War crimes warrant will isolate Putin internationally and domestically

War crimes warrant will isolate Putin internationally and domestically

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 18–24 March 2023

Three publications (Atlantic Council, The Atlantic, and The National Interest) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week (18–24 March 2023). The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These three publications represent centrist and conservative viewpoints on the political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine’s current affairs: Ukrainians successfully built a grassroots network of non-violent resistance in occupied territories;  
  • The world and Ukraine: the US should continue supporting Ukraine to reinforce democracy worldwide; Ron DeSantis’ remarks about the Russo-Ukrainian war have some merit but are mainly built on misconceptions; International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin will make Russia’s isolation deeper than ever before; 
  • Russia at war: Russia continues to commit war crimes and genocidal actions in Ukraine; Russia should suffer even harsher sanctions for blocking navigation in the Black Sea. 

Main arguments:

Ukrainian civilians develop a decentralized network of non-violent resistance in occupied territories. David Patrikarakos (The Atlantic) writes about Taras (name changed), a 20-year-old former resident of Kherson who stands behind the creation of and currently coordinates the resistance group Yellow Ribbon in occupied territories. The group is an ad hoc batch of patriots, predominantly civilians with no military experience, who popularize the Ukrainian agenda through non-violent means and actively promote their activities through social networks. The group is decentralized and coordinated through the Telegram online messenger and a chatbot. This “enables Yellow Ribbon to share the materials and techniques necessary for the resistance to make its activities visible in the real world of the occupation, while safeguarding the anonymity of the participants against Russian efforts to penetrate the network.” Yellow Ribbon activities include graffiti messages in visible places, tying yellow ribbons around objects in the streets, projecting slogans onto buildings taken over by the Russian administration, and bribing Russian soldiers to release Ukrainian activists from detention. Patrikarakos reports in detail about a few such specific performances and acts of civil disobedience. The scope and effectiveness of the group’s activities have “made Yellow Ribbon famous across Ukraine—and a serious problem for Russia in the occupied areas.” On 27 January 2023 the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow initiated an investigation into the group as a criminal organization. For its part, the European Parliament had previously honoured the Yellow Ribbon with the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union’s main award for the defense of human rights, on 7 December 2022. According to Taras, “the chatbot now serves about 4,600 open cabinets, and the group hopes to get that number to 100,000.” Taras also hopes that the activity of the group will help liberate the occupied territories within months. 

Continued US support to Ukraine hinders the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe. Francis X. Suarez (National Review) argues that the war in Ukraine “is a moral and geopolitical struggle between two visions of the world…The first vision respects human rights and democracy; the second rejects it. The first vision sees freedom as fundamental to a dynamic, prosperous, and thriving society. The second sees freedom as a threat, a curse, and a danger to elite power. The first vision expands human freedom. The second seeks to end it.” Suarez writes about the brutal tactics and ideology of authoritarian regimes that are supported by Russia and China and continue spreading across the globe and in the US’s immediate vicinity: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. To mitigate these challenges and make correct foreign policy choices, Suarez encourages US decision makers to seek inspiration from the “smart power, moral clarity, diverse tools, and restrained use of decisive force” of the Reagan administration. He argues that “while the evil empire may have fallen, its remnants are mounting a clear resurgence” to which the US should respond firmly, above all through its continued support of Ukraine. Suarez concludes that the war in Ukraine is “about the type of future we want for our children and ourselves…When confronting a regime of lies and violence, we arm ourselves with truth and courage. We must show, not just preach, the courage to be free.”

DeSantis’ assessment of the Russo-Ukrainian war contains many flaws and misconceptions. Dan McLaughlin (National Review) scrutinizes statements made by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, about the Russian war in Ukraine. In particular, he declares that the war resembles a “territorial dispute” more than an interstate conflict. At the same time, DeSantis argues that the war will eventually end with Ukraine’s victory, Putin will fail to achieve the Kremlin’s objectives, and at a certain moment the US should be ready to negotiate and accept a peace treaty. McLaughlin believes that through his statements DeSantis “is trying to define a legitimate war aim for the United States to aid Ukraine, argue that we have already effectively accomplished it, and lay the groundwork for unwinding our ongoing commitment.” At the same time, McLaughlin believes that according to DeSantis, the survival of Ukraine as a sovereign state (not a Russian puppet) may require the loss of a part of its territory. “[DeSantis’] effort to define the necessary conditions for victory—which include the survival of an independent, self-governing Ukraine but not its retention of every inch of pre-war Ukrainian territory—is a serious one. We should address it as such.”

In another article for National Review, Dan McLaughlin analyzes the transcript of a DeSantis speech in which the Florida governor expresses his viewpoint on Ukraine, as well as highlights the major takeaways of that speech.

Elsewhere, Anne Applebaum (The Atlantic) presents her and Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which many of DeSantis’ arguments are refuted. First, if the US places a hold on its supply of ammunition and weapons, Ukraine will fail and Russia will aim its aggression against the states on the eastern flank of NATO. If that happens, then, according to Zelensky, “Americans will face a different choice: not politicians deciding whether ‘to give weapons or not to give weapons’ to Ukrainians, but instead, ‘fathers and mothers deciding whether to send their children to fight to keep a large part of the planet, filled with America’s allies and most important trading partners, from Russian occupation.” Second, if Russia conquers Ukraine, then Iran will take note that bigger states can successfully attack their smaller neighbours, and it will attack Israel. With the experience that Iranian drone operators and engineers are gaining today in Ukraine, this attack will lead to massive civilian casualties from air raids. The US will have to engage in order to counter Iran. Finally, if the US continues its sustained support of Ukraine, then America and other democratic societies will have fewer challenges to address. As Zelensky puts it: “Help us fight them here, help us defeat them here, and you won’t have to fight them anywhere else. Help us preserve some kind of open, normal society, using our soldiers and not your soldiers.” Applebaum concludes that the decision to support Ukraine is a pragmatic one: paying a comparatively small price today will save the US from paying a much bigger price in the future.

It is only Mario Loyola (The Atlantic) who explicitly supports DeSantis’ interpretation of the Russian war in Ukraine; he backs that position with numerous arguments that are often used by the Kremlin’s propaganda. Loyola adheres to realist thinking and criticizes the idealism of defenders of international law. He believes that Ukraine’s borders of 1991 should have been treated by the US as being temporary: on declaring its independence, Ukraine allegedly acquired “large swaths of historical Russia, millions of ethnic Russians, and a crucial Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.” Loyola also believes that the volumes of weaponry and ammunition that the US is supplying to Ukraine today are “frightening” and demonstrate the lack of a strategy on how to resolve the conflict. Instead, to resolve the conflict “the US should encourage Ukraine to sell the Russians the territory they now occupy in exchange for a large sum that includes reparations…A more homogeneously Ukrainian state would be more politically stable and could join the European Union and perhaps even NATO one day.” In light of the existing complications, Loyola concludes that the US should never have gotten involved in this war.

To understand the week points of Loyola’s realist argumentation that are formed under the substantial influence of Russian propaganda, we suggest reading these articles by Rebeccah Heinrichs (National Review), and/or Anne Applebaum (The Atlantic), and/or Francis X. Suarez (National Review).

ICC arrest warrant for Putin is a step toward ending Russian impunity. Danielle Johnson (Atlantic Council) reports on the global impact of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin over his alleged role in the deportation of Ukrainian children. On the one hand, by doing so, “the ICC has created an extraordinary opportunity to bolster its own legitimacy, build further solidarity in support of Ukraine, and permanently undermine Russia’s world-altering imperialist drive.” On the other hand, considering the challenges of detaining Putin and bringing him to justice, the ICC should not only focus on narrow legal procedures but also step outside of the courtroom. This means providing support to Ukraine’s own judicial system in prosecuting war crimes, cooperating regularly with Ukraine’s civil society and informing the world about the scope of Russian atrocities, and initiating development of further mechanisms of international justice and restoration of the pre-war order. Johnson highlights that while the ICC’s record of bringing war criminals to justice remains comparatively poor, the arrest warrant for Putin sends a few powerful messages. Primarily, no efforts to return to “business as usual” with Russia can be justified if Putin remains the head of the state. Secondly, all Russian soldiers who committed war crimes will face justice. Thirdly, Russian political elites at home as well as Russia’s international supporters should think twice to what extent they are willing to cooperate with Putin’s regime (this message is especially important for Global South countries). Johnson also argues that regime change in contemporary Russia does not seem likely, as Putin is strongly motivated to cling to power by all means necessary—given that any of his successors may decide to hand him over to the ICC. At the same time, “because the ICC’s warrant has no statute of limitations, either Putin will stand trial or the threat of it will haunt him until the end of his days.”

Anders Åslund (Atlantic Council) also analyzes the effects of the ICC arrest warrant and argues that Putin’s international isolation has increased: “No serious politician or public figure will want to meet with or even talk to Putin. He cannot travel abroad without considering the possibility of arrest and extradition to The Hague.” This will further undermine Russia’s global presence, as the Kremlin’s leader will not be able to directly discuss current affairs with his counterparts. At the same time, Åslund highlights that “many influential countries in addition to Russia itself do not recognize the court, with the list including the United States, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.” Therefore, some of these countries may continue cooperation with Russia; however, Åslund opines that they will be much more cautious. Furthermore, “Putin’s domestic political position will be seriously undermined, with members of the Russian elite drawing the inevitable conclusion that he is now a liability.”

Evidence mounts of Russia committing genocide in Ukraine. Peter Dickinson (Atlantic Council) argues that Russia’s child abductions in Ukraine reveal a genocidal intent behind its full-scale invasion. To prove his point, Dickinson refers to Article II of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, which identifies “forcibly transferring the children of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group to another group” as genocide—which, in turn, “concisely and accurately describes Russia’s actions in Ukraine.” Dickinson highlights that more than forty camps and re-education facilities for Ukrainian children were built in facilities from occupied Crimea to Siberia, thus demonstrating a purposeful Russian policy to change the identities of forcibly displaced young citizens: “This is a massive logistical undertaking that does not happen by accident.” Dickinson also writes that the major victims of Russian abduction are children from orphanages and those who were separated from their families by being told that they were no longer wanted. “Current estimates indicate that well over ten thousand young Ukrainians have been abducted and sent to Russia. Many fear the real total figure may be far higher.” Apart from forcibly displacing them to its interior, Russians actively try to change the identity of young Ukrainians in the occupied territories. For that reason, any access to Ukrainian media is prohibited. The school curricula are changed to promote Russian imperial values and demonize everything Ukrainian. Dickinson concludes that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are yet to be internationally recognized as genocide. For that reason, it is vital to demonstrate their genocidal intent. “It is this intent ‘to physically destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,’ that legally distinguishes genocide from war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The collection of evidence, alongside major legal and diplomatic efforts, is ongoing today, aiming to form an international perception of Russia as a genocidal power.

Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s ports demands a proactive response from the international community. Oleksiy Goncharenko (Atlantic Council) writes that Russia’s Black Sea blockade is part of its war on international law that is being waged through the weaponization of “global food security in order to hold the international community hostage.” Goncharenko argues that since the first day of the full-scale invasion, Russia has taken measures to disrupt trade chains and discredit Ukraine as a reliable exporter of agricultural production to African and Asian states. This not only includes the harassment of merchant vessels going to and from Ukraine’s ports but also destroying vast swathes of farmland and making Ukraine the most mined country in the world. The current UN-backed Grain Deal, extended for another two months at the beginning of March, offers only a partial and short-term solution to the global food shortages. Therefore, according to Goncharenko, the international community should adopt a more proactive stance: “The most obvious measures would include additional sanctions and restrictions targeting Russian shipping.” This particularly means that Russian merchant ships should be subjected to no less rigorous inspections than Ukrainian vessels under the Grain Deal. Suspicions exist that Russia, as a fighting side and the aggressor in the Black Sea littoral, is using its merchant ships to transport weapons. Therefore, the International Maritime Organization “must use its powers as a UN agency to hold Russia accountable for violating [international maritime law] and must be ready to impose suitable sanctions measures if Moscow refuses to comply.”

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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