President Vladimir Putin always relished his global outings, burnishing his image as one of the big guns running the world.
While the Kremlin is dissing the International Criminal Court’s war crimes charges against him, inside the Kremlin walls another reality will be emerging. Putin’s world just got smaller.
At the Hamburg G20 in 2017 he spent hours talking alone with arguably the most powerful man in the world at that moment, former President Donald Trump.
A year later at the next G20 leader’s summit in Buenos Aires, Putin high-fived Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman less than two months after suspicion fell on the Saudi over the brutal murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Basking in international focus he could thumb his nose at the world, or manipulate its leaders, in person, a perk if you will, of his stubborn, decades-long grip on power.
His love and use of the global limelight helped him at home too, bolstering his tough guy, bare-chested, bear-hunting image as protector of Russians, holding back supposed malign machinations of NATO marauding the country’s borders.
But all of that is over. Both Germany and Argentina are signatories to the Rome Statute, two of 123 nations who are obliged if Putin pitches up on their doorstep again to extradite him to the Hague to face trial as a war criminal.
Putin faces a dilemma now, if he shows up in Delhi for this year’s G20 in September. India, like the USA, is not signed up to the ICC, but what will Prime Minister Narendra Modi do?
Shortly after the ICC announcement, US President Joe Biden, when asked by a reporter, “should Putin be tried for war crimes,” he replied “he’s clearly committed war crimes,” indicating Putin unsurprisingly would not be welcome in the US.
It leaves ambiguous the type of legal snare Putin could inadvertently find himself in the future. Without careful planning Putin could touch down in a country apparently unaligned with the ICC and not beholden to the international law requirements he be handed over to the Hague, yet for unseen international political pressure, or their own new found desire for international justice triggering a legal process to get him to the Hague.
Putin is unlikely to leave his destiny to the roll of the dice in a foreign court, so his world is smaller, even, than the ICC hold out nations. So regardless of Kremlin spin Putin’s ego is dented.
Of course, plenty of ICC indictees are on the lam, admittedly none with Putin’s larger-than-life profile. The only other president among 15 ICC fugitives is former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, successfully evading justice both in and out of office now for over 13 years.
But international justice has a long reach. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic, who fomented the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, eventually wound up the Hague in 2001 facing war crimes charges on a range of issues and died of heart failure in jail there a few years later.
He was ousted from office constitutionally, never fled Belgrade and never expected its judiciary to hand him over for international trial.
His accomplices in some of his war crimes, Bosnian Serb military Commander General Ratko Mladic and its Serbian nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic, both tried to hide from justice.
Mladic was eventually picked up hiding out in a cousin’s farm near Belgrade; Karadzic was spotted in Belgrade despite his shedding his clean-shaven looks for a full shaggy beard and hiding behind a new identity of a mystic faith healer.
Both ended up facing international justice in the Hague, both were convicted of war crimes and both are still in jail.
The lesson for Putin is you can run but you can’t hide. Perhaps more salutatory, the lesson learned in Milosovic’s case is unless you hold on to power, today’s underlings could tomorrow become your jailors.
Not only is Putin’s world smaller, but his back also just got closer to the wall. His options, particularly if viewed through his sometimes paranoid prism are a lot uglier than last week.
Still, he does have some friends he can count on, for now at least. President Xi Jinping of China will be in Moscow Monday providing Putin the perfect image to reinflate his otherwise diminished standing.
What will worry others in Putin’s inner orbit are the implications for them.
Could they face similar charges, will they be able to safely visit their kids scattered in Europe’s top schools and universities free from fear of arrest, gain access to their offshore assets, even safely sunbath in the UAE, Moscow’s elites new bolt hole, or book a table at a fancy Bosporus-side restaurant in Istanbul?
The ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan seems clear, no one is off limits, “definitely nobody should feel they can act and commit genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes with impunity.”
The further potential indictees are from the Kremlin and its protective embrace, the greater the potential ramifications will be.
The courts chief judge, Pitor Hofmanski, said he hopes Putin’s charges will be a “deterrence,” for now the mood in Russia appears wilfully truculent.
The reality for Putin and the limits of his diminished world are only settling in. There is no turning back.