The international criminal court’s arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin will probably be portrayed as a point of no return in Russia, where the Kremlin will spin the court’s decision as proof that the west is seeking nothing short of regime change.
While Putin has already been preparing his public for a long war, the arrest warrant will for the first time raise the concrete possibility that Russia’s leaders and other prominent supporters of the war could face justice at The Hague if they ever find themselves under arrest.
While that is unlikely in the near term, Russia will probably use it to raise the stakes of the war domestically and also to argue, when it wants, that any negotiations are just a smokescreen to the ultimate goal of toppling Putin.
“The west is showing that it’s ready to go all the way,” said Vladlen Tatarsky, one of the best-known of Russia’s influential military bloggers. “They’re betting on creating a schism inside Russia that wants to remove Putin.”
“But it’s us who are ready to go all the way with our president until victory, whatever that [victory] looks like. Whatever it costs. Because now there is no road back. Remember that.”
Russian officials have already begun to portray the arrest warrant in a similar way to how sanctions are used in Russia, as an argument that the country is under siege from western powers. They are once again seeking a “rally-round-the-flag” effect, this time around the Russian president, by encouraging a siege mentality.
“Washington and Brussels have exhausted all possible sanctions and unfriendly actions,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of Russia’s state duma and a prominent hawk. “They have not managed to break the citizens of the Russian Federation or destroy the economy of our country.”
“Washington and Brussels now understand: if there is Putin, there is Russia,” he continued. “So they are attacking him. Putin’s strength is in the support of the people and the consolidation of society around him.”
“Any attack on the Russian president we see as aggression against our country,” he said.
Little attention will be paid to the reason for the ruling: the forced deportation of Ukrainian children into Russia. Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian commissioner for children’s rights, who was declared a co-conspirator in the case, proudly called it “great that the international community has appreciated this work to help the children of our country”.
Since early in the war, Russian propagandists have sought to claim that the country’s survival depended on its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin has claimed without evidence that Ukraine was planning to launch an attack on Russia first and that its war was a preemptive attack.
Friday’s announcement will, for some, confirm the existential nature of the conflict. Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, called the decision a “step closer to judgment day”.
It’s a “reminder that no one is immune, not even heads of state. Russian regime will be held accountable,” she wrote.