Leigh Sarty: Don't hold your breath waiting to see Putin in the dock
Putin's indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court is just another symptom of the centuries-long divide between Russia and the West.
By: Leigh Sarty
Vladimir Putin’s indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court has rightly been hailed as a moral victory, sealing the Russian leader’s status as a global pariah and associating him with the likes of Slobodan Milosovic and Sudan’s Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. Opponents of Putin’s senseless and savage war on Ukraine are right to take satisfaction from this symbolic act. But the deeper implications are sobering.
Relations with Russia were spiralling downward long before the full-scale invasion Putin launched in February 2022. His speech calling out U.S. unilateralism at Munich in February 2007 was an early shot across the bow. His 2008 armed intervention in Georgia, illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and incursion into Eastern Ukraine that began that same year revealed Putin’s determination to challenge an international order he deemed to be both menacing and unjust. The cataclysm his forces unleashed in Ukraine just over a year ago elevated this challenge to a new level, a fact the ICC indictment brings into stark relief.
As a conflict that combines both grinding trench warfare and staggering civilian losses drags on, Ukrainians and their supporters are understandably keen to find solace in the notion that Vladimir Putin will meet his comeuppance on the dock in the Hague. But this is not going to happen. The court’s action only serves as a reminder, as if any were needed, of just how deep the divide between Russia and the West has become.
That divide traces its roots across centuries. Half a millennium ago, the first modern gatherers of the Russian lands found themselves face to face with the technologically advanced and militarily superior polities now known collectively as the West. Meeting this challenge has been a defining condition of Russian statehood ever since. Peter the Great’s reforms of the 18th century; Stalin’s brutal industrialization drive of the 20th; Mikhail Gorbachev’s doomed attempt to revive Soviet socialism: all these efforts were aimed, ultimately, at enhancing a comparatively backward country’s ability to compete effectively against a stronger West. Even Russia’s seemingly chronic authoritarianism, it has been argued, can be traced to this geopolitical dynamic.
Vladimir Putin is both a product and close student of this history. (Foreign Minister Lavrov has reportedly joked that his boss heeds only three advisors: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great.)
Putin’s historical preoccupations were muted in the first years of his presidency, which prioritized overcoming the domestic legacy of the turbulent 1990s. But when, following the September 2004 terrorist tragedy in the southern city of Beslan, Putin darkly accused unnamed forces of trying to tear off a “juicy piece” of Russian territory, the first step on the road to February 24, 2022 was taken. Against the backdrop of NATO’s eastward enlargement, Ukraine’s 2004-5 Orange Revolution, Georgian President Saakashvili’s pro-Western orientation, Russians’ mass protests over December 2011’s rigged parliamentary elections, and Kyiv’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity all served to deepen Putin’s conviction that the West was hell bent on the destruction of his regime.
Putin had some assistance in arriving at this narrative. The neocon swagger of the George W. Bush administration, put into practice in the doomed effort to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan at the barrel of a gun, understandably shaped Kremlin perceptions of the West’s support for “coloured revolutions” in Moscow’s neighbourhood. (The term, coined for the campaign colour of Ukraine’s reformist forces in 2004, has become shorthand for grassroots challenges to authoritarianism). Such thinking is not limited to the Kremlin; the fact that opposition to “coloured revolutions” is a cornerstone of Putin’s partnership with fellow dictator Xi Jinping underlines this critique’s broader appeal.
But while February 24, 2022 can be explained post facto as a culmination of deep-seated tendencies, ultimate responsibility lies with Putin, and with the authoritarian system that made the decision for war his alone to make. I was among the many Russia watchers who on the eve of the invasion could not believe Putin would go over the brink. That he did underlines the importance of subjective factors in world politics. An aging Putin, in power for nearly a quarter century, surrounded by sycophants and exceptionally isolated by the pandemic, deluded himself that the only 21st-century answer to Russia’s centuries-old geopolitical dilemmas was to go to war.
It is pleasing and appropriate that the ICC has called out Putin (and his commissioner for children’s rights) for the crimes of this invasion and its aftermath, but these benefits are at best fleeting. How to bring this war to a just conclusion, and how to manage Russia in its aftermath, are no closer to being answered today than they were when the indictment came down.
Canadians might be forgiven for celebrating the ICC judgement, given our passion for multilateral institutions and proud commitment to the international order. The fact that the purported bulwark of that order, the United States, is not a state party to the Court reminds us, however, that the charge that has most fuelled Moscow’s animus in recent decades — that what the West pitches as “universal” values is a hypocritical cover for the pursuit of national interests — is not entirely without merit. The Kremlin would argue that, just as Washington eschewed international law when it bypassed the UN Security Council to invade Iraq, so has it bypassed the opportunity to be bound by the decisions of the ICC. It should come as no surprise then that Moscow has brusquely dismissed last week’s indictment, continuing its assault on Ukraine and on the increasingly frayed international order which Canadians hold dear.
Leigh Sarty is an adjunct professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University. A retired diplomat, he served at Canada’s Embassy in Moscow in the late 1990s, and as Deputy Head of Mission, 2012-2016.
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