Will Putin ever stand trial in The Hague? ’I don’t rule it out’

Vladimir Putin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/kremlin.ru (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Vladimir Putin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/kremlin.ru (CC BY-SA 4.0)
On 17 March 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest. The Russian president is accused of deporting Ukrainian children; at least 6,000 were allegedly transported to Russia. Assistant Professor of International History and genocide researcher Iva Vukusic comments on this historical development in international media: will Putin ever actually stand trial for Russian war crimes?

Historical arrest warrant for Putin

The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant is historic on several levels, Iva Vukusic says in de Volkskrant (18 March 2023). Not only is it the first international indictment since the start of the war in Ukraine , but the ICC never acted so quickly on war crimes before. The court is able to do so because of the massive amount of footage taken on the battlefields, Vukusic explains, "a super detailed record of events, both in place and time."

"In no previous war did I see so much evidence of war crimes so quickly," Vukusic elaborates. "Satellite images of corpses in the streets, civilians who secretly take videos through a window, images on which you can tell by vehicles or uniforms which Russian unit was there, tapped communications from exactly that unit."

Jurisdiction of The Hague International Criminal Court

There is yet another reason why the arrest warrant can be called historic. The International Criminal Court so far largely focused on African countries, Vukusic points out, "but now there is an arrest warrant for the sitting president of a superpower, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. That is unprecedented."

However, the International Criminal Court does not have the power to punish Russia for the invasion. For this, a new criminal court is needed, Vukusic says. The first steps in this direction have already been taken. The Hague will have an international centre for prosecuting Russian aggression against Ukraine. According to Vukusic, this centre is only the beginning. "I think there will be a court to prosecute Russian aggression, probably also in The Hague."

You should not underestimate the effect of such an arrest warrant.

Dr Iva Vukusic

Mainly a symbolic signal?

The Kremlin reacted unimpressed to the arrest warrant, saying it does not recognise the International Criminal Court. In the statements of Russian officials, Iva Vukusic spots the same attitude. "Those exude ’I don’t give a damn what the stupid West does, those corrupt people with their gay marriage and 72 genders’."

The International Criminal Court has 123 member countries worldwide, but when visiting one of them, Putin is unlikely to be immediately arrested, Vukusic thinks. "Still, you should not underestimate the effect of such an arrest warrant. Symbolically, but also as a direct legal threat to the people around Putin. Their world gets smaller; they probably won’t dare to shop in Paris for the rest of their lives."

Iva Vukusic

Iva Vukusic is assistant professor of International History at Utrecht University and King’s College London. She researches genocide, perpetration, mass violence, and transitional justice, particularly criminal liability. Previously, Vukusic worked as a researcher and analyst for the Sarajevo war crimes prosecutor’s office.

So: will Putin ever be prosecuted in The Hague for Russian war crimes?

Considering all this, Iva Vukusic does not expect Putin and other Russian officials responsible to be handcuffed in the foreseeable future to face punishment for these and possible other war crimes. "It doesn’t appear that these kinds of Russian leaders will be on trial in The Hague anytime soon," she says.

"But," she continues, "once the same applied to, for example, Ratko Mladic (Bosnian Serb army chief, ed. de Volkskrant), and he was nevertheless convicted of genocide in The Hague years after the war." Therefore, Vukusic concludes that it is not inconceivable that Putin and other Russians might be tried after all. "I don’t rule out Putin ending up behind Hague bars one day."

’Eén jaar oorlog in Oekraïne: is er een uitweg?’ (23 February 2023)

The Guardian, ’ICC to issue first arrest warrants linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’ (13 March 2023)

NOS, ’Vier vragen (en antwoorden) over mogelijke strafhof-zaak tegen Russen’ (14 March2023)

De Volkskrant, ’Onderzoeker vervolging oorlogsmisdaden: "Ik sluit niet uit dat Poetin achter de tralies komt in Den Haag"’ (18 March 2023)

CNN, ’What the ICC’s arrest warrant means for Putin’ (18 March 2023)