Putin Will Likely Get Away with War Crimes

The Russian leader is very unlikely to be hauled before the Hague.

New York Times Beirut bureau chief Ben Hubbard offers the depressing insight that “Impunity for War Crimes in Syria Casts a Grim Shadow Over Ukraine.”

As the world takes in the grim realities of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the once-vibrant neighborhoods bombed out, the civilians killed by shells while trying to flee, the speculation about whether Russia will use chemical weapons — many Syrians have watched with a horrifying sense of déjà vu and a deep foreboding about what lies ahead.

The Syrian war began 11 years ago this month with an anti-Assad uprising that spiraled into a multisided conflict among the government, armed rebels, jihadists and others. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions have fled their homes, and Mr. al-Assad has remained in power, in large part because of the extensive support he received from the man now driving the invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir V. Putin Russia.

The legacy of Syria’s war, and Russia’s role in it, looms large over Ukraine, offering potential lessons to Mr. Putin, analysts said: that “red lines” laid down by the West can be crossed without long-term consequences; that diplomacy purportedly aimed at stopping violence can be used to distract from it; and that autocrats can do terrible things and face international sanctions — and still stay in power.

There’s a whole lot more to the piece, which is compelling, but that’s the key bit. Sadly, Hubbard is pointing out that life isn’t fair and bad deeds oft go unpunished.

Obama has rightly been criticized for drawing a red line on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and then failing to enforce it. But, as I’ve often noted, the problem was drawing the line in the first place. His failure to respond when Assad called his bluff was embarrassing but, ultimately, the lesser of evils. Significant American military intervention in the crisis would likely have only added to the humanitarian disaster and very much risked escalation if Russian forces had been killed.

Will Assad and his cronies ever face justice from the international community? Probably not. There’s no provision for going in to arrest heads of state. The only way he can be put on trial is if he surrenders to international courts or is deposed and turned over by a successor government. And, I strongly suspect, he’s more likely to be killed than captured.

This goes in spades for Putin. He’s an international pariah and almost certainly guilty of multiple war crimes. So long as he’s head of the Russian government, he’s effectively immune from prosecution.

Many will note that the same holds true for American leaders, who are arguably guilty of war crimes related to the war in Vietnam, including incursions into Laos and Cambodia, and the incredibly expansive War on Terror. While I would argue that these cases are qualitatively and quantitatively different, there’s really no question that numerous violations of international law took place. There’s been essentially no effort domestically or internationally to prosecute.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    There is another reason Putin is unlikely to be prosecuted. He is unlikely to survive any loss of power. Unlike, say, Khrushchev he wasn’t a product of the system but instead essentially a thug who took over Russia. Thugs don’t usually get to retire. He has made a lot of enemies. A lot.

  2. Kathy says:

    He is unlikely to survive any loss of power.

    That’s not a bad thing.

  3. DK says:

    @MarkedMan: Will any powerful enemies show the courage demonstrated by Russia’s antiwar citizens, or do those elites have too much to lose? That’s the million dollar question.

    Unofficial translation of the statement by Marina Ovsyannikova, Russian state TV employee who interrupted a broadcast to protest Putin’s war:

    “What is going on in Ukraine right now is a crime. And Russia is the aggressor. The responsibility for this aggression lies only on one person and that person is Vladimir Putin.

    My father is Ukrainian, and my mother is Russian, and they have never been enemies. This necklace on my neck symbolizes that Russia needs to stop this fratricidal war immediately, and our brotherly nations will have a chance to make peace.

    Unfortunately, I have been working at Channel One during recent years, working on Kremlin propaganda. And now I am very ashamed. I am ashamed that I’ve allowed the lies to be said on the TV screens. I am ashamed that I let the Russian people be zombified.

    We were silent in 2014 when it all started. We did not take to the streets when the Kremlin poisoned Navalny. We just silently watched this anti-human regime. And now the entire world turned their backs against us. And ten more generations of our descendants won’t be able to wash off the shame this fratricidal war brought on us.

    We are Russian people; we are smart and thoughtful, it is only in our power to stop this madness. Take to the streets, do not be afraid. They can’t jail us all.”

