When it comes to staging Vladimir Putin as a man of action, the Kremlin directors like to have him filmed from the back seat of a car. Russia’s president steers it himself to where his orders are to be implemented. The audience watches as Putin looks, praises, instructs.
Now such pictures came from the occupied eastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol. According to the Kremlin, Putin’s visit there took place on Saturday evening and Sunday night. The president flew in a helicopter from Crimea, which had been annexed exactly nine years earlier, to Mariupol and then drove through several districts in the car.
Mariupol was largely destroyed before the conquest in spring 2022, and tens of thousands of people lost their lives there. But not death and ruins, but construction work was the focus of Putin’s short trip, the first ever to the occupied areas of eastern Ukraine.
A deputy prime minister responsible for construction sat in Putin’s passenger seat. He led Putin into the courtyard of a new residential area. Alleged residents thanked Putin “for the victory” and their new apartment, “this little piece of paradise”.
Putin’s staff cannot ignore the arrest warrants
The second location was a “reconstructed philharmonic hall” of the city. The pictures showed Putin sitting there in a thick winter jacket in a green folding chair, getting up again a few seconds later and hurrying on. From Mariupol, Putin is said to have traveled to Rostov-on-Don in southwest Russia to the command staff of his “special operation,” as the war of aggression is called. The President then expects China’s head of state and party leader Xi Jinping this Monday. With all the staged surprises, it’s the usual Kremlin agenda.
The arrest warrants that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has just issued against Putin and his child rights commissioner, Marija Lwowa-Belowa, do not change that. Putin has to appear above it. But his staff cannot ignore the arrest warrants. Like China, India and the United States, Russia is not a member of the ICC. But among the 123 member states are all EU countries, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, also countries courted by Moscow such as Brazil and 33 African countries.
Putin is the first sitting head of state of a permanent member of the UN Security Council to be issued an arrest warrant by the ICC, and only the third sitting head of state ever to be the target of such a move. The first was Sudan’s then-dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in 2009 for the genocide in Darfur; He nevertheless continued to travel to countries that had ratified the Rome Statute on which the Court is based, such as Kenya, South Africa and Jordan. In 2019, Bashir was overthrown. Efforts to transfer him to The Hague have not yet been implemented, but the arrest warrant against him remains.
The fate of the second incumbent head of state, against whom the ICC issued an arrest warrant, is repeatedly cited by Putin when he lashes out at the West: The Libyan “revolutionary leader” Muammar al-Gaddafi was killed in the civil war in 2011, just a few months after the arrest warrant was issued.
Russia’s position on the Rome Statute has not always been clear
Putin’s staff now varied the theses that the arrest warrants were “legally void” and “outrageous”. The head of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, recalled his own statement from 2014 that linked Russia’s existence to that of Putin, interpreted any “attacks” on the president as “aggression against our country” and castigated the “alien Hague court”.
Russia’s position on the Rome Statute was not always as clear as the anger might now suggest: the country signed the international treaty in 2000 but did not ratify it. It was not until 2016 that Russia withdrew from the ICC, citing “national interests”, after the then chief prosecutor had said that the annexation of Crimea was tantamount to an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
At the end of April 2014, the ICC launched a preliminary investigation into Ukraine; although the latter has not ratified the statute, it has recognized the jurisdiction of the criminal court for possible crimes on its territory from November 21, 2013.