BORIS Johnson is accusing Vladimir Putin of war crimes in the Ukraine after describing air strikes which have killed civilians and hit the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial as barbaric and indiscriminate. The International Criminal Court at The Hague is already considering an investigation into the Russian president’s liability.
Would Putin ever stand trial? Unlikely but not impossible. The ICC successfully went after Serb leaders for their acts during the war in Yugoslavia, forcing the country to hand them over under threat of sanctions after peace had been restored.
Russia, however, is not Serbia. It is too big to defeat by conventional means and has a huge nuclear arsenal whereas Serbia was primitively equipped only to fight a Balkan war. Post-Soviet Russia has rebuilt itself as a superpower under Putin. It has already been hit with some of the stiffest sanctions the West can muster.
Strangely, Nato countries including the US are still importing the Russian oil and gas on which they depend. No western politician has explained the morality of trading with an enemy in wartime although we all know the reason.
It’s unlikely anyway that Putin went to war without being certain that any sanctions could be weathered once President Biden had signalled that the US and Nato would not get involved in the fighting. Nato has sent arms but has refused to deploy troops in Ukraine or to make its airspace a no-fly zone for the Russian air force.
In a sense, Johnson and the ICC are demanding victor’s justice before winning; we don’t know yet how the crisis will end.
Does Nato have any responsibility for what has happened? The answer is certainly yes. Biden could stop the fighting tomorrow and save Ukraine more suffering if he agreed to Putin’s demand for an East-West security settlement in central Europe which removed Nato from Russia’s western border. This is clear to ordinary people if not their leaders.
If Putin is a war criminal, what about George W Bush and Tony Blair, who lied their way into an unprovoked war against Iraq? Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and UK prime minister David Cameron destroyed Libya at the behest of anti-Gaddafi rebels after he unwisely scrapped nuclear weapons.
These elective wars cost hundreds of thousands of casualties. Perversely the Libyan rebels were anti-western Islamists who later murdered an American ambassador.
It appears that the western governments who created the ICC exempt themselves from accountability to its prosecutors, who sensibly recognise hypocrisy when they smell it and don’t ask.
Another candidate for the ICC dock would have been President Clinton, who organised the Nato bombing of Serbia to force it to abandon its Muslim-dominated province of Kosovo after Milosevic helped him to end the war in Bosnia.
It’s worth recalling how the Americans, who blamed Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for the war that followed Yugoslavia’s disintegration, revenged themselves on Serbia. There is an unproven suspicion that after this war ended, the US secretly armed and trained the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which emerged fully fledged from nowhere to fight for independence from Belgrade. That didn’t happen on its own.
Peace talks involving the US broke down when Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sought land passage for Nato forces across Serbia to Kosovo. Albright boasted that the demand was framed in a way that was impossible for Milosevic to accept.
Nato air forces, including our own, bombed Serbia for 78 days until Milosevic surrendered. He was hauled off to The Hague after the EU warned Serbia’s new leaders that the country would never be allowed to join if it did not turn over the men wanted by the ICC. He died in a Dutch jail.
The Kosovo question was complicated but it was legally a province of Serbia and Clinton had no more right to attack the Serbs than Putin has to make war against Ukraine.
How would Nato get Putin to The Hague? It’s not as if Russia are threatened with military defeat. The ICC could ask for him if he were to be ousted by a new Kremlin leadership but it’s unlikely that any successor to Putin would agree or be more accepting of Nato on Russia’s border. Johnson has gained himself some headlines, but they’re meaningless.