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

The Bell

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.


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