How the I.C.C. Arrest Warrant Changes the Endgame for Putin
To rejoin the international community, a new government would want to hand him over.
From his very first full day in office in 2000, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been concerned by the question of what happens after leaders lose power. One of his first official acts upon assuming the presidency was to pardon his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, for any illegal acts he might have committed and grant him total immunity from prosecution. The overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, while Putin was serving as prime minister and considering returning to the presidency, spooked him. Reporting on Putin's thinking, Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar wrote in his book, All the Kremlin's Men: "When [Gaddafi] was a pariah, no one touched him." Zygar continued, “But as soon as he opened up he was not only overthrown but killed in the street like a mangy old cur.” Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and has held onto power since: there is no succession plan. (According to an investigation by Alexei Navalny's organization, Putin's allies built a lavish palace on the Black Sea for his use; however, it is hard to conceive of him retiring there.)
The Mar. 17 arrest warrant for Putin made by the International Criminal Court gives a potential new Russian government an opportunity to hand over Putin. To get rid of sanctions and rejoin the international community, a new Russian government would have strong incentives to give Putin to the I.C.C., were he still alive and in custody. There is no way to predict how likely or unlikely this scenario is; however, since the warrant's issue, it is now more likely that Putin would face justice. Were Putin to lose the Ukraine war and his hold on power, a new government might well want to pin the blame on him.
There is precedent for a once untouchable leader being sent to The Hague. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (I.C.T.Y.) in 1999, while he was still in power. (The I.C.C. did not exist yet.) Shortly thereafter, Milosevic lost the Yusoglav wars and the elections in 2000. The new government came under heavy pressure from the United States and Western allies to hand over Milosevic; some $1 billion in foreign aid hung in the balance. In addition, Milosevic, who was once at the pinnacle of Serbian politics, was now loathed by many. His staying a fugitive in Yugoslavia became an increasingly costly option. In June 2001, Yugoslav authorities extradited him to The Hague. The trial began in 2002 and Milosevic died in 2006 in detention, before the trial's completion.
Already, the I.C.C. warrant has complicated Putin's travel plans. According to Riga-based Meduza, ahead of his 2024 election, Putin had planned to travel to the Global South to present himself as a "defender of Latin American and African countries against colonial oppression." (Notwithstanding the fact that Putin is very much fighting a colonial war in Ukraine.) These plans are now on ice. Meduza said that the Kremlin is unsure how it would “ensure the security” of the Russian leader on these trips, since any one of the 123 countries that are members of the I.C.C. are obligated to arrest him. While it is true that Sudan's former leader, Omar al-Bashir, traveled to many African countries while under an I.C.C. arrest warrant, any country that receives Putin would be under infinitely more pressure from the United States (which isn't a member of the I.C.C.) to arrest Putin. This past week, South Africa's government said it was aware of its "legal obligations" to the I.C.C. in regards to an expected Putin visit for an upcoming summit, seemingly an acknowledgement that it would be forced to arrest Putin.
Of course, leaders can come to Moscow for visits. Chinese leader Xi Jinping did so last week, and Beijing isn't a member of the I.C.C. anyway. But, according to Meduza's sources close to the Putin administration, the international trips were important for domestic propaganda to show that Russia still had "more friends than detractors." Also, meetings will be fewer, as "you can’t constantly invite everybody to come to you."
Putin was in a cocoon during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors underwent a two-week quarantine to meet him; others like U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, had to settle for a video chat when they visited Moscow. Putin's residence and the Kremlin were outfitted with "disinfectant tunnels" that visitors had to pass through. According to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence has debated how much this isolation led to his decision to launch a full-scale invasion; he certainly was isolated and appeared restless during the pandemic. The pandemic may be over, but Putin's isolation is only getting started.
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