin will have it much more difficult to find a safe haven. This is an important signal to other dictators, that they can't count on international community allowing them to have good life until the end of their life with the money stolen and hidden, in case they loose the power.

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  • With the arrest warrant from the ICC, Putin will have it much more difficult to find a safe haven => your very own example shows that such haven is not that hard to obtain in a country like Saudi Arabia, no? Mar 19, 2023 at 15:30
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    I think you're discounting Russian nationalism, a bit too much. It has its ideologues and Z-followers, even abroad. Mar 19, 2023 at 16:42

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