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Putin’s world is shrinking

Putin’s world is shrinking

by host

Fredrik Wesslau is a distinguished policy fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and a board member of The Reckoning Project.

BRICS leaders will be meeting in South Africa for their annual summit later this month. Absent, however, will be Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

After months of insisting he would attend the annual gathering for the member countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, Putin finally decided against traveling, as the South African government couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t be arrested and sent to The Hague.

The Russian leader’s no-show demonstrates the geopolitical impact of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for Putin. The warrant — issued in March for the war crime of deporting Ukrainian children — is already hampering his ability to represent Russia in international gatherings and engage with other world leaders, as South Africa, along with 122 other states, have ratified the Rome Statute and are obliged to arrest Putin if he shows up in their jurisdiction. 

For what it’s worth, the South African government did try to find a way out of having to detain Putin. But the largest opposition party sued the government to compel it to arrest him. In a court filing, the South African president then argued Russia had made clear that arresting Putin would be tantamount to a declaration of war. In the end, however, the South African government’s efforts were to no avail. And when they couldn’t provide guarantees of immunity, Putin clearly decided it was too risky to travel.

The Russian leader has so far rejected the ICC’s arrest warrant on the basis that Russia isn’t a party to the Rome Statute. But this doesn’t matter since Ukraine has recognized the court’s jurisdiction, and Putin’s crimes were committed in Ukraine.

All this now makes Russia less effective in achieving its diplomatic and political objectives — it shrinks Putin’s world.

For example, at the Russia-Africa summit last week, only 17 heads of state attended. The last time it was held that number was 43. It’s also noteworthy that except for the occupied territories in Ukraine, Putin hasn’t traveled outside Russia since the start of the invasion.

Even governments sympathetic to Russia, like in South Africa, will no longer be able to provide ironclad assurances of immunity for Putin if he wants to visit. Opposition parties, civil society and independent judiciaries mean that the prospect of arrest will always exist in countries party to the ICC — no matter what a government wants. 

And there is a salient precedent for this. Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had to flee an African Union summit in South Africa in 2015, after a local court ruled he should be arrested based on an ICC indictment. The South African government had promised al-Bashir he wouldn’t be arrested, but the court had a different view.

So, while the likelihood of Putin ending up in The Hague may seem distant today, this can change. When the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia was set up, no one believed former President Slobodan Milošević would end up in the dock either. But he did.

And even if Putin is never arrested, the warrant itself still serves a purpose. It is testament to the injustice of Russia’s war against Ukraine and Putin’s personal responsibility for the crimes being committed.

The prospect of being arrested will now follow Putin to the grave.

At the Russia-Africa summit last week, only 17 heads of state attended. The last time it was held that number was 43 | Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

Interestingly, the Russian leader’s decision to not risk a trip to South Africa may also have been connected with Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny, as a trip abroad could potentially open opportunities for other disgruntled troublemakers.

And it’s exactly this sort of a scenario where the ICC’s arrest warrant can come into play. A future leader of Russia may well see an interest in sending Putin and his closest associates to The Hague, as it would be a way to place the blame of a botched war squarely on the shoulders of the old regime. Domestic politics in Russia and political expediency could thus make the ICC an attractive option for how a future leader deals with Putin.

Moreover, the arrest warrant has broken the taboo of seeking accountability for Russia’s head of state, which is relevant to discussions regarding the establishment of a special international tribunal for the crime of aggression against Ukraine. Setting up such a tribunal no longer seems like such a big step now that international justice has shown pursuing Putin isn’t out of bounds.

So, as Putin joins the summit by video link rather than risking it in South Africa, it is his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who will now be traveling to the country to represent Russia instead. 

But Lavrov should also be asking himself how long he can travel the world without facing the prospect of arrest. Russia’s foreign minister has been one of the main propagandists behind the war against Ukraine and, through his propaganda, aided and abetted an unlawful war and mass murder.

Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising if another arrest warrant was in the making, finally turning Lavrov’s world into a much smaller and more dangerous place — much like Putin’s is today.

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