Terry H. Schwadron
March 6, 2022
Even as fighting continued this week in the Ukraine, there is new jostling near the punishment bullpen to line up the next crushing shots against Russia.
The attacks by Russian forces on Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and continued random shelling of civilian neighborhoods with banned weapons are considered war crimes, and there is announcement of an active investigation and charges through the International Criminal Court. The ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, says he is starting an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the conduct of the war.
Moreover, there are a growing number of influential voices, including Sen Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and conservative Fox commentator Sean Hannity calling for someone simply to assassinate Russian Leader Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, the bulk of U.S. and European leaders are struggling with cutting off all oil and gas supplies from Russia, understanding that doing so will create international pressures and higher domestic gas prices while further provoking a Russian escalation to nuclear weapons.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has specific definitions for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. Among them are standards barring indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, including hospitals and schools, as already has been seen in Ukraine. Other international treaties specifically redline nuclear power plants from military attack for the obvious reasons of causing radioactive fallout.
Whatever else you can say about justifying investigation of such events as war crimes, two things are clear.
These undertakings take a huge amount of time to prove what clearly and always are seriously debated fact-finding efforts. And you need some way to enforce the results.
By comparison, assassinating foreign leaders, or even calling for it publicly, is a short-term strategy that, while equally “illegal” by international treaties, suggests that someone has to do the job and then stand ready for an equal response.
Can we be realistic for a moment? As a practical matter, the idea of arresting Putin and putting him on trial is absurd. He can’t even get on a plane that lands in the Netherlands at the moment, and no one I know is going to arrest him.
But so too is public posturing about an assassin. “The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out. You would be doing your country — and the world — a great service,” as Senator Graham told us all. Graham later backed off, saying, “He needs to go to jail.”
He skipped the knotty questions of who would do the job on one of the world’s most isolated and protected individuals in violation of law, whether the elimination of a single individual would effectively end this unnecessary conflict in Ukraine or whether we would be prepared for the fallout of assassinating other leaders. Indeed, politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have found it irresponsible for a U.S. official to call for the death of a leader of another country.
Wouldn’t whacking Putin be, say, an act of war?
Above the Rules
More basic here is the idea that Putin’s Russia is proving daily that international norms mean nothing if it stands in its way.
The incursion itself broke international standards and abridged the agreements that the Ukraine and Russia themselves had made. A lopsided United Nations vote to stop this war is unheeded. The warnings and imposition of serious financial sanctions by the United States and allies are being thrust aside.
It’s no wonder that ethical rules and standards that prohibit cluster bombs in civilian areas, for example, or “vacuum weapons” that drop explosives and pressure waves on a school or firing into a nuclear power plant have no sway over Putin. The Russian leader has been loose with threats of battlefield-level nuclear weapons, a category in which the Russian arsenal dwarfs U.S. nuclear holdings, despite common sense and any number of agreements which he has signed.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calls the targeting of civilian areas by Russian jets a war crime. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also says it is a war, although Joe Biden has shied from the literal label. On Capitol Hill, there is bipartisan support for a resolution supporting the ICC investigation, though it already appears to be under way before Congress might vote on it.
There are 123 nations who are parties to the international court, but the exceptions include Russia, the United States — and Ukraine — all of whom have accepted the outcome of decisions. The court tries people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials.
We have an insatiable demand for our television dramas to end within the hour. What we have going on is going to call for solutions a lot more complicated than a police raid or a dream about a single Ninja assassin. Stopping Putin is going to take more combined effort, provoking the West closer to military engagement.