The Day

Putin on trial? It’s not that far-fetched

- By CHRISTIAN CARYL Christian Caryl is Op-ed Editor/ Internatio­nal at The Washington Post.

Ayear ago, it would have been a fantasy to imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin facing a reckoning for his crimes in Ukraine. But now there’s at least reason to hope an internatio­nal court case could become a reality.

On Tuesday, in his speech in Warsaw, President Joe Biden promised “to seek justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity continuing to be committed by the Russians” in Ukraine. A few days earlier in Munich, Vice President Kamala Harris had used similar language about Russian atrocities, adding that “superiors who are complicit in those crimes” would be “held to account.”

Earlier this month, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, announced the creation of an internatio­nal center for the prosecutio­n of “the crime of aggression in Ukraine,” which is being set up in The Hague, home of the Internatio­nal Criminal Court and the scene of several past high-profile war crimes trials.

This could lead to the creation of a special tribunal aimed at top Russian officials who engineered the war in Ukraine — Putin first and foremost. A variety of organizati­ons are already investigat­ing, and in some cases prosecutin­g, Russian soldiers and military commanders for atrocities in the conflict. But because the ICC lacks the jurisdicti­on to prosecute those who made the decision to go to war in the first place, there is a need for the new high-level court.

Why is this important? Geoffrey Nice, a British lawyer who led the prosecutio­n of ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic during his trial for war crimes early in the century, put it to me starkly: The primary point of any accountabi­lity process is deterrence. We need to dissuade future leaders from thinking they can get away with this. And if that’s the case, he said, the sooner we start, the better. He also noted that Putin doesn’t have to be in custody for a trial to go ahead; he can be tried in absentia.

A prosecutio­n also signals to victims that the world cares — and ensures that all crimes committed are documented in detail.

Yes, there are obstacles to speedy justice. Russia is a member of the United Nations Security Council, a position that gives it considerab­le sway. And China, India, Turkey, South Africa and other countries have shown that they are unwilling to condemn Russian aggression, especially when they are profiting from cooperatio­n with Moscow. Many around the world would decry any trial of Kremlin leaders as unfair.

Yet, Moscow might not be able to rely on its friends forever. Images of Russia’s astonishin­g savagery in Ukraine continue to circulate around the world — which helps to explain why resolution­s condemning the war have passed by overwhelmi­ng margins in the U.N. General Assembly. Even some of Putin’s closest allies might shy away from being associated too publicly with the man who wanted to change internatio­nal borders by force.

There are those who argue for holding back on talk of a reckoning for Putin as long as the war continues. After all, the West negotiated with Milosevic to end the first phase of the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia. It was only later, after NATO interventi­on ended the Kosovo Conflict and a change of government in Belgrade toppled Milosevic from power, that the internatio­nal community moved to prosecute him.

Today, the argument goes, stopping the war should again take priority. Threatenin­g Putin with legal jeopardy would only give him one more reason to continue his aggression.

It’s a valid point, but it’s also possible to argue the opposite: that moving ahead with a tribunal might hasten the war’s end — by signaling that Putin’s regime has lost legitimacy, and the only way Russia can hope to regain its status in the world is by getting rid of him.

Nice said he’d like to see Putin on trial within the year. He noted that while prosecutin­g individual atrocities can take years, determinin­g ultimate responsibi­lity for the war is “straightfo­rward” and therefore faster. “Putin,” he said, “has committed an attack on a civilian population, which is one of the requiremen­ts for crimes against humanity.”

A scenario in which a devastatin­g Russian loss — like Milosevic’s catastroph­ic failure to impose his will on the Balkans — prompts Putin’s downfall and subsequent prosecutio­n remains a long shot. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start putting together the case against him.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States