Dmitry Kiselyov, the Russian propagandist-in-chief who rarely misses a chance to lash out at the “Russophobic” West, spent the nearly three hours of his regular state TV Sunday broadcast avoiding the subject of the arrest order for Vladimir Putin, issued by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. That’s no oversight on his part: For all the bluster heard from other pro-Putin figures, the court’s move can have more than purely symbolic consequences.The ICC order hasn’t been released, but the court let it be known that the charges against Putin have to do with the “unlawful transfer” of children from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. A fresh UN Human Rights Council report sheds light on these accusations. While Russia claims merely to have moved the children out of harm’s way temporarily, the report says Russia violated international law in taking them to Russia: “The transfers were not justified by safety or medical reasons. There seems to be no indication that it was impossible to allow the children to relocate to territory under Ukrainian Government control. It also does not appear that Russian authorities sought to establish contact with the children’s relatives or with Ukrainian authorities.”
Further charges against Putin will inevitably follow — the largest investigative group ever formed by the ICC is at work in Ukraine, and the court’s chief prosecutor, the British lawyer Karim Ahmad Khan, appears to regard the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the biggest group of cases in his rather eventful career. Plenty of war crimes have been and are still being committed by the invading army, and some of them — like the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure — don’t even require much proof because Russia has never denied its missile strikes on power stations.
Two of Putin’s most vocal allies, in fact, have threatened retaliation against the ICC in the form of missile strikes. “I’d like to see the country that arrests Putin on the Hague order — some eight minutes after it does so, or whatever the time-to-target is,” Margarita Simonyan wrote on her Telegram channel. Former placeholder President Dmitry Medvedev, for his part, wrote, also on Telegram, that ICC judges should start “peering into the sky” because “the use of a hypersonic carrier from a Russian ship in the North Sea against the court building is quite imaginable.”
These Telegram missiles deliver a simple message: Come and get me. But the taunt rings hollow.
Putin can only appear before the court under two scenarios: A complete Russian defeat that results in Putin’s capture by the victors (the Nuremberg option) and a domestic upheaval leading to Putin’s handover by his successors, as in the cases of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia’s Charles Taylor. The first scenario is far-fetched: Hardly anyone can imagine a successful Ukrainian march on Moscow, any more than a massive US intervention that doesn’t result in nuclear war. The second, however, is far more realistic, even if Putin is not threatened with a coup or a revolution right now — and the court order helps make it more feasible. It creates an easy way for a Putin successor to get rid of the long-standing dictator and his shadow, a way to start from scratch.The case of Milosevic offers some insight into the future the court order possibly opens for Putin.The former Yugoslav president was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the ICC’s predecessor, in May 1999, during the Kosovo war. Milosevic didn’t quite lose the war — rather, he gave up, realizing that NATO was ready to put boots on the ground against him and Russia wasn’t ready to do so on his side. The Russian and Finnish negotiators who pressured Milosevic had no qualms about doing diplomatic business with someone formally accused of war crimes. Similarly, no stigma will be attached to negotiating with Putin to end the war in Ukraine, regardless of whether the negotiators come from countries that have ratified the Rome Statute, which forms the legal basis for the ICC’s work, or, say, from the US, China or India, which have not done so. Chinese President Xi Jinping had no ICC-induced problem calling Putin his “dear friend” as they met in Moscow on Monday. Putin can even travel widely — to the Middle East and most of Asia and Africa — because the ICC is far from universally recognized.
In Milosevic’s case, the indictment didn’t make him more intransigent, more hung up on winning at any cost, nor did it make him more willing to compromise. Similarly, the arrest order for Putin won’t make the Russian dictator more determined than he already is to fight until he can declare some kind of victory. It means little for Putin’s calculus because Putin is already operating on the assumption that Western sanctions on Russia and its elite will never be lifted and that Western leaders will never deal with him in good faith.
Nor does the official third-party framing of Putin’s deeds as crimes change anything for him in the immediate domestic political context. His grasp on power in Russia remains strong and will not necessarily weaken even if he loses the war and is forced to retreat from Ukraine. Kosovo meant as much to Serb nationalists as Crimea means to Russian ones — and yet Milosevic remained in power in the rump Yugoslavia for more than a year after giving up Kosovo. He only faltered after calling an early election for September 2000: Like many dictators — Augusto Pinochet in Chile is another glaring example — he overestimated his popular support. Popular protests after he tried to claim a narrow victory forced him to concede after the military turned against him.
It’s hard to imagine Putin submitting himself to anything like a competitive election — but if he’s weakened by a relative military defeat, or even by an extended campaign with many military setbacks, competition may suddenly emerge as if out of nowhere. If Putin is toppled, his successors will face a system that Putin took a quarter of a century to build on personal loyalty and uniquely corrupt checks and balances. Putin people will be in every corner of it, potentially preparing the ground for his restoration: For someone like Putin, only power guarantees personal safety. It will be difficult to get rid of the ex-dictator as a shadow presence — that’s one reason the Sudanese authorities still haven’t extradited the country’s deposed leader, Omar al-Bashir, to the Hague.
Not even Milosevic’s successor as president, Vojislav Kostunica, wanted him extradited. Doing something like this, even to an odious ex-leader, signals a certain lack of national sovereignty and has the unwelcome optics of revenge against a political opponent. And yet the government of Zoran Djindjic unsentimentally packed him off to the Hague so it could receive Western economic aid. In an interview soon after the extradition, Djindjic spoke about it with relief:
He is history. Milosevic is not a problem now in Serbia. I think the problem is the relationship between the Serbian nation and Western democracies after the wars and all these events of the past. The people [no longer] support Milosevic. A minority, less than 20 percent, think that Milosevic doesn’t deserve to be in prison. But some people don’t understand that in order to be an equal and recognized part of the democratic community, we should fulfill the conditions and respect the rules of the democratic community.
The ICC has given post-Putin Russia an easy way to get rid of Putin without bothering with security guarantees or having to put up with him as a honored retiree — something both post-Soviet Russian leaders, Boris Yeltsin and Putin, have handled with ill grace with regard to their predecessors — Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin himself, respectively.
For all the Russian national pride — few Russians would support handing over a leader to be tried in the West, just as few Serbs would — it’s not that hard to imagine any post-Putin government shipping him off to the ICC in exchange for a reopening of business and borders with the West. A deposed leader who has run the country for as long as Milosevic did (14 years) or Putin (22 years so far) is a liability and a threat— and besides, there’ll be immediate bonuses for the Russian elite and much of the Russian population if a deposed Putin is removed to the Netherlands.
This prospect is one that Putin cannot just laugh off. So his knee-jerk response to the arrest order was a surprise trip to the occupied areas of Ukraine; the footage of Putin driving a car in the dark and visiting the ruins of Mariupol clearly is intended to boost his macho image and his popularity — and that’s the footage Kiselyov played on his Sunday show as he spared no word for the ICC.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”
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