News

Time and Distraction—Putin’s Ultimate Weapons

2022-06-14

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.  Dante Alighieri

The world came together almost as one on February 24, 2022 when the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine.  This was a unique moment where the world order, based on the rule of law, rallied around a beleaguered country, as the aggressive moves by Vladimir Putin rocked the international community. It was a critical political moment.

The United Nations General Assembly stepped over the moribund and ineffective Security Council and voted overwhelmingly to condemn the actions by the Russian Federation.  The European Union began an appropriate scheme of graduated sanctions, the United States made moves to cripple the Russian economy, and NATO began moving military assets forward toward Russia and the conflict to contain the fighting and assist Ukraine in meeting the military moves by Russia on their territory.

Suddenly the international criminal law regime put together in the 1990’s became relevant again.  The international community turned to the International Criminal Court to assist in investigating the alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide being perpetrated in Ukraine by Russian Federation forces.  After two decades of holding those who commit atrocity crimes accountable, the world’s permanent international criminal court became the center point in seeking justice for the citizens of Ukraine.

This circumstance is all for the good for an institution that has struggled in finding its place in the rule of law based paradigm that has been in place for decades. This is that court’s political moment as well.  They have to get this right. Holding Putin and his commanders accountable for international crimes, particularly the crime of aggression must be of great focus by the United Nations. The creation of a Special Court for Ukraine on the Crime of Aggression needs to happen and soon.

The conflict has been grinding on for over 100 days with no signs of letting up.  The Russian forces have been surprisingly inept, the miscalculations by a desperate, and perhaps sickly, tyrant hampering a successful political or military outcome. Yet these forces continue to fight, loosing men and material at a  stunning rate.  Ukrainian armed forces have been able to counter Russian movements and in large measure block determined attempts by Russia to hold and expand their holdings in the disputed Donbas region.

Determined leadership by the Ukrainian government and the brave resolve of the Ukrainian people have been the keys to success thus far.  This amazing courage has been backed by a united Europe and a stronger NATO alliance, as well as concerned United Nations.  At no point in recent history, perhaps since World War II, has the international community been more united against a threat to international peace and security by the Russian Federation.  After three months this resolve has held together. Even Sweden and Finland have decided to join NATO which strengthens NATO’s Baltic flank and is a political victory for Europe.  An outcome Putin never saw coming.

But will this unity and political will last? Vladimir Putin is betting that it will not. One can sense that the political will by the international community is beginning to wane ever so slightly.  The economic strain caused by the aggression of the Russian Federation, is giving some governments pause to reassess their long term support to Ukraine.  Oil is a problem as the Russian Federation controls a vast oil reserve that Europe is dependent upon.  That may and will change, but that is a lengthy process.  As the price of gas sky-rockets around the western world, politicians are starting to feel the pressure. Additionally the loss of wheat exports from Ukraine will cause a potential food shortages in various regions of the world.  A further area of stress is the massive cost of providing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The longer the conflict the costs of this critical support may be too much for the West to bear. 

Time and all these distractions are Putin’s ultimate weapons.  He calculates that with Western resolve will weaken to the point that he can move forward with his political dream of the annexation of the entire Ukraine.  Putin is calculating that NATO will not move to counter this move and risk an all out conflict that could possibly lead to nuclear Armageddon.  It may be another miscalculation by Putin, but Putin has no other off ramp to save face.  It would be political suicide for him to back down now.  We are looking at an all or nothing military objective by Russia.

With this in mind, the United Nations must stay strong in not letting a permanent member of the Security Council, the Russian Federation, attack a UN member state without accountability politically, militarily, and legally.  This is THE political moment of the 21st century.  Countering  aggression is one of the reasons that the United Nations was created, after the aggression of Germany and Japan in World War II.  Failure to counter this aggression weakens the entire world order.  Dictators and strongmen around the world are watching like crocodiles.  If we falter in our resolve today, this moment, only darkness will be our future.

David M. Crane,

Founding Chief Prosecutor, UN Special Court for Sierra Leone; Founder, Global Accountability Network; Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Syracuse University College of Law.