Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. He was banned from travelling to Russia after an earlier essay about Vladimir Putin and war crimes in March, 2022.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Moscow this week, and every aspect of the visit will have been carefully negotiated between Chinese and Russian diplomats. Every aspect, that is, except for the text of Mr. Xi’s public comments, which would have been written in Beijing long before he boarded the plane.
The initial version of those comments would have likely expressed support for Russia’s contest with NATO over Ukraine. Mr. Xi might even have agreed to provide some of the weapons that Russian forces so desperately need.
But then, last Friday, the International Criminal Court named Russian President Vladimir Putin in an arrest warrant for war crimes.
Mr. Putin is suspected of deporting children from Ukraine to Russia. Last May, he introduced a process for rapidly assigning Russian citizenship to Ukrainian children without parental care, and their adoption by Russian families has been celebrated at public events.
As the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor Karim Khan explains, Mr. Putin is treating Ukrainian children as “spoils of war.”
The arrest warrant is awkward for Mr. Xi, who has been balancing adroitly between Russia and the West. A good relationship with Russia ensures cut-rate access to oil, gas and other natural resources, and Russian power helps to counter the United States.
Yet these benefits come at a price. Mr. Xi needs to maintain an international order that has provided Chinese companies with two decades of profitable access to Western markets, which have fuelled China’s rise to superpower status.
This order, with its thousands of treaties and intergovernmental institutions, is based on the premise that states will keep their promises and follow fundamental rules, such as respecting territorial borders and avoiding blatant, widespread violations of human rights.
The international order is robust enough to survive small irritants. In Canada, allegations of Chinese electoral interference have dominated the headlines, but the reports have had no discernible effect on the hundreds of cargo ships sailing between Chinese and Canadian ports.
Yet the international order is shaken when a powerful country breaks a fundamental rule such as the prohibition on territorial conquest. This explains why China has not yet supplied Russia with arms.
The International Criminal Court arrest warrant discredits Mr. Putin’s claim that the invasion was an act of self-defence. Abducting children, after all, has nothing to do with protecting Russia against NATO.
The warrant also means that Mr. Putin is living on borrowed time. Although the court cannot conduct a trial in absentia, Mr. Putin can no longer travel to any of the 123 states that have ratified the court’s statute. By curtailing his ability to act as Russia’s chief diplomat, the warrant has undermined his presidency.
An arrest warrant certainly presages an eventual loss of political power. In 2009, Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was made the subject of a warrant, and although he has not yet been transferred to The Hague, he was removed from power in 2019 and remains imprisoned in his own country. In 2011, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was named in another warrant; within months, he had been deposed and summarily executed by Libyan forces.
There’s also the case of Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1999. The Serbian president was the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes. He lost power a year later, and died of a heart attack in a prison cell in The Hague.
No one should count on Mr. Putin sitting in the International Criminal Court dock. But like many of his domestic political opponents, he’s now at real risk of falling out of a window. He’s also proven himself to be a dubious partner for a Chinese President who needs to steer a middle course.
A second arrest warrant will only cement this conclusion, and it’s almost certainly coming. The 1948 Genocide Convention specifies that “forcibly transferring children” of one group to another group is a genocidal act if “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
The Chinese President might not care about Russian war crimes. But war crimes against children? Genocide? Nobody wants to be associated with that.
Mr. Xi will stand by Mr. Putin, at least for now. But the script has surely been flipped.