The war crimes charges against Vladimir Putin brought by the International Criminal Court mean that the Russian leader, in theory, is unable to travel to two-thirds of the globe without risking arrest in the 123 countries that are parties to the United Nations treaty underpinning the court’s operations and therefore obligated to detain him.
In practice, the situation is more complex — with some ICC member states condemning the arrest warrant, and others having set a precedent of flouting the court’s orders.
Already, the ICC’s arrest warrant, which accuses Putin, along with his children’s rights commissioner, of illegally deporting Ukrainian children to Russia, may be weighing on the Kremlin’s travel plans.
Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Friday that “no decision has yet been made” on whether Putin will travel to Durban, South Africa, in August for a planned summit with Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s president, as well as the leaders of Brazil, India and China.
Johannesburg, which historically has enjoyed a close relationship with Moscow, is reportedly seeking legal advice on the matter. A spokesman for Ramaphosa, Vincent Magwenya, told reporters: “We as the government are cognizant of our legal obligation. However, between now and the summit we will remain engaged with various relevant stakeholders.”
South Africa, however, already has a checkered history with the ICC, and was condemned by the international court as well as a South African court for not arresting Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2015 even though he had been charged with genocide. The South African government allowed al-Bashir to leave the country, where he had attended an African Union, by private plane, defying court orders.
On several occasions in recent years, South Africa has also voiced its intention to withdraw from the ICC.
Putin is already isolated on the international stage because of his war in Ukraine, and he has not traveled to what the Kremlin deems “unfriendly countries” since the start of the invasion February 2022. It is highly unlikely that he would travel to any of the 123 ICC member states in the near future.
Peskov has called the warrant “outrageous and unacceptable” but also “null and void” as far as Moscow is concerned because Russia is not a party to the International Criminal Court.
But other countries have applauded the court’s decision.
This week, German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann said that his country would arrest Putin. “Germany will be obliged to arrest President Putin if he enters German territory and hand him over to the International Criminal Court,” Buschmann told Die Zeit, a national newspaper.
The French Foreign Ministry tweeted: “No one responsible for crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, regardless of their status, should escape justice.” And Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly tweeted last week that, “those responsible for horrific war crimes in Ukraine must be brought to justice. Cleverly said that Britain “welcomed” the step taken by the ICC.
In addition to the summit in Durban, Putin might normally be expected to attend the Group of 20 leaders’ summit, scheduled for September in New Delhi. India is not an ICC member state so the trip may be possible, but Putin did not attend last year’s G-20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, amid speculation that some leaders might leave rather than sit with him.
Putin has often attended the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, but this year the meeting will take place in November in San Francisco. While the United States is not a ICC member state, Putin is under U.S. sanctions and President Biden has spoken out in favor of the arrest warrant, saying “it’s justified.”
Putin is expected to visit China later this year after the country’s president, Xi Jinping, invited him to Beijing during a three-day state visit to Moscow this week. China is not a party to the ICC.
Putin can also safely visit some ex-Soviet countries, including Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And he can travel to Iran, which has emerged a key ally, supplying the Russian army with self-detonating Shahed drones.
The ICC does not have its own police force and must rely on individual nations to enforce its arrest warrants.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who is now the deputy head of Russia’s security council, has said that arresting Putin would be “a declaration of war.” Medvedev threatened to bomb any country who did so.
Hungary, which is a member of the ICC, said on Thursday that it would not arrest Putin. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has maintained good ties with Putin and has called on Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war.
Serbia, an ICC member and close ally of Russia, has also condemned the warrant.
South Africa is not the only country that has ignored its ICC obligations in the past. At least nine member countries — including Jordan, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda — allowed al-Bashir to travel on their territory without being detained, despite two arrest warrants.
There have also been some surprising reactions to the warrant against Putin. Armenia’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling on Friday indicating that the country must act on the arrest warrant. Armenia, traditionally a close Russian ally and a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization — an alliance of former Soviet states — signed the ICC treaty, known as the Rome Statute, in 1998 but never ratified it because of a previous Constitutional Court ruling.
Austria’s justice minister, Alma Zadic, issued a statement voicing commitment to the ICC. “Austria will continue to do everything possible to bring justice to the people of Ukraine,” Zadic said in the statement. “This also includes our continued support for the International Criminal Court in this case.”
And Brazil’s foreign minister, Mauro Vieira, told national media this week that Brazil had no official position on the warrant, but acknowledged that Brazil is obligated to respect ICC decisions.
Of the 52 people indicted by the ICC, 16 arrest warrants have been implemented, either through arrest or, in some cases, individuals surrendering voluntarily. Another 15 defendants, including Putin, remain at large.
The vast majority of countries that have carried out arrests in the past were African states and members of the ICC. France and Belgium have also arrested several individuals.
But, according to a spokesman for the ICC, there have also been cases of countries that are not signatories assisting the court, including by carrying out arrests and extraditions. Not all of the information on these cases has been made public, the spokesman said.
The ICC itself is a controversial body and several countries have withdrawn from it in recent years, including Burundi and the Philippines. Often, withdrawals occurred in line with prosecutions or mounting international pressure. Russia, for instance, withdrew from the ICC in 2016.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.