On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked military assault on Ukraine. By early April, at least eight large Ukrainian cities were in rubble, several thousand civilians had been killed, and more than four million Ukrainians had fled to neighboring countries. The war, which has also claimed the lives of close to 20,000 Russian troops, has been marked by the shelling of civilian airports and hospitals, theaters and schools, and witnessed the use of weapons long outlawed by international conventions (cluster munitions, phosphorus bombs, and thermobaric weapons.)
After the Ukrainian armed forces took back several towns north of Kyiv, including Bucha, they discovered the bodies of many civilians including those who appeared to have been summarily executed. In short, Russia’s actions in Ukraine already may be considered war crimes as they fit at least a dozen of the conditions outlined by the Art. 8 of Statute of the International Criminal Court and several other as determined by Art. 147 of the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949. The United Nations has already established an independent Commission of Inquiry, which has been mandated to “investigate all alleged violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law and related crimes in the context of the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation,” and the International Criminal Court followed suit with its own investigation into potential war crimes stemming from the conflict. (The ICC is not necessarily the best option as neither Russia nor Ukraine have signed the Rome Convention.)
The key issue, however, is how to bring Putin to justice and how to undermine the regime he represents and personifies in Russia.
Western countries have imposed complex and all-embracing economic sanctions on Russia: in less than a month the nation was cut off from international air traffic; the reserves of its central bank were blocked; the use of Russian oil and gas either prohibited or significantly cut; major banks were denied access to international funding and wires; more than 100 companies and up to 900 individuals were put in the OFAC lists; and around 400 international companies abandoned their business in Russia. All these measures can easily (and most likely will) result in a sharp recession and a long period of economic standstill—but I doubt that President Vladimir Putin, who rarely cares about industrial growth or the wellbeing of his subjects, will change his policies in Ukraine in the hope the sanctions may be lifted if there is a ceasefire. After all, his appetite grew from South Ossetia to Crimea and from Donbass to the whole of Ukraine, and any new countermeasures announced by the West have never changed his mind.
In recent years Russia has become extremely dangerous not only for its immediate neighbors, but for the entire free world, being the major underminer of international order and stability. I was wrong when seven years ago I insisted that the West can simply “outlive Mr. Putin”: Even if that were still an option for the great powers, many people in smaller countries are likely to be killed well before the Russian dictator leaves this world—so there is no doubt that he should be stopped now. Of course, one cannot draw a strict parallel to any other historical case, but one precedent is Serbia’s war in Kosovo in 1999-2000. It is worth looking at that conflict to assess what are today’s chances for countering Putin and Russia under his command.
The Example of Milošević
Former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević had been the l’enfant terrible of European politics for the entire 1990s, presiding over the brutal wars that followed the dismantling of Communist Yugoslavia. Because of outrageous atrocities carried out by Serbian forces and the militia that were closely associated with them, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the United Nations unanimously approved the Security Council Resolution 827 of May 25, 1993 that set up an International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and even before the tribunal was created, Western nations imposed all-inclusive sanctions on the country. (By that stage Yugoslavia only comprised of Serbia and Montenegro.) The impact of the sanctions was that the economy of the two countries was ruined in less than a year with inflation peaking at 313 million percent per year in 1993, and GDP declining by more than 45 percent. This caused Milošević’s some trouble, but more decisive were the military setbacks. In 1995, the Belgrade authorities agreed to a “comprehensive” ceasefire in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a peace treaty, which was concluded in Dayton, Ohio on November 21, 1995.
Nevertheless, the Serbian leadership continued on its nationalistic course, which infuriated even the “brotherly” people of Montenegro, who began their own move toward full independence. At the same time Kosovars, people of Albanian descent, started to claim more autonomy and even independence from Serbia, and in 1999 these moves resulted in hostilities, to which the West responded by a military strike on Serbia that lasted for two and half months, and led to Kosovo’s independence—now recognized by 117 nations, but not by Serbia itself.
But what is much more important here is that the International Tribunal proclaimed Milošević a war criminal on May 24, 1999 while he was still the president of Yugoslavia and demanded he should be handed over to the Hague by the Serbian authorities. This, I would say, was too much even for the Serbs, and in 2000 Milošević lost highly contested presidential elections. Soon thereafter, breaking all the constitutional guarantees securing his immunity, the Serbian leadership arrested the former president on corruption charges, and on June 29, 2001 sent him to the Netherlands, where he was put on trial, but then died suddenly in 2006 well before his case had concluded.
Since then, Serbia hasn’t become a perfectly European nation—it is still quite far from joining either the European Union or NATO; nationalist forces are quite popular in the country; its leadership emphasizes its good relations with Russia and the country was one of the three European nations not included in Russian “unfriendly countries” list. But nevertheless, Serbia has turned the worst page in its history, the relations between its citizens and their neighbors have been restored, and today the Balkan wars look more like a remote historic episode than as something that may fuel future conflicts.
Getting Rid of Putin
Putin’s Russia will not abandon its dangerous policy even if it is defeated militarily in Ukraine. Putin’s regime may become more restricted in waging wars or exporting corruption and dirty money, but it will be as oppressive toward its own subjects as before; it will produce the same neofascist ideology it has been producing for years; it will engage in the same kind of “hybrid wars” with the civilized world and remain an ally to all the world’s most prominent dictators and autocrats.
The sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, are working—and they can undermine many sectors of the country’s economy as well as make people live far less comfortably. But I doubt that they will change Putin’s policies or the mood of the Russian population. For years, the Kremlin has pushed a message that suggests the West is trying to humiliate and even disintegrate Russia, and therefore the Russian people should unite around their leaders. This message is still resonating.
Putin’s clique effectively owns Russia, and it will not give this possession back to the people in whatever condition this property is reduced to. So, if the West wants to be more secure—together with its neighbors and allies—it should change the focus of its policies from trying to affect Russia with sanctions and, therefore, cut some of its military and/or economic capabilities to regime change, which will make the country significantly less imperial and aggressive.
Russia needs Putin to be replaced by someone else, since such a change would ignite a political struggle inside the Russian elite and would result in, if not in a democratic order, then a government that pays greater attention to international law and the doctrine of human rights.
The toppling of Putin should be taken as the first and the most important step on this path. There are millions of Russians who would hail the end of his rule and very few who would fight for his regime (today even the largest “patriotic” rallies are masterfully organized with the participants either being paid to show up, or forced to attend by their superiors), but regime change cannot happen as a result of any popular movement. Too many of Putin’s critics have either been forced out of the country or decided to leave of their own accord; the police and security services are too strong and brutal; and there are no leaders who might be seen as the president’s contenders.
Therefore, I would opt for a coup d’état that might be organized inside Putin’s inner circle—not by the “oligarchs” (who, as Mikhail Fridman rightly mentioned, possess no influence over the Kremlin), but by those strongmen who simply understand that their dreams of getting influential and rich, even if that happens, mean nothing in a sealed country where everything depends on the will of an ageing paranoic. But to make these people ready to depose the president, some steps should be taken by the Western powers.
Three Steps to Take
First, and foremost, is the delegitimization of Putin—and the best way to do this is to accuse him formally and openly of war crimes (as was done with Milošević in 1999). For this to happen, an International Tribunal on War Crimes in Ukraine has to be created as soon as possible since, I believe, the incidents in Bucha and Irpin suggest the Russians may have committed genocide against the Ukrainian people. This body should investigate the most flagrant Russian war crimes and collect evidence of them, including witnesses’ testimonies. Russia, under Putin’s leadership, should be depicted as a terrorist state responsible for the killings of thousands of people and the sending of millions into exile. Based on this evidence, Putin must be designated a war criminal, his extradition should be ordered, and his diplomatic immunity revoked. With such accusations formally announced, the Russian president should be excluded from any significant political events and all contacts with him should be banned.
Second, the accusations should be made not only against the president, but against the military commanders, too—from the minister of defense and the chief of the general staff down to the generals who oversaw the brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets, stormed the Ukrainian cities, were responsible for using weapons prohibited by international treaties, and engaged in the mass execution of Ukrainian citizens.
The most important point here should be to draw a clear line between Putin and the military, on the one hand, and other members of the Russian political elite, on the other. Currently, the president, leading figures of his administration, and all the deputies of the State Duma and the Federation Council are under Western sanctions—and this in fact unites these people as they all are formally treated equally. This should change—and the Russian elite must be divided into a part that is considered directly responsible for war crimes, and another one, that has served Putin’s regime but played a secondary role in unleashing and conducting the Ukrainian war. This is essential since such an approach could produce a growing split inside the Kremlin clique, as a distinction of this kind would clearly indicate that some of its members are less guilty than others.
Third, the international community should firmly state that it has no intention of intervening in Russia’s domestic affairs: It neither wants to impose a democratic order nor to subjugate Russia to “modern values” like those embodied in the doctrine of human rights. The only thing the world cares about is that Russia no longer presents an immediate military threat to its neighbors. Therefore, the people accused by the International Tribunal should be judged not because of their corruption, human rights abuses, or breaking Russian laws—the only crime they should be accused of by such a tribunal is aggression against a sovereign country and atrocities against its civilian population, as well as the violation of the international law of occupation and other elements of the global order.
If these people, first and foremost President Putin, are extradited to the court, all sanctions imposed on Russia after February 24, 2022 should be lifted immediately upon their arrival at The Hague. As Putin would be out of the country, the Russian elites would start to fight for their divergent visions of their country’s future; at least some liberties would be restored, and new political actors would appear. The fate of the war criminals should become a lesson for everyone that while tyranny might be Russia’s internal problem, the killing of other country’s people is not.
If these three conditions are met, the situation in Russia may become very different. Russia is scheduled to hold presidential elections in less than two years—the first under the new constitution, which allows Putin to run for a fifth term. The very idea of extending his rule has never been too popular among the Russians, and no one knows what may happen in 2024 if Putin runs for president having been accused (and, better, sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia) by the international judiciary. To elect a designated war criminal might be too much even for the Russians. But it could happen even more quickly: As the Russian elite realizes that the West is serious about its proposal to “exchange” war criminals for freedom from economic sanctions, some of them would seriously consider a coup against the president.
The main point is clear: The West should rethink its Russia strategy as quickly as possible to make it much more precise.
The sanctions against Russia may ruin the country and its people, but not Putin, just as the sanctions against Serbia didn’t turn Milošević into a beggar. There is no chance that in a country where the liberal-minded people are forced out by the millions (some rather conservative estimates put the number of those who have relocated during Putin’s years in power at three million people), the democratic order would soon prevail.
So, therefore, the aim of the “collective West” should be just to get rid of Putin and let the Russian elites, the Russian businesses, and the Russian people define the path of their country. The path, that should end at internationally recognized borders of Russia, and not an inch farther.
Originally published in INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY