Why Vladimir Putin may never be held accountable for invading Ukraine

His greatest achievement is in projecting an image of competence, even as the West was preoccupied with seeing him as evil

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What does the future hold for Vladimir Putin as the quintessential superpower autocrat?

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If this war ends in the near term, with Putin’s own domestic rule intact, perhaps new borders with Ukraine, and guns silent, will he still enjoy his unique psychodramatic hold on the imaginations of western power players?

Former US President George W. Bush once claimed to have got a sense of Putin’s soul. Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson imagined his English was perfect, even as he used an interpreter. Former US President Donald Trump obviously admires him as a macho exemplar.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and former US president Donald Trump talk as they attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leader's summit on November 11, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and former US president Donald Trump talk as they attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leader’s summit on November 11, 2017. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Would an arrest warrant for war crimes change all that?

There was a time when Putin really was the former president of Russia, and he was doing just fine. This was between 2008 and 2012. He was treated with the greatest of deference on the world stage because, of course, he was temporarily prime minister instead, and it was widely understood that he retained every power over the country. Putin’s grip on the western geopolitical mind was such that, in 2014 for example, even as his country simultaneously hosted the Olympics and invaded Crimea, he was still regarded as a powerful and calculating villain, to be feared and respected, because he only picked fights he could win.

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“War criminal” seemed an overstatement at the time, partly it is hard to imagine Putin ending up like Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, dying on trial at the Hague, or former Liberian President Charles Taylor, locked up in a British jail , or Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader convicted of the Srebrenica genocide after leading a double life on the run as a popular new age mystic healer and herbalist called Dr. Dragan David Dabic.

That implausibility is partly Putin’s own achievement in projecting an image of competence as the West was preoccupied with seeing him as evil. Evil was the main element of his image in global affairs, as seen from the West, said Paul Robinson professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert in Russian military history.

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That is likely to remain intact, he said. It is on the vision of competence that this war might change things for Putin’s reputation on the global stage.

“This is clearly going to be viewed in the West as a massive blunder, though of course it does depend on how it ends up,” Robinson said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive to pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive to pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP

Roughly, nobody expected him to get stuck in an Afghanistan or Iraq, where even victory is failure.

Robinson said Putin had always given the impression of being sensible in the use of force for limited objectives, thereby avoiding some of the large scale quagmires into which American military actions have descended.

In that light, Ukraine “is something of a surprise, and reveals a more emotional engagement in him,” Robinson said.

It need not have been a surprise. Although he denies it is a war, Putin has not denied this invasion is motivated by historical grievance and emotional connection, even spiritual unity. From his 2007 Munich speech with his posturing against NATO, to his essay last year on the historical ties between Russia and Ukraine that he claims justify his invasion, it was clear he had a deep historical sense of grievance.

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Robinson said all this grievance mongering may be pretext and may be real. “They’re not necessarily incompatible,” he said.

One potential explanation is that there is a more rational calculation to Putin’s actions, based on a belief that conflict is inevitable because Ukraine’s government is innately hostile to Russia and is being exploited by the West. Peace is impossible in Donbas, and sooner or later this will blow up and NATO could get involved, so Russia might as well get ahead of the game and try to wrap it up.

“The mistake was in believing you could wrap it up at all,” Robinson said.

The image of a tyrant in firm control has also been weakened by rumors of dissent closer to Putin’s own government.

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally in Moscow, February 29, 2020.
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally in Moscow, February 29, 2020. Photo by Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters/File

Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, argues that Putin is unlikely to be removed from office by mass popular opposition, even if does take hold in a tightly controlled media environment in which even calling the war a “war ” exposes journalists to more than a decade in prison. Alexei Navalny, a Russian lawyer and leader of a dissident movement who was recently poisoned by Russian spies, has just had nine years added to a widely denounced prison sentence.

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Defection of elites would be necessary but not sufficient, she argues, given that Putin’s circle appears to have narrowed over the course of the pandemic. The most likely source of any internal overthrow is some combination of the security services, the military, and the oligarchs, who will personal pay the highest absolute price for sanctions.

“An elite ‘palace coup’ is possible, particularly if several of these groups join forces to forcibly remove Putin or persuade him to step down,” McIntosh Sundstrom writes.

On March 16, the International Court of Justice in The Hague gave its initial response to Ukraine’s allegations of genocide by Russia.

By thirteen votes to two, the court ordered that Russia “shall immediately suspend the military operations that it began on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine.”

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It also ordered that Russia “shall ensure that any military or irregular armed units which may be directed or supported by it, as well as any organizations and persons which may be subject to its control or direction, take no steps in furtherance of the military operations referred to in point (1) above.”

Russia did not obey. To the court’s regret, it did not even participate in the oral proceedings about Ukraine’s request for this “indication of provisional measures.”

Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, said Russia had committed war crimes, including by bombing a maternity hospital, and a theater clearly marked with the Russian word for “children” in letters visible from the sky.

“Putin’s forces used these same tactics in Grozny, Chechnya, and Aleppo, Syria, where they intensified their bombardment of cities to break the will of the people,” Blinken said.

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“We are committed to pursuing accountability using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions.”

Those previous did not land Putin in the dock at The Hague. On the contrary, his military support of Syrian President Bashar Assad is now being repaid by Assad’s endorsement of Putin’s pretence of “de-nazification” of Ukraine, and his praise for the war as a “correction of history.”

Ending wars is about saving face

Professor Paul Robinson

With war crimes, Robinson said it is difficult to demonstrate criminality because the fact civilians are killed is not sufficient proof of war crimes. Civilians have been killed in wars led by America or NATO, prompting accusations that, for example, Tony Blair and George W. Bush are war criminals, even fanciful speculation that they would — or should — be arrested on arrival in a foreign country.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 13, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 13, 2021.

Will Putin ever leave Russia? Will he ever again travel outside its narrowing sphere of global influence? The pursuit of peace and international order often demands democratic leaders meet with murderous tyrants. But would any country arrest him on war crimes warrants? Would any country risk repeating Britain’s experience of arresting Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for genocide, then releasing him because he was sick and old?

“Ending wars is about saving face,” said Robinson, who is also author of the academic book Military Honor and the Conduct of War.

Putin has placed himself in a position where, at a minimum, he must seize Mariupol and territories beyond the Donbas and use them as bargaining chips to ensure his plan for Donetsk and Luhansk to be independent states allied to Russia. He also cannot be seen to accept a deal that does not achieve his goal of Ukraine’s formal neutrality.

“What the Ukrainians would be willing to give depends on how bad their situation is,” Robinson said.

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