Strengths and Weaknesses of ICC Warrant for Putin’s Arrest

Foreign Policy Brief #178 | By: Yelena Korshunov | March 30, 2023

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The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for the Russian president, Valdimir Putin,  and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. The warrants were issued in relation to the forced unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. The court’s President, Piotr Hofmanski, said in a video statement that while the ICC’s judges have issued the warrants, it will be up to the international community to enforce them, “the ICC is doing its part of work as a court of law. The judges issued arrest warrants. Their execution depends on international cooperation.”

In a response to the arrest warrants Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia found the questions raised by the ICC “outrageous and unacceptable,” and that any decisions of the court were “null and void” with respect to Russia. A spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the arrest warrant had “no significance whatsoever.”

“The decisions of the International Criminal Court have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view,” spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on her Telegram channel. “Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and bears no obligations under it.” However, the warrant means that Putin could be arrested and sent to The Hague if he travels to any ICC member states.

ICC Warrant for Putin's Arrest

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Despite the pathetic speeches by Russia’s officials, issuing of the warrants is a significant act for a number of reasons.  Putin seems secure in his power and safe from extradition and it’s extremely unlikely that his entourage may decide to send him to The Hague. However,  the arrest warrant sends a signal to senior Russian officials that they may be vulnerable to prosecution either now or in the future and this would further limit their ability to travel internationally, including to attend important international forums and events.

Although the warrant likely  will not  have direct legal consequences that will result in Putin’s arrest,  diplomatic impact already is visible. The ICC warrant will undoubtedly hinder Russia’s rapprochement withthose  non-Western countries, with which Putin is trying to replace his damaged relationships with the US and Europe. Russia’s opposition news portal Meduza says that in 2023 the Kremlin planned to promote the image of Putin (including for the domestic Russian audience – in the run-up to the presidential elections) as a “fighter against the West”, “a defender of the countries of Latin America and Africa from colonial oppression” and “one of the main leaders of the multipolar world.” This requires foreign trips, in which Putin is now restricted due to the warrants of the International Criminal Court.. Theoretically, the president of the Russian Federation can now be detained under The Hague warrant in 123 countries, and the Kremlin certainly does not  how it is possible to “ensure the safety” of the President in these new conditions. Even the former Soviet Union republics such as Tajikistan (that have ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC) cease to be a safe destination for Putin. Although it’s unlikely that someone from the countries that were previously part of the USSR might decide to arrest Putin, Russia’s president never visits a country where there is even a minimal risk of being arrested. In 2022, the Russian president, apparently fearing his own safety, did not come to the G20 in Indonesia, where they were ready to see him. Even when traveling within the country, he is increasingly trying to use a special train instead of an airplane.

ICC Warrant for Putin's Arrest

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The possibility of Putin’s personal presence at the G20 summit in South Africa, which recognizes the jurisdiction of the ICC, is unlikely after the warrants have been issued. South Africa is a member of BRICS. The second BRICS member, Brazil, also recognizes the court. While the Kremlin’s largest non-Western interlocutors — China, India, and Turkey —  do not recognize the ICC, it is recognized by almost all of Africa and Latin America, the continents to which Russia is trying to present itself as the flagship of the struggle against Western neocolonialism. Some African countries not only recognize the ICC, but have cooperated with it in the administration of justice.

The order may also affect the president’s relationship with his own inner circle. Court prosecutor Karim Khan called the warrant against Putin a regrettable event and the first step in a series of other investigations. If the number of similar orders for Putin’s entourage grows, we may see evidence of a repeat of the situation with the foreign sanctions that have recently been imposed on Russia. Some of Russia’s politicians will protect themselves from the risks of prosecution, while others will compete for who will be the next one to be subject to the warrant after Putin, since they now find themselves in a situation where they have no way out. If after the Western sanctions, Putin, standing above the restrictions, had watched what would happen to the people from his entourage, now it’s their turn to watch what will happen to the president. In fact, the warrant is another call to Russia’s political elite to abandon Putin, who is now literally leading them to prison. Now the risk of being detained or interrogated in countries that recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC is much higher for them, and it may encourage them to take certain steps. This entire situation recalls how the same state apparatus, which worked for Milosevic for many years, extradited him to The Hague almost immediately after his overthrow.

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