    If accurate, her bravery and clarity would make the cowardice of those in the West buying into Putin’s dishonest justifications all the more appalling.

  4. Scott says:

    Crimes, like taxes, are for the little people.

  5. DaveD says:

    Not trying to whatabout but Kissinger is still a free man. The international court is feckless and often tries to only punish Africans. Of course no one is going to haul Putin off to the Hague, that this even gets ink is what’s shocking.

  6. MarkedMan says:


    Will any powerful enemies show the courage demonstrated by Russia’s antiwar citizens, or do those elites have too much to lose?

    Courage is relevant, but it’s not the courage of those brave citizens, but rather the courage of one mobster going for another’s territory. A month ago Putin was too strong for anyone to take him on. Now? Who knows? But in any case, if Putin has any sense he must know that once he is weakened by age or circumstance, he is dead. He knows too much and has too many enemies to be allowed to go the way of Khrushchev or Gorbachev.

  7. Lounsbury says:

    @MarkedMan: Not a product of the system? How on earth do you get that? He’s pure Securitate.

  8. JohnSF says:

    He’s a securocrat, a chekist, sure enough, so you are right there.

    But on the other hand, he came up in an odd way, via Yeltsin’s coat-tails, and a lot of the current system he’s actually constructed himself. He wasn’t selected by the collective agreement of a cohesive group.

    Key difference with the post-Stalin communists, they were direct products of the Party, bureaucrats who’d risen in a structure of political control.
    Putin is a product of chaos who has dreams of imposing his own new order; conceiving it as a modernised revival of traditional Russian order.

    That’s my tuppenceworth of guessing anyway.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Lounsbury: Fair enough. I thought I had made it clear I meant he had not come up through the bureaucracy, as opposed to the security services or the military, but it looks like that was on another thread. My impression was that Khrushchev and Gorbachev didn’t have complete control of the Security or Military and so could be controlled themselves in retirement. I totally admit I’m just spitballing it here.

  10. MarkedMan says:

    @JohnSF: You said it better than I did

  11. Kathy says:

    About Putin’s pedigree, there’s a reason why the heirs to Stalin very deliberately had Beria killed.

  12. Slugger says:

    I’m hopeful. The wheels of justice grind very slowly, but there has been progress. Seeing protesters in Moscow and St. Pete is wonderful. Colin Kaepernick has been cancelled, but the next one won’t be. Putin is mortal; the next guy will be better.

  13. JohnSF says:

    Anyway, a thought just brought a faint glow to my vindictive heart:
    We may not be able to collar Putin, but there’s at least an outside chance, once he is pushing up the sunflowers, that we may be able to arraign Lavrov, Shoigu, Bortnikov, Zolotov etc.

    Deal with the post Putin leadership being:
    “You want the remaining sanctions lifting? Sure, day after those on this little list are presented at the Hague, no problem.”

    Because I just saw Lavrov’s nasty sarcastic face on the television, just after an account of some the lives wiped out in a missile hit on a Kyiv apartment block, and am feeling decidedly uncharitable towards that… individual.
    And all his damnable peers.

  14. DK says:

    @JohnSF: All for it if we can send Dubya and Ghost of Rumsfeld to the Hague as well. Maybe better if Russian leaders would fess up and pay reparations.

    Yevgeny Simkin, a Canadian from Russia with a Ukranian parent, thinks Putin’s regime is in deeper trouble than Westerners realize:

    Putin’s control of the Russian government is firm, but his hold over the Russian population is somewhat tenuous. There have been waves of protests over the years and Russians aren’t getting the life they feel they deserve or were promised. Putin has been squeezing the media tighter and tighter around his claims of Western aggression but the popularity of figures such as Aleksei Navalny proves that Putin’s not far from having the Russian people turn against him…

    …Until the Maidan, Ukraine existed in the same bucket of excrement in which Russia has lived since the revolution. They’ve had one strongman after another robbing the nation blind and subjugating the people.

    But then a small miracle happened: The young people of Ukraine had enough. And they managed to overthrow Putin’s puppet and elect someone with eyes squarely on the West.

