The Russian dictator believes himself to be above international law but there are many ways to make him pay for his war crimes

Peter Pomerantsev

8 October 2023

The Guardian


It has been a good week for Vladimir Putin. On Thursday, a Russian missile hit a cafe in eastern Ukraine, killing more than 50 people, including a six-year-old boy. On Monday, the Russian-leaning Robert Fico was elected prime minister of Slovakia, pledging to cut military supplies to Ukraine. In America, Republicans and Democrats are having fisticuffs over funding for Ukraine, a previously bipartisan issue becoming ever more polarised. Meanwhile, the EU admits it can’t match US levels of support.

With every atrocity that goes unpunished, Russia’s aim of furthering an age of utter impunity, where dictators can slaughter civilians and wipe out whole nations as they please, comes closer. And as Ukraine’s allies crack and dither, Russian arms production is ramping up to unprecedented levels, churning out more drones and missiles. Putin thinks that if he can keep this up until November 2024, and Donald Trump wins the US election, he’s victorious.

But on all the fronts of this war – the war of weapons, the war for a world with at least a little justice and the war for American public opinion – Russia is actually very vulnerable.

Let’s start with the weapons. While much of the focus is on western military supplies to Ukraine, it’s the flipside of this – Russia’s own military supplies – that can be undermined. The Ukrainians have already used sea drones that slip unseen across the water to hobble the Russian Black Sea fleet, which has allowed grain to be exported across the Black Sea and help feed the world.

But that’s just the start of what needs to and can be done to help disarm Putin. Russia is fatally dependent on western technology to create high-precision weapons; its drones are dependent on arms component imports from Iran and North Korea. Each of these can be disrupted in multiple ways if we are creative. Critical software updates can be interrupted. Essential components can be corrupted. The killing machines that murder Ukrainian children can and should be disrupted and disabled.

The latest US opinion research led by the Worthy Strategy Group, human rights charity Razom and pollster Change Research shows that while the involvement of US troops is an anathema ever since the invasion of Iraq, Americans across the board believe it is imperative to stop the murder of innocents: 68% believe Russia is attempting genocide in Ukraine, murdering innocent civilians in an attempt to restore its former glory; 81% believe the US should stand up for

vulnerable people and their human rights whenever possible; and 78% believe the US must play a leading role in stopping mass killing and genocide.

Even supposedly isolationist Republican voters think the US is right to help a weaker country fighting for its freedom: 86% of Maga – Make America Great Again – Republicans believe that everyone has the right to live in freedom and the US should stand up for freedom whenever possible. What they don’t like, however, is the lack of a clear aim to win the war.

Gretchen Barton, who helped lead the research (on which I advised), says the White House’s phrase that it will support Ukraine “as long as it takes” is unpopular, adding: “It has no aim. No clear mission or end state. It sounds like a ‘forever war’ like America’s invasion of Iraq, with all the chaos and destruction that brought. “Americans need to see a path to victory, where bullies like Putin are stopped, the world is stabilised and justice is restored. Americans don’t want to see this prolonged – they want to decisively shut down the Russian killing machine: ‘Enough is enough.’”

There is support to curb Putin’s impunity – and showing off that he is above constraints is the motif of his actions over many decades. Putin razed Chechen cities to the ground in 2000; casually invaded Georgia in 2008; protected Bashar al-Assad’s regime from accountability after his use of chemical weapons against its own people from 2013; annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022. Each of these actions might seem localised, but the larger story is consistent.

But for the first time we see the Russian leader is not immune to legal challenges. Even if he is able to remain safely in Moscow, courts can still disrupt his freedom. The international criminal court has indicted Putin for “the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”. This meant he couldn’t travel to the latest Brics summit in South Africa and was reduced to dialling in. But we don’t need to just wait on the infamously slow court in The Hague to deliver its verdict – the paths to defending rights are multiple.

This August marked the 10-year anniversary of Syrian president Assad’s chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Assad, a Putin ally, remains in power. And, according to UN investigators, Russia later also committed war crimes in Syria. To commemorate the Ghouta attack, a group of Syrian survivors from it visited Kyiv last month.

Together with the Ukrainian general prosecutor, they discussed how to create a “web of accountability” for Russia’s crimes, using courts across the world to go after war criminals. Dozens of countries have laws that allow you to try human rights abusers and war criminals, even if the deeds were committed elsewhere. We have already seen Syrian officers convicted of war crimes in German courts.

Russian war criminals can be hounded in the courts, from Latin America to Africa and Asia, where some of these countries have given their courts such powers to do so. The Kyiv visit showed how some victims of Russia’s crimes are starting to coordinate among each other. While Putin sees his actions – domestic and international – as forming one strategic narrative about his impunity, his victims rarely manage to retaliate together.

The Ukraine invasion has humanitarian lawyers and human rights activists bursting with ideas about how to hold the powerful to account.

The devastation Russia has caused the Ukrainian countryside, including blowing up the Nova Kakhovka damn, had lead to calls for a case of “ecocide” and protecting the environment in courts of law, which chimes with similar innovative efforts across the world, including Mexico. At the Reckoning Project, the war crimes non-government organisation I helped set up with Janine di Giovanni, we are exploring the legal framework to address the systemic integration of information operations with military atrocities: can one hold propagandists to account if they are intentionally aiding and abetting war crimes?

We are also looking at Russia forcing Ukrainians to abandon their identity and culture, and there are parallels to explore with China’s enforced “re-education” of Uyghurs and what it means for freedom of thought.

Instead of ushering an era of impunity, the invasion of Ukraine is inspiring efforts for the opposite. “From day one of the invasion,” says Ibrahim Olabi, legal lead at the Reckoning Project, “groups have begun the process of fighting impunity on all fronts – a process that in and of itself makes it hard for perpetrators to get away with their crimes, or think they will only face consequences later, if at all. In Ukraine, with support from people around the world, they are facing consequences today.”


Peter Pomerantsev is a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University