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The Week In Russia: A Warrant For Putin's Arrest

A protester holds up a poster saying "Putin, the Hague Tribunal is waiting for you!" in Amsterdam in March 2022.
A protester holds up a poster saying "Putin, the Hague Tribunal is waiting for you!" in Amsterdam in March 2022.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

President Vladimir Putin is now a wanted man, the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court on suspicion of war crimes over the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. How will it affect Putin's fate and the course of Russia's war against Ukraine?

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Myths And Motives

The overarching narrative that Putin seems to have settled on as justification for the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is that Washington and the West have weaponized Ukraine, assiduously turning it into an "anti-Russia" in a long-standing effort to destroy his country.

Repeated countless times without credible evidence, this story deprives Ukraine of agency, portraying the country as a tool in Western hands -- a soldier drafted into the service of U.S. geopolitical goals. At its heart is the false claim that the Euromaidan movement -- massive protests that erupted in 2013 after President Viktor Yanukovych succumbed to pressure and incentives from Putin and scrapped plans for closer ties with the European Union, and that ended when he fled to Russia in February 2014 -- was a Western-backed coup.

Never mind the fact that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected five years after what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity, and that he beat out the politician who replaced Yanukovych -- in part by campaigning on a platform of peace with Russia.

While he points the finger at the West, going back two decades or more there is plenty of evidence of Putin seeking to shape Ukrainian politics and election results to fit what some call his obsession with making the country a part of Russia or at the very least a loyal sidekick, subordinate to Moscow and lacking sovereignty.

In November 2004, six months into his second term, Putin congratulated Yanukovych after a presidential runoff vote marred by evidence of fraud in his favor, including voter intimidation, physical violence, and the burning of ballot boxes.

Putin's endorsement came shortly before he met with EU leaders at a summit in The Hague, and it added to tensions brewing after he basically blamed the West for the Beslan school massacre that September and took steps that rolled back post-Soviet advances in democracy and human rights in Russia.

With hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians demonstrating in peaceful street protests now known as the Orange Revolution, Putin's backing was not enough for Yanukovych, who lost to rival Viktor Yushchenko in a new vote held in January 2005.

Five years later, though, Yanukovych ran again and won, setting the stage for the momentous events of 2014, when his departure was followed by Russia's takeover of Crimea and the start of the war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, where Moscow fired up anti-Kyiv sentiments and backed separatist forces.

And nearly eight years after that, in February 2022, Putin launched a dramatic and deadly escalation of the war by ordering the large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Thirteen months later, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed and millions driven from their homes, and the war continues with no end in sight.

Now, Putin is wanted in The Hague once again: The International Criminal Court (ICC), which is based there, issued an arrest warrant for Putin on March 17, alleging that he was responsible for war crimes: the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

There is debate about the significance of the warrant.

"On a pragmatic level -- first of all, this is not going to have any particular impact on Putin at home," Mark Galeotti, an author and analyst of Russian politics and an honorary professor at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies at University College London, said on his podcast on March 19. "We should recognize the degree to which it would be naïve to say this should somehow trigger some kind of political change in Russia -- it's not going to."

Despite the fact that the ICC is not a Western institution, he said that domestically, word of the warrant "is being used as a way of trying to shore up a narrative about the degree to which there are no depths to which the West will not order to try and undermine Russia."

"Because after all," he said, Putin and his government are telling the Russian people that rather than a war of aggression against Ukraine, "this is a war for Russian sovereignty, this is a war for Russian autonomy, this is a war for Russia not to bend the knee to the evil American hegemon."

A Turning Point?

In part because Putin seems highly unlikely to travel to any country that might arrest him, meanwhile, and because countries including Russia, China, and the United States are not members of the ICC, some see the court's move as purely symbolic.

Others disagree. Russia analyst Sam Greene suggested that the day the ICC issued the arrest warrant would come to be seen as one of the "turning points" in the development of post-Soviet Russia -- days "when something happens that genuinely alters the calculations and trajectories of human action" or "moments of crystallization, when we recognize the truth of a reality that has been building up around us."

He listed it along with the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the seizure of Crimea in 2014, and the large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, "when Russia became what it had long been becoming: the most pressing threat to global peace and security."

It would be a mistake to dismiss the ICC decision to indict Putin as a morally significant but politically inconsequential gesture, Greene, a professor at King's College London's Russia Institute and director of Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, wrote in his blog on Substack.

"On the face of it, the news from The Hague did not give us any new information, and yet the indictment of Putin changes just about everything," he wrote. "For as long as Putin is in power, and perhaps longer, normalization of relations with Europe, with the West in general, and indeed with any of the 123 state parties to the Rome Statute is impossible."

"For anyone who was hedging their bets today to see how things might go tomorrow, whether that be Russian elites hoping for a partial postwar reset, or Western leaders fretting about the same, the uncertainty that underpinned those thought processes has just evaporated," Greene wrote. "In its place...emerges a simple truth: with Putin, there is no future."

There's arguably a potential downside to that truth: If Putin recognizes it as the truth, it might make him even less likely to end the war in Ukraine and more likely to escalate.

"There is no question...that Putin is responsible for war crimes -- and not just this particular war crime, but also if one looks at the attacks on civilian infrastructure, the fact that clearly, although Putin did not necessarily say, 'Bomb hospitals' and the like, he absolutely has done nothing to prevent hospitals being bombed," Galeotti said.

The warrant is "precisely a symbol of the degree to which his regime...has absolutely transgressed across what we now think of as genuine global values," he said. "It is also symbolic of a degree of isolation and a degree of international, frankly, revulsion."

'Making Putin's Personal Incentives Irrelevant'

But while the court decision "has been welcomed by some precisely because of the idea that in closes the ring tighter on Vladimir Putin, that it makes him all the more aware of the fact that there can be no return to status quo, and therefore, for some, it should undermine his will to continue to fight the war," Galeotti said, he added: "My big fear is that in fact the exact opposite is true."

"Sure, he cannot go back to anything like the status quo ante, absolutely," Galeotti said. "But on the other hand, the worse that...any kind of peacetime situation and outcome looks to Putin, the less incentive he has to accept that on anything other than his own terms.... So, I do wonder, does this actually make peace harder rather than easier?

"It's one of the awful head vs. heart, justice vs. pragmatism dilemmas, and it is a really tough call."

Whatever the degree of Putin's determination to keep the war going despite the actual interests of Russia and its people, some Western analysts say the best way to end it is to help Ukraine win -- or at least make gains that could prompt him to change his calculus.

"Putin is likely to continue the war in Ukraine -- not because it is in Russia's interest but because it is in his personal interest. Fighting on makes sense for Putin for one fundamental reason: wartime autocrats rarely lose power," Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and Erica Frantz, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, wrote in a March 23 article in the journal Foreign Affairs.

"The most promising path to stop the war, then, is through greater U.S. and European support to Kyiv. Providing more assistance could help Ukraine win a decisive military victory, making Putin's personal incentives irrelevant," Kendall-Taylor and Frantz wrote. "And even if Ukraine determines that that it cannot expel Russian forces entirely from its territory, positioning Kyiv to threaten Putin with a clear battlefield defeat should encourage him to partake in negotiations on terms that are more favorable to Ukraine.

"Until Putin faces a credible threat, he will have every reason to continue the war," they added.

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

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