Is ICC’s warrant a moment of truth for Russia?

The International Criminal Court has issued a war crime warrant for Putin. Leaders of strong states do not receive such warrants because strong leaders are part of the world’s decision-making system. And Putin and Russia were part of this system before Russia invaded Ukraine. Only failed states and failed dictators get ICC warrants. So Putin-led Russia is now regarded as high as Sudan, Lybia, and Ivory Cost, whose Presidents had warrants issued by the ICC.

The ICC said it did not keep the investigated criminal case against Russia secret but made it public (violating its practices and procedures), hoping it would deter Russia from committing more war crimes. If that is the case, it just means that ICC leadership has wishful thinking and neither understands Russian internal political dynamics nor what can stop Putin. This position is purely political. ICC reflects the Western attitude and decision on the war in particular, and on Russia in general. 

The ICC accused Russian President Vladimir Putin and Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, of forcibly taking Ukrainian children to Russia. The ICC’s press-release states that “the crimes were allegedly committed in Ukrainian occupied territory,” hammering the international position on Ukrainian integrity. The case is open and will not be limited to children’s forceful replacements. It is obvious that more war crimes will be added, and more people will be announced as war criminals. Being a good deed in itself, ICC here acts as another form of international pressure against Russia. Still, it targets Russian elites, not Putin. 

The warrant outlines the post-war future of Russia providing for trials for Putin and his inspirers and obedient servants, who will later repeat the mantra “I was only following the orders.”

We must distinguish between political and economic elites in Russia. While there’s a strong interdependence, economic elites are the prime focus of international pressure as they have enough foreign capital to lose. Personal sanctions, tariffs, and criminal cases for violations of the imposed sanctions are just a few of a variety of means of pressure that the West consistently applies. And the tactics work.

On March 16, 2023, just one day before the ICC warrant was made public, Putin attended an annual Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs meeting. The Union unites over 320 thousand businesses of all sectors and research and financial organizations in all Russian regions. Altogether the members of the Union produce about 60% of the national GDP. Although these annual meetings started as a platform for the power and big business to discuss vital issues of financial and industrial policies, they quickly degenerated into ceremonial reunions where the richest Russian people paid homage to Putin. 

But this year, the meeting went differently. Leonid Michelson (chairman and the main shareholder of the Russian gas company Novatek), Suleiman Kerimov (major stakeholder of the biggest Russian gold producer Polyus), Peter Aven (a co-owner of Alfa-bank, the largest private bank in Russia), and many other billionaires were conspicuous by their absence on March 16. While one could explain the absence of some Kremlin loyal supporters, Igor Sechin from Rosneft and Sberbank chairman German Greg among them, with the futile attempt to show some distance between them and the Kremlin, the absence of many loyally-before oligarchs is an alarming sign for Putin. Leonid Michelson, for example, explained his absence to some health problems, although, on the same day of March 16, he met with the Governor of Murmansk oblast Andrei Chibis.

Adding Maria Lvova-Belova, the ICC has exerted additional pressure on the Russian elites. The West has signaled that it will target not only Putin but all people the West considers involved in initiating and supporting the war in Ukraine. The more Russian war crimes unfolded, the longer the list of top Russian officials and oligarchs may become. The stakes for the Russian elites now are not just on a list of personalized international economic sanctions but much higher. 

Now, international politics has also received a clear marker when dealing with Russia politically or economically: “are you for or against the decision of ICC?” It’s yes or no. Nothing can be more precise. One effect is that fewer countries and companies would want to help Russia avoid sanctions. Before you could render services to Russian business that one might see suffering from an unjust political landscape, now you support a political regime, the head of which is already under the warrant of the International Criminal Court. 

And finally, it addresses the question of whether Ukraine could have negotiations with Putin. The clear answer is “no,” a more than explicit call to action to the Russian elites.

At the same time, some benefited from this decision marking the further international isolation of Russia. First, these are Igor Sechin and Nikolaj Patrushev (ex-head of FSB and the current Secretary of Russia’s Security Council). Both of them were behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Now they are more than confident that Putin continues escalating the war. Before the ICC warrant, the “party of war” saw some risks that “technocrats” with more ties to the West, primarily financial, might convince Putin to start some negotiation trying to normalize the relationship with the West. Now, this risk is zero.

Now nothing but further escalation is possible, raising the stakes higher, which means that Putin will continue to rely on such people as Igor Sechin and Nikolaj Patrushev. The apparent plan of the “party of war” is to strengthen its influence in internal Russian poetics and economy, expanding its control to more sectors. One may envision their ultimate goal as finding an heir to Putin, Dmitry Patrushev, the son of Nikolaj Patrushev, becoming a natural choice then. 

The ICC warrant news has blown up the Russian media space with thousands of articles and posts on the chances of Putin going to the Hague, the overall meaning being that Russia should not take the warrant seriously. And in fact, no acting head of state has ever been judged in the Hague. Although the points are objectively discussed, in Russia, they miss the stress on the word “acting.” The warrant is the first step in delegitimizing Putin, first on the international scene and then domestically, a clear sign for the Russian elites. 

The history of other dictators accused by the ICC shows that Putin will become even more suspicious, Russian elites’ conflicts increasing, and hopes to survive Western sanctions with Putin’s support undermined.

Many treat the ICC decision as some moment of truth for Russian society and power. Indeed, Article 80 of the Russian Constitution states that the President of the Russian Federation is the guarantor of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, of human and civil rights and freedoms. Therefore, in accordance with the procedure established by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, he shall take measures to protect the sovereignty of the Russian Federation, its independence and state integrity, maintain civil peace and harmony in the country, ensure the coordinated functioning and interaction of the bodies that make up the unified system of public authority.

Consequently, calls to isolate/arrest the legally elected President are a threat to the independence and state integrity of the Russian Federation. And the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation provides for that with Article 280.2. called “violation of the Territorial Integrity of the Russian Federation” with a potential sentence of six to ten years of imprisonment.

Russian law may provide other, more severe legal consequences. The lack of severe reaction from the Kremlin officials, who only said that the decision lacked legitimacy, shows that the Kremlin does not have any means to oppose the warrant, only denying it. The ICC’s decision indicates the West no longer fears Putin, who made the biggest strategic blunder of the XXI-st century (there was another, even bigger one in the XX-th). This blunder has cost the Russian guarantor absolutely everything – international political weight, respect, and parity. 

The feeble reaction of Russian officials, mainly claiming the ICC decision illegitimate and initiating a criminal case against the ICC judges in response, proves yet again that it did not come as some “moment of truth” for Russian society. Nor will it play a role in intensifying internal conflicts among the Russian elites. Instead, it is yet another milestone in the war that Russia loses and the West wins. And there are more milestones to come as it is pretty clear that Putin can not retaliate.

Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.