How to protect the world from Putin: Put him before a war crimes tribunal

The Hill illustration, Madeline Monroe/iStock/AP

During the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur wanted to achieve the same unconditional surrender and permanent regime change in North Korea that America and its allies had just won over Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. He was even willing to take U.S. forces into China to threaten the communist government there. But President Truman decided enough was enough and that completing the minimum task of defending South Korea’s territorial integrity already had cost enough American blood and treasure. The two regimes that the United Nations had condemned as criminal aggressors under the Nuremberg standards remained in power, and we are where we are with North Korea and China today.

When the George H.W. Bush administration repelled Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to defend the sanctity of internationally recognized borders, many called for U.S. forces to continue pushing north to Baghdad to topple the murderous dictator once and for all. Bush, who had been hesitant about getting America involved in the first place, refused either to go beyond the United Nations authorization to use force or at least to try to persuade the U.N. Security Council to broaden its mandate against the nation it had proclaimed the aggressor under the international law of war. 

There followed a dozen more years of Hussein’s evil rule; his intermittent development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs; and the West’s focus on the war on terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The George W. Bush administration determined that the Iraqi people, the region, and the world no longer could tolerate the danger posed by that vicious, unpredictable regime and launched the second Iraq war

Eventually, burned by the Iraq experience and the protracted war in Afghanistan, neither Bush nor America’s allies — even those more directly threatened by regional proximity — had any appetite to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opportunistic aggression against Georgia in 2008.  

NATO effectively had painted a target on the backs of Georgia and Ukraine by explicitly promising them membership in 1997 — infuriating Putin, but then yielding to his demands for an indefinite delay in fulfilling that promise. Simultaneously, the West withheld the weapons that the NATO aspirants needed to defend themselves as Putin built his military power to attack them and his cash reserves to offset the West’s economic sanctions. 

When President Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and their national security team arrived on the scene in 2009, they were ideologically predisposed against the use of American force for any cause other than a direct threat to the homeland. After Obama promised “flexibility” toward Russia’s interests in 2012, Putin was ready to press his advantage in 2014 by invading eastern Ukraine and seizing and annexing Crimea.  

Although the Donald Trump administration increased economic sanctions on Russia, they were insufficient to reverse Putin’s gains from his earlier aggression or to deter him from continued moves against Ukraine. Trump delivered lethal weapons to Ukraine that Obama had delayed, but again, it was too little too late to deter Putin’s expansionist aims. The Biden administration continued the same dilatory practices on Russia sanctions and Ukraine arms transfers, even after Putin’s invasion was clearly imminent.

The worst has now happened to Ukraine, and four U.S. administrations — and the West, generally — bear their share of responsibility for the human catastrophe that has befallen that democratic country at the hands of Putin and his accomplices. Additionally, Trump’s praise for Putin’s actions as “genius” and “wonderful” are appalling.  

The Nuremberg Tribunal recognized aggressive war, or “war against peace,” as a crime under international law.  It declared certain practices in the conduct of war — such as the deliberate bombing of schools and hospitals and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians — as “war crimes.” And it established the category of “crimes against humanity” — that is, inhuman actions committed against civilians. For his actions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, an international tribunal would have no difficulty finding Putin guilty of all categories of international crimes, just as the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia did against Slobodan Milošević, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadžić.

The mere calling of such an international tribunal would convey a powerful moral and legal message of support to the people of Russia — who are demonstrating in surprising numbers their opposition to Putin’s vicious, entirely unprovoked war — that their honor should not be smeared by the actions of Putin and his cohorts. The Kremlin is blocking broadcasts from Radio Free Europe (REF) and Radio Liberty (RL), which are valiantly trying to inform the Russian public of the grotesque human costs of Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people and on Russian soldiers. Congress and the Biden administration should dramatically increase RFE/RL funding to help the truth get into Russia and help the Russian people decide if they want to keep the man responsible for the wanton killing of Ukrainian women and children and the unnecessary deaths of young Russian soldiers as their leader. It also could strengthen the hand of the oligarchs who have begun to chafe under the pain of the U.S.-led international sanctions caused by Putin’s criminal actions.

If Putin is not held to account and brought to justice, he will be free — as Adolph Hitler was — to continue his marauding of the European order and Western civilization. That would mean that “never again” indeed has happened again.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden NATO Nuremberg Trials Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin War crimes

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