THE BELL WEEKLY: Arrest warrant conundrum

The Bell

Hello! This week our top story is about how Russian media outlets were baffled about how to report on an international arrest warrant issued for Putin. We also look at a major meeting between Putin and top business leaders and police raids on popular bars in Moscow that were demonstratively violent.

How Russia propaganda tried to explain away an arrest warrant for Putin

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrest on Friday. He is suspected of war crimes — in particular, the illegal deportation of children. This news presented an unexpected challenge to Russian propaganda – for a long time state media struggled to work out its response. Eventually, the Russian narrative focused on the “fakeness” of the Hague court, which is not recognized by Russia, the U.S. or China. Many news shows on national television opted to ignore the arrest warrant altogether.

What’s going on?

The chairman of the ICC, Piotr Hofmanski, announced Friday that the court in the Hague had issued arrest warrants for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for the protection of children’s rights. Both are accused of the “unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”

The details of the warrants will be kept secret to protect the interests of the victims, but the court felt that announcing their existence “may contribute to the prevention of the further commission of crimes,” the lawyers explained.

The previous day, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry published its own report on the topic. Several things, including the removal of children from Ukraine to Russia, were listed as war crimes. The document noted that international humanitarian law prohibits – with rare exceptions – the evacuation of children from one side to another in an armed conflict. According to the Ukrainian authorities, Russian forces have removed 16,221 Ukrainian children from the country in the first year of the war (the UN commission was unable to confirm that figure).

The ICC opened pre-trial proceedings about the war in Ukraine back in spring last year. The investigation is led by Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the court, who previously served on international tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Earlier this year, media outlets reported that Khan was preparing to open two cases about war crimes in Ukraine — the deportation of children and deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure.

The Russian reaction

News of the arrest warrant was a real test for Russian state media. Suffice it to say that both propaganda outlets and state-controlled publications (like online outlet RBC or popular Telegram news channel “First of all. Well, almost”) initially simply ignored the news.

Apart from a lack of orders about how to cover it from the Kremlin, there are other possible explanations for the pause. First, for Russian journalists used to working under censorship, simply publishing the phrase “arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin” is already a major psychological challenge.

Second, under wartime censorship there is a real legal risk. “It was difficult to present this news – how do we know where they will find evidence of ‘discrediting the state authorities’? Right after publication we called our lawyers to ask whether anything needed to be changed to keep us out of jail,” the editor of one online publication told The Bell.

News articles began to appear once an accepted approach to reporting the news of the arrest warrant had emerged. After official statements from the Foreign Ministry it was clear that Russia would base its response on the fact that Russia (along with the U.S., China and India) does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction. The aforementioned “First of all. Well, almost” Telegram channel went a little over the top on Friday evening, inserting the mantra about Russia’s non-recognition of the ICC in every post and referring to Putin’s “arrest” only in quotation marks. Typical reactions from pro-Kremlin experts were dismissive.

However, weekend TV coverage showed that there was still extreme reluctance to report on an order for the president’s arrest. From Friday through Sunday, television news bulletins either ignored the story, or mentioned the ICC warrant in passing.

On Sunday's main news show on Russian television — Dmitry Kiselyov’s “Vesti Nedeli” — the arrest warrant was not mentioned once in almost three hours.

What might happen to Putin if tried in the Hague

The ICC was established in 1998 under the auspices of the UN to investigate war crimes and cases of genocide. Putin is the fourth head of state to be subject to an ICC arrest warrant in its history. Previous leaders to come to the court’s attention were:

  • Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir. In 2009 he was accused of genocide during the conflict in Darfur. In 2019, al-Bashir was overthrown by a military coup and remains under arrest and investigation in his homeland. The new Sudanese authorities do not intend to extradite him to the ICC.
  • Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In 2011 he was accused of war crimes during the civil war in Libya. A few months later, Gaddafi was killed by rebels.
  • President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire. In 2011 he was accused of crimes against humanity while putting down riots in the country the previous year. In 2011, with the support of the United Nations and France, Gbagbo was overthrown and became the only head of state to appear before the ICC. In 2019 he was acquitted.
  • Another two former heads of state have appeared before UN Special Tribunals. In 2012, Liberia’s Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in jail by the Sierra Leone tribunal. Taylor appeared in court after he lost a civil war and was extradited by Nigeria. Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic lost power in 2000 after electoral defeat. The following year he was handed over by his successors. Milosevic spent five years in a UN prison and died in 2006 before he could be sentenced.

Why the world should care

There is no serious expectation that Vladimir Putin will appear in a courtroom in the Netherlands — unless he loses the war and is removed from office. The main consequences of the ICC’s decision are obvious: Putin now has another good reason to cling on to power until the bitter end and wage his war until the final bullet.  

Guest list scrutiny as Putin meeting with billionaires

At his second meeting with major business leaders since the start of the war, Putin last week praised those who “stayed here and didn’t leave.” Behind closed doors, there were discussions of a 300 billion ruble “voluntary contribution” that most businessmen still hope to see presented as a tax so they can escape allegations of sponsoring the war. But the big talking point was who turned up to meet the president at a time when open association with the regime risks Western sanctions. Notable attendees included Alfa Group co-owner German Khan, whose appeal to get sanctions lifted was recently backed by opposition figures, and Andrei Melnichenko, who is currently challenging EU sanctions in court.

