ICC’s Arrest Warrant for Putin Divides Post-Soviet Space

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 64

(Source: USIP)

In the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 14 independent states of the post-Soviet era have been forced to improvise their policies vis-à-vis the Russian Federation. These measures range from the Baltic states’ total repudiation of the Soviet experience by joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Belarus’s servile obsequiousness and Turkmenistan’s enigmatic neutrality. On March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrest (Meduza, March 17). Responses in the post-Soviet space have subsequently varied widely, from Ukraine’s enthusiastic support to Russia’s angry repudiation. The Russian presidential commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, was also indicted along with Putin, as primarily responsible for conducting a campaign to kidnap Ukrainian children, deport them to Russia, forcibly put them up for adoption and psychologically terrorize them.

The ICC’s warrant flows directly from Putin’s alleged influence in purported war crimes committed in the course of his war against Ukraine. The ICC was established by the 1998 Rome Statute, and its jurisdiction is recognized by 123 countries. Among the post-Soviet countries that have acceded to the statute are the Baltic states, Moldova, Tajikistan and Georgia. Since the ICC began operations in 2002, it has publicly indicted 52 people, including Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir (2009), Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (2011) and the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo (2011) (Meduza, March 17).

Not surprisingly, the reactions among post-Soviet governments were quite varied regarding execution of the warrant. Academic legal research determined that Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have largely remained silent on the ICC warrant, while NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with Ukraine, have expressed favorable opinions on the warrant. This leaves Russia as the only state that has been publicly critical of the ICC’s warrant (Opiniojuris.org, accessed April 19)

Overall, the ICC does not have the power to enforce its warrants, and since Russia does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, any enforcement will depend on other countries’ interventions if and when Putin travels abroad. Further complicating the situation, in addition to Russia, the court’s jurisdiction is not recognized by the United States, China, Israel and Kazakhstan.

The majority of post-Soviet states have maintained a studied approach to the ICC’s arrest warrant, apparently apprehensive of antagonizing their giant neighbor. Kazakhstan’s response provides a typical answer. Expecting a visit by Putin in the fall, Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aibek Smadiyarov declared, “We have not signed nor ratified the Rome Statute. The statute does not apply to Kazakhstan, and we have no obligations under it” (Bes.media, April 5). On April 11, new Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu, in Moscow on an official visit, confirmed that Putin will still visit Kazakhstan this fall (Inform.kz, April 11).

However, not all politicians in the post-Soviet space have remained mute on the topic. For its part, Armenia is apparently disinclined to detain Putin. Armenian Parliament Vice-Speaker Hakob Arshakyan commented that Yerevan, having signed the Rome Statute, still wants to ensure it “does not harm strategic relations between Armenia and Russia,” as Armenian authorities have “listened” to the Kremlin’s concerns (24tv.ua, April 11).

This benign approach is contradicted by Gagik Melkonian, a deputy of the ruling Civil Contract party in the Armenian parliament, who announced, “If Putin comes to Armenia, he should be arrested. … It is better for Putin to stay in his country. If we enter into these agreements, then we must fulfill our obligations. Let Russia solve its own problems with Ukraine” (The Moscow Times, March 29).

Moreover, the dichotomy over whether to execute the ICC arrest warrant extends beyond the post-Soviet space to Europe. While Austria has announced that it will honor the warrant if the Russian president enters the country, Serbia, Hungary and Germany have indicated that they will not (RBC, April 11)

Nevertheless, foreign travel beyond the post-Soviet space is more perilous for Putin, who is due in South Africa in August 2023 to attend a summit of the BRICS bloc, which consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Africa News, April 12). As South Africa is a member of the ICC, it should be expected that authorities would likely arrest Putin if he does attend the summit in South Africa.

On April 12, South African presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya declared at a press briefing that “all heads of state would be expected to attend the summit. But now we have a spanner in the works in the form of this ICC warrant. What that dictates is that there needs to be further engagements, in terms of how that is going to be managed, and those engagements are underway. Once they have been concluded, the necessary announcements will be made” (Digital Journal, April 12). The ICC warrant has caused political friction within the country as the leading opposition Democratic Alliance party has urged for Putin’s arrest, while leftist parties, including the South African Communist Party, closely allied to the ruling African National Congress have instead urged the government to welcome Putin and withdraw from the ICC.

As the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia, Putin must either be extradited by Russia or arrested outside the country. The arrest warrant will be valid for the rest of the Russian president’s life until he is brought to justice. Almost 80 years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials, accountability for unprovoked military actions is again becoming a key factor in international relations. The undercutting of “might makes right” by revived international law, however slight, is to be celebrated in an era of rapidly proliferating violence and nuclear weapons.