President Vladimir Putin has always relished his global outings, restoring his image as one of the big guns who rule the world.
As the Kremlin rejects the war crimes charges brought against it by the International Criminal Court, another reality will emerge inside the Kremlin walls. Putin’s world has become smaller.
At the G20 in Hamburg in 2017, he spent hours talking alone with arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time, former President Donald Trump.
A year later, at the upcoming G20 leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires, Putin raised five Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman less than two months after suspicion fell on the Saudi over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Basking in international attention, he could thumb his nose at the world or manipulate its leaders, in person, an advantage if you will of his stubborn grip on power for decades.
His love and use of the global spotlight has also helped him at home, bolstering his badass, bare-chested, bear-hunting image as a protector of the Russians, holding back alleged NATO machinations marauding borders. from the country.
But all that is over. Germany and Argentina are both signatories to the Rome Statute, two of 123 nations that are obliged if Putin shows up on their doorstep again to extradite him to The Hague to stand trial as a war criminal.
Putin now faces a dilemma if he shows up in Delhi for this year’s G20 in September. India, like the United States, is not an ICC signatory, but what will Prime Minister Narendra Modi do?
Shortly after the ICC announcement, President Joe Biden, when asked by a reporter “if Putin should be tried for war crimes”, replied “he clearly committed war crimes”, indicating without surprise that Putin would not be welcome in the United States.
This leaves ambiguous what kind of legal trap Putin might inadvertently find himself in the future. Without careful planning, Putin might land in a country seemingly unaligned with the ICC and not beholden to the demands of international law, he would be handed over to The Hague, but for invisible international political pressure, or their newfound desire for international justice triggering a procedure to bring him to The Hague.
Putin is unlikely to leave his fate to the rolling of the dice in a foreign court, so his world is smaller than the nations holding the ICC. So whatever the Kremlin turns out, Putin’s ego is chipped.
Of course, many ICC indictees are on the loose, none with Putin’s larger-than-life profile. The only other president among the 15 ICC fugitives is former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who has managed to evade justice both in power and out for more than 13 years.
But international justice has a long reach. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic, who fomented the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, finally found himself in The Hague in 2001, facing war crimes charges over a series of questions and died of heart failure in prison a few years later.
He was constitutionally ousted from office, never fled Belgrade, and never expected his justice system to hand him over to an international trial.
His accomplices in some of his war crimes, Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic and Serbian nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic both attempted to hide from justice.
Mladic was eventually arrested in hiding at a cousins farm near Belgrade and Karadzic was spotted in Belgrade despite losing his clean-shaven appearance to a scruffy beard and hiding behind a new identity as a mystical healer .
Both ended up facing international justice in The Hague, both were convicted of war crimes and both are still in prison.
The lesson for Putin is that you can run but you can’t hide. Perhaps more salutarily, the lesson learned in the case of Milosovic is that unless you cling to power, today’s underlings could become your jailers tomorrow.
Not only is Putin’s world smaller, but his back is also getting closer to the wall. His options, especially if viewed through his sometimes paranoid prism, are much uglier than last week.
Still, he has friends he can rely on, at least for now. Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in Moscow on Monday, providing Putin with the perfect image to pump up his otherwise diminished position.
What will worry others in Putin’s inner orbit are their implications.
Could they face similar charges, will they be able to safely visit their scattered children in Europe’s top schools and universities without fear of arrest, access their offshore assets, even sunbathe safely in the United Arab Emirates, the new bolthole of Moscow’s elites or book a table at a fancy restaurant on the side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan seems clear no one is off limits “certainly no one should feel that they can act and commit genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes in all impunity”.
The more potential indictees come from the Kremlin and its protective embrace, the greater the potential ramifications.
The court’s chief judge, Pitor Hofmanski, said he hopes Putin’s accusations will have a “chilling” effect, because at the moment the mood in Russia seems deliberately earthy.
Reality for Putin and the limits of his diminished world are only setting in. There is no turning back.