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Putin, Law, and Power

Maxim Trudolyubov
People sitting around desk in UN Security Council
New York, NY--December 9, 2010: ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo presents his report on the Darfur situation to the UN Security Council.

The arrest warrant for Putin’s war crimes can be seen as a framing of attitudes toward Putin in much of the world. It is a shift from words (condemnation) and deeds (assistance to Ukraine) to a legal assessment. 

It is an assessment of Putin’s actions—his new status symbol, if you will—albeit with delayed legal consequences for him. All the other status symbols that Putin possessed were issued not to him but to the country he represents.

The “Hague Curtain”

Whoever has interacted with post-Soviet Russian politicians has interacted not just with them. Washington or Beijing or Brussels were not talking just to Boris Yeltsin or Vladimir Putin. They were talking to an immense chunk of the globe, to Russia’s oversized nuclear arsenal, to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. All those things Russia has inherited; it has not won or deserved them. 

Russia’s inherited military-political dominance in Central Asia and the South Caucasus and its reputation as an important cultural, scientific, sporting, and energy-exporting power also helped. To mutual benefit, countries traded with Russia and helped develop its oil and gas sector and other exports that too were inherited from the Soviet Union. The Soviet-European oil and gas bridge was created in partnership with Western countries. 

All this inheritance was accompanied by a status symbol, Yeltsin’s and later Putin’s membership in the G8. This was partly compensation for agreeing to the expansion of Western institutions in Europe and partly an advance. It was assumed that Russia, even if it did not join NATO and the European Union (yes, even EU membership was discussed), would become a friendly industrialized democracy over time. 

It is hard to believe that the current Russian leader is a former member of this club. Most likely, Russian leaders, even future ones, will never return to this group. But of course, the G7 is not the end of the story. As many as 123 countries are now dangerous for Putin to visit: countries that are members of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Dutch city of The Hague. Seen from the Kremlin, a new “curtain” has descended across the world—the Hague Curtain, to use the Iron Curtain analogy. This boundary runs between the countries that recognize the ICC and those that do not.

Putin, for reasons of personal safety, will draw this border on his map and help China deepen the division of the world into “Hague” and “non-Hague.” The difference between the countries that are parties to the Rome Statute, a treaty that established the ICC, and those that are not is not just a matter of Putin’s travel plans. It is clear that, if provided guarantees, he would be able to visit even some of the “Hague” countries.

The difference is a values-based one. The parties to the ICC are countries that recognize that human rights are above state sovereignty, the law is above the state. This is a crucial distinction. Law and power are different things, different worlds. Power has prevailed over law before. It has done that internationally, in wars, and domestically, when elected leaders have used force to overpower democratic institutions to become dictators.

Among the countries that have agreed to put law above power are many states in Africa (thirty-three African countries recognize the ICC), Asia (nineteen), and Latin America (twenty-eight) with which Russia, spurned by the West, has recently tried to build new relations. But despite trying to be friends with these countries in his rhetoric, Putin will prove by his actions that he is not their friend. Because he will always prioritize power over law.

The “Non-Hague” World

With the emergence of the arrest warrant, Putin will seek to move further and further away—and lead his country away—from the world in which he is a potential convict to the world where he is under the strong protection of China and where, he thinks, he has some high status.

But can he achieve in the non-Hague world the status and respect for himself that he did not achieve in the Hague world? Putin and his cronies, people who have always been highly anxious about their status, once in power, got an incredibly high position in the world. Everything that was described above, including membership in the club of rich Western powers, came in one package with their dominance of Russia. But they wanted more. In the end, when they started their wars, they lost what they had.

The non-Hague world is large and extremely heterogeneous. The BRICS group—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—around which the Kremlin is trying to build its influence is huge in scope. It comprises more than 40 percent of the world’s population and accounts for about 25 percent of global GDP. But it is not analogous to the G7. Some of the BRICS countries are even in conflict with each other (China and India). The G7 club (27 percent of global GDP), from which Putin and Russia were kicked out, is much more homogeneous in terms of values. Moreover, the Hague Curtain cuts right through the BRICS: Russia, China, and India have not ratified the Rome Statute, while Brazil and South Africa have. 

The next summit of this group will be held in August in South Africa, a country whose politicians have already announced that they have taken note of Putin’s arrest warrant, which does not mean they will act on it. Back in 2015, South Africa already had the experience of not extraditing former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to the ICC. But even if the South Africans guarantee Putin a safe stay, the situation will be nerve-racking and humiliating for the Kremlin.

The most prominent representatives of the non-Hague world, in alphabetical order, are China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Among themselves, these countries do not agree on any issue. Some of them are deeply antagonistic toward each other. Each of these states has its own agenda, often incompatible with the positions of the others. Each of these states is fighting for global or regional dominance, or survival. Success here is determined only by the ability to defend oneself and to project power onto neighbors and competitors. Any status here, if there is one, is informal. These countries have nothing in common. Complete domination here is impossible in principle. 

Of course, in this world, Putin will not be tried for war crimes. Chinese and Iranian politicians will gladly talk to him about the U.S. hegemony and that “human rights” are just a cynical trick of the West, drummed up only to interfere in the affairs of others. But there will be no free status symbols here. Having displayed to the world a dysfunctional army and a willingness to sell off natural resources at fire-sale prices, Putin is unlikely to earn any glory on this tough scene. He is a convenient partner, and, for China or Iran, there is much to be gained from his failures, but this is not a good basis for self-assertion.

Putin and his entourage will continue to squander their Soviet inheritance, tangible and intangible. That is all they are hanging on to. They will hang on as long as there is anything left to spend. They have not achieved anything on their own. Through his own efforts, their leader has earned only a pariah status in the Western world for his entire country and an arrest warrant for himself personally. It would feel good to end by saying that he will wind up in The Hague. But there is no such certainty. In a confrontation between law and power, power may well prevail. It has done so before.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more