The International Criminal Court has charged Putin with war crimes and issued an arrest warrant. If he now visits one of the 123 countries recognising the ICC’s jurisdiction, the local authorities will be able, possibly obliged, to arrest Putin and extradite him to the Hague to stand trial.
Predictably, the Russians are furious. Former president Medvedev screamed that the warrant has no other than lavatorial use. And Duma speaker Volodin matched Medvedev’s decibel level by shouting: “Yankees, hands off Putin!”
Considering that the US isn’t one of the 123 ICC countries, that entreaty was ignorant, but one should consider the source. The word ‘Yankees’ has been largely desemanticised in Russia – and to a smaller extent in the rest of the world too.
The world doesn’t acknowledge its original and enduring meaning of strictly Americans living north of the Mason-Dixon line. Those who apply the term to all Americans should go to a barbecue joint somewhere in Alabama, call their fellow diners ‘Yankees’ and see what happens.
The Russians expand the term even further, to designate all Americans, most Westerners and, generally, the forces of evil in the world. The word Yankees gained currency during my Moscow youth. In those days mobs were recruited, equipped with Vietcong (or Cuban) flags, taken to the US Embassy and told to shout “Yankees, go home!” at the top of their lungs.
More serious commentators dismiss the warrant as a purely symbolic gesture. Putin isn’t going to travel to Europe in any foreseeable future, is he? Well then, this symbol is meaningless.
Some of the same people argued that Putin was justified to pounce on the Ukraine because he was genuinely worried about Nato’s westward expansion. When asked if those experts genuinely thought Nato planned to attack Russia, they’d say: “Of course, not. But Putin was right to detest the symbolic value of that expansion.”
So do symbols matter or don’t they? You can’t have it both ways. My way is arguing that the fence provides a perfect seat in this one. Some symbols matter more, others less, but they should never be ignored.
The ICC warrant is far from meaningless even if it doesn’t lead to arrest and trial. For one thing, it’s now not just individuals, however numerous they may be, who consider Putin a war criminal, but a legally constituted international body.
Henceforth, any foreign leader dealing with Putin will be shaking hands not just with a nasty piece of work, but with a war criminal evading justice. That may put a new spin, for example, on the upcoming visit to Moscow of the newly crowned Chinese emperor Xi.
Xi is palpably trying to create an anti-Western coalition, starring China, the feudal warlord, and her vassals Russia and Iran. Both are under Western sanctions, but only Russia is led by an indicted war criminal on the run.
I’m sure Xi will be put off by this development, though probably not enough to cancel the visit. He’ll forge ahead to cement his status as a peace-making leader of the anti-Western forces, who nonetheless wants to do business with the West.
Xi strengthened his claim to that status the other day, when he brokered a peace treaty between Iran and Saudi Arabia or – looking at it from another angle – between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. There’s also another angle of vision, doubtless favoured by the Israelis. To them, the treaty means that the two major sponsors of anti-Israeli terrorism have joined forces under China’s aegis.
I’m sure the Israeli high command are seriously considering an immediate air strike to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. That action has always been in the back of their mind, but it now must have moved up to the very front.
Xi will next try to broker some sort of ceasefire between Russia and the Ukraine. The Ukrainians correctly regard any treaty not predicated on a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from their territory as giving Putin a victory he failed to gain on the battlefield. It’s a total non-starter, in other words, as it has been all along.
But the ICC warrant makes it even more so. If Xi starts any meaningful negotiations with Putin, he’ll no longer be able to don the mask of a benign elder statesman. He’ll be seen, certainly in the West, as someone who is aiding and abetting a criminal.
If he does deal with Putin as if nothing has happened, Xi can demand further concessions from Russia, chiselling her vassalage in stone. Recently published Chinese maps list all Russian cities between Vladivostok and the North Sea (their name for Lake Baikal) under their original Chinese names.
That reflects the reality of Chinese businesses and settlers slowly colonising the Russian Far East. Yet that process may now pick up pace, with Putin’s dependence on Xi’s good graces having just grown no end.
The ICC warrant also weakens Putin’s position at home, what with the Russian ruling elite not exactly a solid bellicose monolith. The other day, Putin addressed the so-called oligarchs, explaining to them that Russia’s economic isolation was actually a good thing. They could now concentrate on home industries and markets, presumably selling oil to one another.
Most of his listeners have already lost billions in the past year, and their prospects of rebuilding are far from certain. They left the indoctrination session with strained expressions on their faces, matching, I’m sure, the mien of many generals and government officials.
Some of them don’t fancy a future without any contacts with the West, but with China increasingly relegating Russia to the status of a supplicant vassal, if not yet a colony.
The warrant may well make it easier for them to consolidate opposition to Putin within the Kremlin. I can just hear them whisper: “Putin has got us into this mess, and now he won’t be able to get us out. Who the hell will want to do business with a war criminal under an arrest warrant?”
So yes, it’s official, and yes, it does matter. So yes, it’s symbolic, and yes, symbols count. The ICC has got the snowball rolling downhill, and it’ll gather size as well as momentum.
The warrant only mentions the deportation and re-education of Ukrainian children, which is definitely a war crime, but just one of the many committed by Putin’s hordes. It’s distinctly possible that before long an international tribunal will be convened to indict Putin and his gang for mass murder, plunder, rapes, deliberate bombing of civilian targets and so on.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see Wanted posters with Putin’s mug on them pasted all over every European capital? I’d love the display, symbolic though it may be.