    Now Putin can’t have this…He can’t have it because until recently when Russians looked to, say, Belgium, or France, or Germany, and asked, ‘Why can’t we have what they have?’ —the answer was always ‘Because they’re different! We’re Russian. We operate differently.’

    But what happens to that sangfroid if Ukraine turns into Belgium? (And they’re well on their way to doing that.)

    Then Putin would be left standing naked in his garden of lies. The Russians can’t be sold on the excuse that ‘they’re different’ when it comes to the Ukrainians because everyone in Russia knows they’re not different. And if the Ukrainians can turn their nation into a prosperous, liberal, capitalist state then the blame for Russia not being capable of the same falls squarely at Putin’s feet.

    Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald will be there in the garden to cover for the naked emperor tho. So there’s that.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Putin will get away with war crimes just like W did? I am shocked, shocked I tell you!

  16. JohnSF says:

    I hate to tell you this, but the reason Bush (and Blair) “got away with it” was that there was very little chance of their being found guilty.
    For all the argumentation on the matter, there is very little doubt that Iraq had violated the cease fire agreement of 1991.
    That had been the justification for the “Desert Fox” airstrike campaign of 1998.
    The violations continued after 1998, and the US was therefore entitled to regard the ceasefire as void, and restart the war on its own terms.
    (The “weapons of mass destruction” argumentation that tends to get jumped on at this point may have been significant arguments at the time, but it’s really not relevant as legal grounds)

    None of this means that the invasion was strategically wise from the US point of view, still less that it was planned or executed effectively.
    But that does not render the action illegal.

    It’s worth noting that the Hague court prosecutors who’ve looked at the issue have decided there was no chance of a prosecution succeeding.
    And this was not just the US denial of jurisdiction; the UK is within jurisdiction, and the prosecutors also determined there was no reasonable case against Blair either.

  17. Mister Bluster says:

    The Russians have lost more soldiers in two weeks than the US lost in twenty years in Afghanistan.
    Fareed Zakaria tonight on CNN

  18. DK says:


    But that does not render the action illegal.

    True, but also a war crimes trial in this case would be less about the justification for war — that trial is taking place in the court of public opinion, where Bush/Cheney (and Putin) are losing.

    It would be more about the prosecution of the war. I mean Abu Gharib? ~200,000 dead Iraqi civilians? I remain astonished by how little accountability there has been, and by the rehabilitation of Bush admin actors.

    Eight years of Obama and a possible shift in American foreign policy consensus towards non-intervention does not seem like enough penance, given the toll. Could we not even have public hearings on how all those civilians perished? Where’s our Truth & Reconciliation Commission?

    Or is the fear that would provide too much fodder for the useful idiot Blame NATO For Everything Authoritarian Apologist caucus, a group that is not just annoying but vaguely dangerous?

  19. JohnSF says:

    Abu Ghraib might be covered; but the counter would be that those were not actions sanctioned by the national command authority, and were treated as crimes by the US military.
    To overcome that hurdle would need evidence the perpetrators were acting under instructions.
    Which I assume would have been brought up in their defence.

    And the response to issue of the Iraqi civilian dead would be that those deaths were primarily the responsibility of those who actually did the killing: other Iraqis.
    It might be argued that the US failed to act to prevent civil violence, but that would be a bit of a stretch, unless the US was negligent in it’s duties as a occupying Power.
    That would be very hard to prove, unless the US forces had just sat in camps during the occupation.

    And this formal responsibility would end when effective self-government was restored; arguably June 28, 2004.

    If you were relying on the Hague ICC, even if the US were to sign up and make it retroactive (fat chance) you would almost certainly be disappointed.
    As I said before, UK is subject to ICC, and no one has been prosecuted, much to the discontent of some campaigners.
    A couple of Hague prosecutors conducted preliminary investigations, IIRC, and concluded that evidence was insufficient to warrant prosecution or further investigation.

    The US could of course hold it’s own hearings.
    That’s a matter for the US; I’d suggest they would be a good idea, but I don’t get a vote.
    But you have scant hope of shortcutting a political resolution by appealing to legal means.

    (An aside: many Europeans, and especially British, often think Americans have a tendency to place to much faith in the efficacy of legal mechanisms, and to appeal to courts, when the matter is really one of politics, not law)