May 9, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Don’t Cling to Hopes That Putin Will Ever Face Justice

The system for prosecuting war crimes is broken—but focusing on sanctions could work.
May 9, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Don’t Cling to Hopes That Putin Will Ever Face Justice

The system for prosecuting war crimes is broken—but focusing on sanctions could work.

The White House has made an ironclad commitment to holding Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for the atrocities his forces have committed in Ukraine. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen. That’s because the Biden administration clings to wishful thinking about war crimes accountability: that leaders can be made to face justice for war crimes using international tribunals and other legal mechanisms, like the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and the tribunal in The Hague faced by deposed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

But successful prosecution remains a rare exception. The system for prosecuting crimes against humanity has failed in case after case: In Myanmar, the Biden administration has determined that the military junta is committing genocide against its Rohingya minority—but there is little hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, atrocities amount to “ethnic cleansing”—but those words have had no consequence. In China, more than a million Uyghurs languish in concentration camps. There is little hope for accountability in any of these cases.

Yet nowhere is the failure of the system for bringing war criminals to justice more visible than in Syria. Putin and his proxy, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, have demonstrated their impunity despite committing horrific war crimes against the civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons, targeting of hospitals and clinics, and obliteration of entire cities and neighborhoods. Ten years of brutal ongoing war have shown the deficiency of the process U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration hope to apply to Ukraine now.

That doesn’t mean the idea of holding Putin accountable is hopeless. Sanctions and diplomatic isolation have greater promise as vehicles of accountability, not least because they deprive their targets of the resources that fuel aggression and atrocities. Already, Russia is reportedly running short of precision weapons such as cruise missiles, whose manufacture relies on Western technology. Comprehensive sanctions may ensure that Putin never again has armed forces strong enough to unleash on his European neighbors.

The most formidable challenge to sanctions as a vehicle for accountability is maintaining the will to enforce and refine them as the target adapts. In Syria, for example, the Western commitment to punishing Assad was intermittent at best—and has now diminished to a point where Damascus was able to begin a process of diplomatic rehabilitation.

Western leaders will have to shift focus on how to pursue accountability—and recognize that judicial approaches are likely to fail.

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Issues:

Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria