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A woman wrapped in a blue and yellow flag shouts into a megaphone. Other people holding blue and yellow signs stand in front of her.
A woman wrapped in the Ukrainian flag shouts through a megaphone during a demonstration in front of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, in March 2022. (AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)

Why the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Putin has symbolic importance

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine and its supporters had been calling for charges against Putin since the outset of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Even so, the fact that the ICC — a permanent judicial body that investigates, prosecutes and tries people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — issued the charges at all comes as a surprise.

It should be noted, however, that the charges are significantly less than what Ukraine and its supporters demanded. Putin is not being charged for the crime of aggression, among others. Instead, he’s facing charges for the unlawful deportation of children and other civilians from occupied Ukraine.

Almost immediately, two camps emerged in the aftermath of the ICC’s decision. The first emphasizes the importance of the decision, and its potential significance in holding Putin accountable.

The second emphasizes that Putin will likely never face his day in court.

Both are simultaneously correct yet wrong. Those who question the decision are correct in that it is highly unlikely that Putin will ever be tried in court. They are, however, wrong in arguing there’s no value in this symbolic act.

Symbolic actions can have a profound effect on states. This is true not only for the immediate state or individual affected — in this case Russia and Putin — but also far beyond their borders.

A week of symbolic actions

There are two levels of symbolism in the ICC’s decision. The first is its immediate impact on Ukraine itself.

As both sides prepare for what most analysts believe will be intensive fighting in the spring, symbolic acts can influence morale, both positively and negatively. The ICC’s decision will almost assuredly have a positive impact on the morale of Ukraine and its supporters.

Coincidentally, the ICC’s decision came days after China announced that Xi Jinping would visit Russia for the first time since the Russia-Ukraine war began.

Xi’s three-day visit is a major victory for Russia, as it’s helping dispel claims by the United States and its allies that Russia is isolated. The ICC’s decision, in short, balances the ledger in terms of symbolic acts. While the decision was reached independently of Xi’s visit, its timing is critical.

Two men sit in front of a row of mostly red flags and appear on a screen.
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear on screen during a meeting via video link in Beijing in December 2022. (Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via AP)

But ICC’s decision is symbolic, however, beyond the Russia-Ukraine war.

Both academics and politicians have questioned the ICC’s resolve and ability in recent years.

While it’s prosecuted several war criminals in the past decade, the charges typically occur a considerable time after the events in question. The fact that the ICC succeeded in pressing charges during an ongoing conflict speaks to the organization’s desire to act.

The ICC and the United States

The ICC, like most international organizations, is only effective if nations take it seriously. Shortly after the war began, 39 states pushed for the ICC to investigate war crimes in Ukraine.

Almost all these states were allies of Ukraine and the United States.

The American relationship with the ICC has, at best, been spotty. The U.S. is not a party to the Rome Statute, the founding document of the ICC. The U.S. relationship with the ICC, furthermore, got off to a rocky start due to the desire of some groups to see the Americans and the British for their actions during the invasion of Iraq.

Even during these periods, however, the American government supported war crime indictments that did not threaten, or indeed advanced, its interests.

Relations have improved in recent years. First under former president Barack Obama, and then — after a four-year interlude — once again with President Joe Biden, the U.S. has been actively collaborating with the ICC.

While the U.S. has some reservations about the ICC, specifically its stance on Israel, it does work with it when their interests align.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is certainly one instance, even though the Pentagon has been accused of failing to share intelligence with the ICC.

The ICC, the United States and its supporters are unlikely to bring Putin to justice. The strategic military capabilities of Russia’s armed forces make such a task a virtual impossibility. They can, however, signal that such actions have consequences — and that the world is watching.

Candles that say 'Putin come out' on a large lawn in front of a stone courthouse.
Candles are set in the grass that spell out ‘Putin Come Out’ in front of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands in March 2022. (AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)

Hypocrisy or reality?

There are other ongoing conflicts in the world, including in Yemen and Nigeria, where crimes similar to Putin’s alleged crimes have taken place.

Leaders in these countries are significantly more vulnerable to outside pressure than Putin. Unlike Russia, most other states lack the nuclear and other strategic weapons needed to ignore outside pressure. Given the ability of the international community to apply pressure in these instances, the ICC’s tough stance against Putin reeks of hypocrisy.

Critics point to that hypocrisy as illustrating the weakness of the organization. Given the need for the ICC to maintain the support of powerful countries like the United States, however, selectivity is and will remain a key feature of the organization.

Putin’s indictment will therefore have minimal direct impact on him, but it will offer some comfort to Ukrainians as they continue to fight against the Russians.

It also signals that despite Xi’s visit to Russia, the influence of the U.S. and its allies in international relations remains strong — even if it’s applied in a selective manner.

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