Vladimir Putin: War Criminal
He's been one for decades.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a graveyard for illusions, including belief in the power of international law.
On Wednesday the UN’s international court of justice (ICJ) in The Hague ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Russia. The headline in the Washington Post noted that ruling was “largely symbolic,” by which it meant without any meaning at all.
The court said that there was no evidence to support Vladimir Putin’s claims that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian-speakers. So (by a vote of 13-2, with the Russian and Chinese judges in dissent), the UN court handed down an order that “the Russian Federation shall immediately suspend military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine”.
In theory, the Wapo noted, the court’s order was “binding under international law,” but the word “binding” apparently has no meaning either, except perhaps in an ironic sense. “[There] were no signs that Moscow would comply. No Russian representatives showed up when Ukraine argued its case last week. They subsequently submitted a document asserting that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide the case.”
And the kicker:
“A final ruling, potentially years away, would also be expected to have negligible impact.”
This is a reminder that the rule of law exists only when laws are enforced; a principle that applies domestically as well as internationally.
Which brings us to the issue of war crimes.
On the day the UN court handed down its hollow ruling, Russian forces bombed a theater in Mariupol that was sheltering hundreds of civilians, including children.
After the bombing on Wednesday, Mariupol City Council shared an image of the building and said Russian forces had "purposefully and cynically destroyed the Drama Theater in the heart of Mariupol."
The Russian word ДЕТИ, or "Children" is seen on the grounds of the Mariupol theater prior to being bombed.
This is what a war crime looks like, but by now we are familiar with them, because Putin is committing them daily on an industrial scale. Yesterday, President Biden merely stated the obvious when he called Putin a “war criminal.”
Which he is.
And has been for years, without consequence.
He was a war criminal in Chechnya, where Russia atrocities were documented in great detail. Here’s Human Rights Watch:
On February 5, 2000, Russian forces engaged in widespread killing, arson, rape and looting in Aldi. The victims included an eighty-two-year-old woman, and a one-year-old-boy with his twenty-nine-year-old mother, who was eight months pregnant.
The details are harrowing:
Russian forces began shelling Aldi in earnest on February 3, using cluster bombs against a civilian objects. Reconnaissance units of Russian conscript soldiers entered the village on February 4, warning the local residents to come out from their cellars and to have their documents ready for inspection the next day.
On February 5, 2000, Russian riot police and contract soldiers entered Aldi and went from house to house executing civilians. Some killings were accompanied by demands for money or jewelry, serving as a pretext for execution if the amount was insufficient. Others victims lacked identity papers. Several witnesses stated that the soldiers forcibly removed the victims' gold teeth or stole jewelry from corpses.
Putin was also a war criminal in Syria:
In 2015, Mr. Putin sent Russian forces to help Mr. al-Assad’s beleaguered army, and soon Russian officers were advising Syrian forces and Russian jets were dropping bombs on Syrian cities — enjoying the same impunity that Mr. al-Assad seemed to have….
While no evidence has surfaced that Russian forces used chemical weapons in Syria, researchers believe that Mr. Putin enabled Mr. al-Assad to do so.
“It is absolutely certain that the Russian government at least knows and likely facilitated the use of chemical weapons by the Syrians, mostly chlorine attacks,” Mr. Schneider said…
There is, of course, a lot more. Putin has murdered journalists and political opponents. His agents used a military-grade nerve agent to attack a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury England. He murdered liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and exiled former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
And he violated international law by invading Ukraine in 2014.
Putin has never been held accountable for any of it. While Russia was dropped from the G-8 after his annexation of Crimea, until recently, Russia retained its Most Favored Nation Trading status. He has never been formally charged with war crimes.
To the contrary, he has been rewarded with summits with presidents of both parties.
Nota bene: This all took place after the murder of journalists. After Grozny. After Aleppo.
Trump still gushed over him and pushed for Russia to be restored to the G-7, claiming repeatedly that “his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, had wanted Russia out of what used to be the G8 ‘because Putin outsmarted him’.”
In 2017, Trump sided with the Russian autocrat over American intelligence agencies. Just days ago, the former president was describing him as a “savvy genius”.
But it wasn’t just Trump who looked the other way. The U.S. and Europe continued to do business with Putint; he retains a seat on the UN Security Council; and his long history of war crimes has been memory-holed.
This time, however, we are told, will be different. But why should Putin think so?
He understands that there are no war criminals if war crimes end up being ignored. And he knows, better than any of us, what he has already gotten away with.