President Vladimir Putin has always enjoyed his global excursions and polished his image as one of the great guns that rule the world.
As the Kremlin refutes the International Criminal Court’s war crimes indictments, a different reality will emerge within the Kremlin walls. Putin’s world just got smaller.
At the Hamburg G20 summit in 2017, he spent hours alone with what was probably the most powerful man in the world at the time, former President Donald Trump.
A year later, at the next G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Putin gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a high-five, less than two months after suspicion fell on the Saudi over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Basking in international slant, he might turn his nose up at the world or personally manipulate its leaders, a benefit, if you will, of his stubborn, decade-long grip on power.
His love and use of the global spotlight has also helped him at home, bolstering his image as the protector of Russians as a shirtless tough guy and bear hunter, and holding back alleged malicious machinations by NATO marauding the country’s borders.
But all of that is over. Both Germany and Argentina are signatories to the Rome Statute, two of 123 states that are obliged, if Putin reappears on their doorstep, to extradite him to The Hague to stand trial as a war criminal.
Putin now faces a dilemma when he arrives in Delhi for this year’s G20 in September. Like the US, India is not registered with the ICC, but what will Prime Minister Narendra Modi do?
Shortly after the ICC’s announcement, President Joe Biden responded to a reporter’s question “should Putin be indicted for war crimes,” “he clearly committed war crimes,” and indicated that, unsurprisingly, Putin would not be welcome in the US.
It leaves unclear what kind of legal trap Putin might inadvertently find in the future. Without careful planning, Putin could end up in a country that appears not to be allied to the International Criminal Court and is not bound by the requirements of international law. He could be extradited to The Hague but for unseen international political pressure or her own newfound desire for international justice triggering a court case to bring him to The Hague.
Putin is unlikely to leave his fate to the dice in a foreign court, so his world is smaller, even than the ICC states. So Putin’s ego is battered independently of the Kremlin spider.
Of course, many ICC defendants are on the run, admittedly none with Putin’s larger-than-life profile. The only other president among 15 ICC fugitives is former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who has successfully evaded justice both in and out of office for over 13 years.
But international justice has a long reach. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic, who helped fuel the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, eventually ended up in The Hague in 2001 where he was charged with war crimes over a range of issues, and died there of heart failure in prison a few years later.
He was constitutionally impeached, never fled Belgrade and never expected his judiciary to hand him over to an international trial.
His accomplices in some of his war crimes, Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic, and his Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic both tried to hide from justice.
Mladic was eventually caught hiding on a Cousins farm near Belgrade, and Karadzic has been spotted in Belgrade, though he ditched his clean-shaven appearance for a shaggy full beard and hid behind a new identity of a mystical faith healer.
Both faced international justice in The Hague, both were convicted of war crimes and both are still in prison.
The lesson for Putin is that you can run, but you can’t hide. Perhaps more welcome is the lesson learned in the Milosovic case: if you don’t stay in power, tomorrow’s subordinates could become your prison guards.
Putin’s world has not only gotten smaller, his back has also gotten closer to the wall. His options, especially when viewed through his sometimes paranoid prism, are a lot uglier than last week.
Still, he has some friends to rely on, at least for now. President Xi Jinping of China will be in Moscow on Monday to give Putin the perfect image to boost his otherwise diminished standing.
What will worry others in Putin’s inner orbit is the impact of them.
Could they face similar charges, they will be able to safely visit their children scattered in Europe’s best schools and universities without fear of arrest, access their offshore assets even safely in the UAE, the new loophole of Moscow’s elite to sunbathe or book a book at a chic restaurant on the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan seems clear no one is taboo, “Definitely no one should feel they can act with impunity and commit genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes.”
The more potential defendants come out of the Kremlin and its protective embrace, the greater the potential impact will be.
The court’s presiding judge, Pitor Hofmanski, said he hoped Putin’s charges were “dissuasive” because now the mood in Russia appears to be willfully defiant.
The reality for Putin and the limits of his reduced world are only just beginning. There is no turning back.