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Putin’s indictment by the International Criminal Court is symbolic. But symbols are also important


The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine and its supporters claim the indictment of Putin since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Nevertheless, the fact that the ICCa permanent judicial body charged with investigating, prosecuting and trying those accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, has issued the charges is surprising.

The charges, however, are significantly less serious than what Ukraine and its supporters demanded. Putin is not accused of the crime of aggression, among other things, but rather of illegal deportation of children and other civilians from Ukraine to Russia.

Almost immediately after the arrest warrant was announced, two camps emerged. The first emphasizes the importance of the decision. It means that ultimately Vladimir Putin is and will be accountable and that the world is watching what is happening in Ukraine.

The second camp argues that Putin is unlikely to be never brought to justice.

Both sides are right and wrong. It is indeed highly unlikely that Putin will ever be tried in court. But it is wrong to assert that this symbolic act has no value.

Symbolic actions can have a profound effect on states. This is true not only for the state or individual directly involved — in this case, Russia and Putin — but also far beyond their borders.

A week of symbolic actions

The ICC decision has two levels of symbolism. The first is its immediate impact on Ukraine itself.

As both sides prepare to intense fighting in the springaccording to many analysts, symbolic acts can influence morale, both positively and negatively. The ICC decision will most certainly have a positive impact on the morale of Ukrainians and their supporters.

Coincidentally, the ICC decision came a few days after China announced that Xi Jinping would visit Moscow for the first time since the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine.

The visit of the Chinese President, which begins today in the Kremlinis a big win for Russia, as it helps dispel claims by the United States and its allies that the country is isolated. The decision of the ICC thus balances the balance sheet in terms of symbolic acts. Although the decision was made independently of Xi’s visit, it comes at a crucial time.

In this photo released by the Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear on screen during a meeting via video link in Beijing in December 2022.
(Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via AP)

But this decision remains symbolic, beyond the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Academics and the politicians have questioned the ICC’s resolve and ability to act in recent years.

Although it has prosecuted several war criminals over the past decade, indictments usually proceed a long time after the events in question. The fact that the ICC has successfully prosecuted during an ongoing conflict demonstrates the organization’s willingness to act.

The ICC and the United States

The ICC, like most international organizations, is only effective if nations take it seriously. Shortly after the start of the war, 39 states lobbied for the Court to investigate war crimes in Ukraine.

Almost all of these states were allies of Ukraine and the United States.

Relations between the United States and the ICC have been irregular at best. The United States did not endorse the Rome Statutethe founding document of the ICC. Relations between the United States and the ICC also got off to a rocky start, due to the desire of some groups to see the Americans and the British held accountable for their actions during the invasion of Iraq.

However, even during these times, the U.S. government backed war crimes indictments which did not threaten its interests, and even advanced them.

Relations have improved in recent years. First under the former president barack obamathen — after a four-year interlude — again with President Joe Biden, the United States actively collaborated with the ICC.

Although the latter have some reservations about him, in especially his position on Israelthey work with her when their interests coincide.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is certainly an example of this, even if the Pentagon has been accused of not sharing its intelligence with the ICC.

The ICC, the United States and their supporters are unlikely to bring Putin to justice. The strategic military capabilities of the Russian armed forces make such a task practically impossible. But they can signal to the world that such actions have consequences.

Candles inscribed with the inscription Putin come out on a large lawn in front of a stone courthouse
Candles are planted in the grass with the inscription Putin Come Out outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands, in March 2022.
(AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)

Hypocrisy or reality?

Other conflicts are ongoing around the world, including in Yemen and in Nigeriawhere crimes similar to those alleged against Putin were committed.

The leaders of these countries are much more vulnerable to external pressure than Vladimir Putin. Unlike Russia, most other states do not have nuclear weapons and other strategic weapons that allow them to ignore outside pressure. Given the international community’s inability to exert pressure on these countries, the ICC’s tough stance on Putin seems hypocritical.

Critics point out that this hypocrisy illustrates the weakness of the organization. Since the ICC must retain the support of powerful countries like the United States, its selective choices are, and will remain, a hallmark of the organization.

Putin’s indictment will therefore have little direct impact on him, but it will offer some comfort to the Ukrainians in their fight against the Russians.

It also indicates that despite Xi’s visit to Russia, the influence of the United States and its allies in international relations remains strong – even if applied selectively.

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