  • Putin took part in an annual Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) gathering Thursday. Putin spoke at the plenary session, then held a behind closed doors meeting. This was the second time Putin has met with business leaders since war broke out (the first was on the day the invasion began — Feb. 24, 2022).
  • The real talking point was who was there. Since the start of the war, any meeting with Putin has been highly toxic from a sanctions point of view: nobody who attended the Feb. 24 gathering has escaped sanctions. For some billionaires under sanctions, that could mean there is nothing more to fear. However, many businessmen are counting on being removed from the sanctions list and several have already launched legal challenges.
  • As a result, only six of the top 20 figures from the Forbes 2022 Russian list were in attendance — Vladimir Potanin, Leonid Mikhelson, Alexei Mordashov, Andrei Melnichenko, German Khan and Viktor Rashikov.
  • The richest Russian, steelmaker Vladimir Lisin (who has yet to appear on any sanctions list), AFK Sistema over Vladimir Yevtushenko (currently sanctioned only by the U.K.) and billionaire Alisher Usmanov (sanctioned by dozens of countries) were all absent. Businessmen who, as it transpired, have submitted letters of resignation from the RSPP — LUKoil’s Vagit Alekperov and Leonid Fedun, Crocus City chief Araz Agalarov and former head of Sibur Dmitry Konov — were also not there. “Formally, a resignation request can only be accepted by a vote at the congress, but there hasn’t been one for a long time. So these requests have been piling up,” a source close to one of the resigning businessmen told The Bell.
  • Khan, one of four major co-owners of Alfa Group, was the most widely discussed attendee. His presence was a surprise as it had previously been assumed he was abandoning business in Russia along with his partners Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and Alexei Kuzmichev. A year ago Khan sold his share in Alfa Bank to junior partner Andrei Kosogov. Like Fridman, Aven and Kuzmichev, Khan was mentioned in a letter signed by opposition leaders calling for sanctions on the Alfa owners to be lifted.
  • Melnichenko’s attendance was another surprise. After he was sanctioned in March, he transferred his companies to his wife, then, in May, he was one of the first to contest EU sanctions in court. “One of the reasons Melnichenko was on the European sanctions list was his involvement in the Feb. 24 meeting with Putin. It seems to us that the businessman had a chance of success in his legal challenge against sanctions, but now he has shown a systemic element to his relationship with the Russian state,” a legal specialist Telegram channel wrote in bewilderment last week. Media outlet Agentsvo pointed out that 40 Russian businessmen are contesting sanctions through the courts and none of them — apart from Melnichenko — attended the RSPP event.
  • Those present heard nothing revolutionary from Putin. As in all his recent statements to businessmen, he insisted the West was no safe haven (“I often heard how things were more stable there. And now?”) and praised those who remained in Russia (“They proved smarter, more productive and more effective than those who ran away to advise our enemies.”) In reply, RSPP head Alexander Shokhin told Putin about the success of Innopraktika, the company led by the president’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova.
  • So far, we have had no significant leaks from the closed part of Putin’s meeting. A source familiar with the discussion told The Bell that there was nothing much of note. Shokin merely said that they discussed different ways for business to make a financial contribution. However, he said the government is opposed to making this a new tax because it would contradict “the logic of a moratorium on tax increases.”

Why the world should care

This event highlighted a wartime status quo: the Kremlin will not be offended nervous businessmen who pass up invitations to meet the president. However, Putin is clearly considering how to respond to businessmen who have left Russia. A month ago, speaking to the upper house of parliament, he promised “not to interfere” with anyone’s right “to live out their lives in an impounded mansion with a blocked bank account.” Now, though, his rhetoric is beginning to target people “who left, and advise our enemies.”

Cops threaten customers in a Moscow bar, force them to sing patriotic songs

Russia is already used to the idea that anti-war protests and even critical comments on social media can land you in jail. Now, it seems that official pressure on opponents of the war is getting even more demonstrative — and sinister. This weekend, police raided two fashionable bars, hitting customers and forcing them to sing patriotic songs. They also raided a book launch for an artist imprisoned for anti-war protests.

  • Balaclava-clad security officers burst into bars Underdog and La Virgen on Friday night armed with sledgehammers and stun guns. Between 40 and 50 customers at the bars, which are owned by the same people, were detained. Some were forced to the floor and beaten. The officers also dragged one customer onto the street and made him write the letter “Z” (a pro-war symbol) and the words “For Russia” on the door of the bar. Several drinkers at Underdog were threatened with electric shocks and forced to sing patriotic songs — a video of the incident was later circulated on social media. Several detainees were questioned, but they were all released.
  • State-run media outlets reported the raids were carried out by the police and the Federal Security Service (FSB). The punitive action was apparently the result of reports that the bar owners “sponsored the Ukrainian Armed Forces.” This refers to an incident in July when La Virgen’s Instagram account announced a charity evening to raise funds for Kyiv Angels, a charity that delivers food and medicine to people in Ukraine. This caused a scandal in ultra-patriotic circles, with demands that “traitors to the motherland” be punished.
  • The following day, after those detained had been released, one of the co-owners of the bars announced his departure from both projects. But pro-Kremlin Telegram channels were not satisfied — demanding his arrest.
  • The show of strength continued Sunday. This time, police went to a club called Open Space, which was due to host the launch of a comic book by artist Sasha Skochilenko (currently in jail for a protest in which she replaced price tickets in supermarkets with anti-war slogans). Skochilenko is on trial and faces up to 10 years behind bars if found guilty. The police forced everyone present at the book launch to clean the room. Anyone who refused was laid face down on the floor. Several people were detained, and one was reportedly beaten for refusing to show his passport.

Why the world should care

Since the start of the war, the authorities have managed to maintain an atmosphere of fear through carefully-selected criminal cases. However, we are seeing more and more instances like the raid on the Underdog — demonstrably illegal actions by law enforcement officers that are obviously intended to humiliate and intimidate critics of the war.


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