Don’t Cling to Hopes That Putin Will Ever Face Justice

The system for prosecuting war crimes is broken—but focusing on sanctions could work.

By , a senior fellow and the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Hermann Göring, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's second in command, at the Nuremberg trials
Hermann Göring, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's second in command, at the Nuremberg trials
Hermann Göring, Nazi Luftwaffe chief and Adolf Hitler's second in command, takes the stand during his trial for war crimes in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1946. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The White House has made an ironclad commitment to holding Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for the atrocities his forces have committed in Ukraine. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen. That’s because the Biden administration clings to wishful thinking about war crimes accountability: that leaders can be made to face justice for war crimes using international tribunals and other legal mechanisms, like the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and the tribunal in The Hague faced by deposed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

But successful prosecution remains a rare exception. The system for prosecuting crimes against humanity has failed in case after case: In Myanmar, the Biden administration has determined that the military junta is committing genocide against its Rohingya minority—but there is little hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, atrocities amount to “ethnic cleansing”—but those words have had no consequence. In China, more than a million Uyghurs languish in concentration camps. There is little hope for accountability in any of these cases.

Yet nowhere is the failure of the system for bringing war criminals to justice more visible than in Syria. Putin and his proxy, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, have demonstrated their impunity despite committing horrific war crimes against the civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons, targeting of hospitals and clinics, and obliteration of entire cities and neighborhoods. Ten years of brutal ongoing war have shown the deficiency of the process U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration hope to apply to Ukraine now.

The White House has made an ironclad commitment to holding Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for the atrocities his forces have committed in Ukraine. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen. That’s because the Biden administration clings to wishful thinking about war crimes accountability: that leaders can be made to face justice for war crimes using international tribunals and other legal mechanisms, like the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and the tribunal in The Hague faced by deposed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

But successful prosecution remains a rare exception. The system for prosecuting crimes against humanity has failed in case after case: In Myanmar, the Biden administration has determined that the military junta is committing genocide against its Rohingya minority—but there is little hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, atrocities amount to “ethnic cleansing”—but those words have had no consequence. In China, more than a million Uyghurs languish in concentration camps. There is little hope for accountability in any of these cases.

Yet nowhere is the failure of the system for bringing war criminals to justice more visible than in Syria. Putin and his proxy, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, have demonstrated their impunity despite committing horrific war crimes against the civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons, targeting of hospitals and clinics, and obliteration of entire cities and neighborhoods. Ten years of brutal ongoing war have shown the deficiency of the process U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration hope to apply to Ukraine now.

That doesn’t mean the idea of holding Putin accountable is hopeless. Sanctions and diplomatic isolation have greater promise as vehicles of accountability, not least because they deprive their targets of the resources that fuel aggression and atrocities. Already, Russia is reportedly running short of precision weapons such as cruise missiles, whose manufacture relies on Western technology. Comprehensive sanctions may ensure that Putin never again has armed forces strong enough to unleash on his European neighbors.

Western leaders will have to shift focus on how to pursue accountability—and recognize that judicial approaches are likely to fail.

The most formidable challenge to sanctions as a vehicle for accountability is maintaining the will to enforce and refine them as the target adapts. In Syria, for example, the Western commitment to punishing Assad was intermittent at best—and has now diminished to a point where Damascus was able to begin a process of diplomatic rehabilitation.

Before tackling the challenge of how to get sanctions right, Western leaders will have to shift focus on how to pursue accountability—and recognize that judicial approaches are likely to fail. Sadly, that recognition still seems a long way off. When the Russian withdrawal from the Ukrainian town of Bucha exposed evidence of massacres, Biden called for “a war crime trial.” When Blinken told reporters at a press conference, “I can say with conviction that there will be accountability for any war crimes that are determined to have occurred” in Ukraine, he got some well-deserved pushback. “How can you say that after Aleppo and Grozny?” one of the journalists shot back, “[Putin] does it repeatedly.” Blinken did not have a concrete answer, responding, “I hope you’ll take me at my word.”

Reporters have continued to ask variations of the same question. In response, the White House and State Department have begun to emphasize their cooperation with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the International Criminal Court (ICC), and various nongovernmental organizations that are working to collect evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. To be sure, these efforts are important, because they solidify the moral foundation for punishing war criminals and may provide rare moments of catharsis and validation to their victims. But the record is sobering. Similar efforts in Syria were never able to touch Assad or his principal enablers in Moscow and Tehran, whose forces participated directly in numerous atrocities.

One reason using international institutions to hold Putin accountable will be difficult is Russia’s power within them. Moscow has vetoed 16 resolutions on Syria in the U.N. Security Council, including several that had no concrete consequence beyond criticizing the Assad regime. That didn’t keep U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield from declaring in late February that “Russia cannot, and will not, veto accountability.”

This kind of aspirational rhetoric from the administration is a recipe for disappointment given the history of failed efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. When that disappointment inevitably sets in, it makes the search for accountability look like a futile distraction, which in turn lowers the bar for reengaging with the perpetrators. That is the story of the Biden administration’s Syria policy.

A month after Biden’s inauguration, Blinken committed to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” On Syria, State Department officials pledged to seek accountability and enforce the Caesar Act, a sanctions law that Congress passed with bipartisan majorities in 2019. The law’s passage put investors, especially from the Persian Gulf states, on notice that sanctions awaited those who participated in Assad’s reconstruction plans. Although Emirati leaders continued to probe Washington’s commitment to isolating Damascus, Assad got none of the Gulf capital he was hoping for.

In addition to the new sanctions, the Syrian regime suffered two major economic blows in 2020. The first was the COVID-19 pandemic; the second was the collapse of the Lebanese banking system, which held tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Syrian deposits. A major regime offensive in northwest Syria ground to a halt in March 2020 and never resumed, although low-level fighting persists.

Thus, the Biden administration inherited a situation where Assad was already on the defensive. Nonetheless, within six months of taking office, the Biden administration reversed its policy of isolating the regime. The White House informed key Arab allies, including Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, that it welcomed their efforts to include Damascus in a pair of regional energy deals that would earn tens of millions dollars for the Assad regime. As daily electricity blackouts were adding to Lebanon’s misery amid a severe economic crisis, there was even a humanitarian rationale for allowing Assad to cash in.

Blinken sought to persuade reporters that U.S. policy on Assad’s war crimes had not changed, yet Arab governments had no trouble reading between the lines that they had a green light for business as usual with the Syrian regime. The New York Times reported that, according to an interview with an unnamed senior Biden administration official, “it was clear that Mr. al-Assad had survived and that sanctions had yielded few concessions, so the administration preferred to focus on other issues.” Despite sanctions, Assad still enjoyed a steady supply of crude oil from Iran and rapidly growing revenue from drug trafficking. If the United States and its allies did not adapt along with Assad and his patrons, there was no reason to expect concessions.

Sadly, the Biden administration’s turn from accountability to normalization offers a preview of likely Western policy toward Russia once the current outrage subsides. Right now, Western anger seems unquenchable as reports of executions, mass graves, and gang rapes pour out of Ukraine. But that was also the case after a chemical weapons massacre left 1,400 Syrians dead in the Damascus suburbs in 2013. Assad waited for the Western temper to pass—and resumed his chemical attacks on civilians.

Imagine Ukraine six months from now. The war has settled into a punishing stalemate. Russian forces cannot advance, but their artillery and rocket attacks continue to kill civilians, while starvation exhausts towns under siege. The burden of hosting millions of refugees begins to weigh on Europe. Moscow says it will negotiate peace—but only if Western sanctions are lifted. Wouldn’t such an offer tempt the White House? Peace would come with immediate humanitarian benefits. Kyiv might resist, but, without U.S. support, Ukrainians cannot keep fighting.

Enduring restraints on Russian military strength and strategic influence are a punishment that fits the crime and reduces the risk of committing another.

Yet a pivotal lesson of the war in Syria is that impunity leads to even greater suffering in the future. The task is therefore not to trade sanctions for peace but to build a sustainable sanctions regime that the United States and its allies are prepared to enforce consistently and vigorously for several years or even a decade. The U.S. Treasury Department and its European counterparts will have to staff up to stay one step ahead of the Kremlin’s finance professionals, who are already well practiced in illicitly evading sanctions. Given the lack of any realistic perspective for Putin to face justice, sanctions and isolation are the only way to punish his regime.

Learning from the Syrian debacle, the United States and its allies should also be prepared to encounter growing opposition to sanctions—including on humanitarian grounds—as outrage subsides. For now, Biden is proud to say that Russia’s “economy is on track to be cut in half in the coming years.” In practice, that means impoverishing millions of Russians who have no say in what their government does in Ukraine. A sustainable sanctions policy depends on a firm belief that protecting Russia’s neighbors from brutal attacks, reducing the risk of future bloody wars in Europe, and holding the Kremlin accountable takes precedence over sparing the Russian people from the sanctions’ effects.

The Biden administration, in concert with allies, should also launch a long-term campaign to expel Russia from international organizations or marginalize it when expulsion proves impracticable. Voting Russia off the UNHRC was a small first step in the right direction. Next, Russia should face suspension from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, whose rules it has flagrantly violated. A country that bombs hospitals also has no place on the executive board of the World Health Organization. Across the U.N. system, the United States and its allies and supporters should block the election or appointment of Putin regime officials to leadership positions.

Putin and his cabinet should become personae non grata. Russian participation in summits with U.S. or European leaders should be out of the question unless Putin makes a credible commitment to repair the damage he has done in Ukraine and elsewhere.

There is no established playbook for making a pariah out of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Nor will it be easy to sideline the world’s top oil exporter. But this is a more promising route to accountability than compiling evidence of atrocities in the vain hope there will someday be a venue capable of prosecuting Putin and his lieutenants.

First and foremost, aggressively enforced sanctions have the potential to hobble the Russian war machine. The debacle in Ukraine has already exposed the deficiencies of Moscow’s efforts to build a first-rate military. Enduring sanctions could put that objective permanently out of reach, by depriving Russia both of capital to invest in its armed forces and, perhaps more importantly, of access to Western technology, such as microprocessors for precision-guided weapons.

Rather than a dubious strategy of deterring Putin from renewed aggression in Europe, this approach seeks to deprive him of the means to intimidate his neighbors in the first place. As a pariah wielding only depleted and dilapidated armed forces, Putin will never achieve his vision of restoring Russian imperial greatness.

Of course, Putin’s own champagne-and-caviar lifestyle is unlikely to be affected by sanctions, including on luxury goods. In that regard, sanctions will never be as satisfying as seeing him stew in a prison in The Hague. The problem is that we can’t always get the justice we want. Yet enduring restraints on Russian military strength and strategic influence are a punishment that fits the crime and reduces the risk of committing another. That may just be the justice we need.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @adesnik

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