Could Putin’s war crimes charges give ICC more authority over Western leaders?

Comparisons between destruction in Iraq and Ukraine could boost the International Criminal Court’s authority in the West

By Paul Rogers  Published 3-25-2023 by openDemocracy

Vladimir_Putin. Photo: Kremlin/CC

In the space of a week, three very different events have occurred that have done much to shape the future of the war in Ukraine. One is the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to bring war crimes charges against Vladimir Putin; the second is the three-day visit of China’s president Xi Jingping to Moscow; and the third is the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and the end of the Saddam Hussein regime. All three are set against a background of a bitter and devastating war in Ukraine that could well continue for many months or even years.

As to the war itself, Western states – and especially the United States – continue to provide a wide range of weapons and materiel, certainly enough to make it difficult to envisage a Russian victory. Yet the degree of Western support isn’t sufficient to allow Ukraine to force the Russian military out of eastern Ukraine, still less Crimea. While Ukrainian military forces are bearing the brunt of the war, they are simply not getting sufficient military supplies to put them in a winning position. The whole pace of the war continues to be dictated by Washington.

The Russians, meanwhile, have been mobilising and preparing for a long conflict. But while very small advances have been made around Bakhmut, their prospects for gaining territory are limited. And while it may be possible to mobilise many tens of thousands of young men and put them through basic training prior to deployment, once in the combat zone casualties have been high.

It is in this context that the Chinese leader’s extensive meetings with Putin and his senior leadership is significant. In one sense, China can come out of the conflict well, whoever wins.

If Russia is forced to settle, it would weaken its claim to a leadership role in a new ‘Eurasia’ entity, an alliance centred on Russia and Central Asian states, together with China. While that would damage Russia, China would be seen as the clear leader of an evolving post-Cold War alliance, a position it had won primarily by maintaining neutrality in actions, if not in rhetoric.

If, on the other hand, Russia eventually reaches a settlement that preserves its control of Crimea and most of Donbas, then it could claim a degree of equality with China in an invigorated alliance clearly leading the world towards a new Eurasian world order.

Looking at the outcome of Xi’s visit, which was cordial and with little sign of serious difference, China probably prefers the latter outcome. After all, the dismal performance of Russia’s armed forces shows that the country only retains superpower status by means of its strategic nuclear weapons, whereas China already has a much larger economy and wider influence across the Global South.

The advantage to China of an alliance with Russia would be territorial gain, as the latter would become part of an entity stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic, with China the senior partner, whatever Putin or his successor might think.

How does the ICC decision relate to all this? As far as Putin and the Kremlin are concerned, it may be seen as little more than an annoyance, with Putin’s visit to heavily bombed Mariupol just an ‘in your face’ rebuff, both to the ICC and more generally to the West. But what may be of longer-term significance is the unexpected reaction in much of the mainstream Western media.

The immediate response to the ICC decision was to cover it as another deserved criticism of Putin, laying heavy blame on him for the appalling suffering and destruction visited by Russia on Ukraine. However, the tone of the coverage changed subtly as the media also responded to the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. In European and Global South media outlets, though perhaps less so in US media, much of the emphasis of the Iraq coverage was on that war as a failure.

This could be seen clearly as BBC correspondents reminded people of the destruction across Iraq, whether the early ‘shock and awe’ bombings of Baghdad, the later devastation in cities such as Fallujah, and the much more recent destruction in Ramadi and, especially, the old city of Mosul. Damage here was easily on a par with that in Mariupol and was even compared by mainstream journalists with the destruction of Stalingrad in 1942.

All this has left unanswered the thoroughly awkward issue of Putin facing ICC prosecution, while Tony Blair, George Bush and other political leaders involved in the Iraq War did not face their own charges.

The two may not be strictly comparable. The ICC is charging Putin with moving children into areas of Ukraine controlled by Russia and even into Russia itself. This is a specific charge which can be quite easily proved; indeed, Putin may well see the process as reasonable and even legal.

The ICC has not so far moved to bring charges against Putin for the destruction of towns and cities and the thousands of civilians killed. It might yet do so, but it would require long and detailed investigation to prove specific cases.

Meanwhile, across the West, the comparison of the ICC and Putin with the ICC and Bush and Blair is clear enough. It means that while the ICC decision is certainly a setback for Russia, it also impacts on those Western states heavily involved in Iraq from 2003.

This becomes even more pertinent when viewed from the Global South. An earlier column raised the differing attitudes to war in Ukraine and pointed also to Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu‘s analysis, published barely a week after the war in Ukraine began.

One of the elements of Western coverage of the Ukraine conflict has been its 24/7 reporting of the appalling war and the sheer level of destruction. This has had a huge impact across the Western world, but the methods of war used and the levels of destruction experienced by Ukraine were little different from those in Iraq, which was not given anything like the same coverage.

If that changes in the future, it should cause Western political leaders to be more cautious when deciding about war. The ICC may have discovered, perhaps inadvertently, that the decision to indict Putin has ramifications that give the court an authority that many of those who supported its establishment over 20 years were wanting from the start.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

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