“Remember I got criticized for calling Putin a war criminal,” Joe Biden reminded reporters on Monday, as the world rushed to condemn apparent atrocities in towns formerly under Russian military control.
“You saw what happened in Bucha,” Biden continued. “He is a war criminal.”
It certainly looks that way, although when it comes to pure wars of conquest, it’s not obvious why we need the distinction. If I convince a half-dozen of my neighbors to take up arms and join me in a military operation to commandeer the next community over, I’m a criminal from the word go. In unprovoked wars of aggression, the aggressor is, pretty much by definition, a war criminal.
Read more: Bucha Flashpoint
In any case, assuming the visuals out of Bucha do in fact show what the Ukrainians say they show, Putin may well find himself enshrined in the history books alongside a handful of extremely unsavory characters. War crimes are committed every day, all around the world, but Putin’s Bucha problem is a microcosm of the dynamics discussed here last week in “Royals Versus Ragtags.”
You can send your air force to Latakia, assist in the demolition of Aleppo and thereby help prop up a regime that used chemical weapons on civilians in the Mideast. That’s your “right” as a card-carrying member of the “gentleman’s” club that gets to treat the world like a giant Risk board. But you can’t start a war in Europe on NATO’s doorstop, and if you do, you definitely can’t execute dozens of bound civilians in the middle of the street.
Biden on Monday seemed to put the justice cart before the due process horse. “This warrants him–,” Biden stopped himself. He was on the way to suggesting Putin be put on trial, and he eventually said as much, but had the presence of mind of allude to the key role evidence typically plays in formalized proceedings. “But we have to have the information and we have to get all the details so we can have an actual war crimes trial,” Biden said. “This guy is brutal.”
Pressed by a characteristically frenzied media scrum on what the US might do to hold Putin, war criminal, accountable, Biden said simply, “I’m going to continue to add sanctions.”
This is becoming a macabre comedy. There’s no way to put Putin “on trial.” We could always invite him, but he’s not coming. And unlike Saddam Hussein, the US isn’t going to be dragging Putin, hands in the sky, out of any holes. The international community could convict him in absentia, but that’d be meaningless, especially if the West exhausts non-military reprisals ahead of time.
If Putin ultimately is put on trial, that would likely mean severing all relations — commercial, diplomatic and otherwise — between Moscow and the West until such a time as Russia has a new leader.
And, again, any definition of “war criminal” that relies on common sense rather than treaty language suggests Putin was guilty upon arrival in Ukraine, just as George W. Bush was in Iraq and just as Saddam Hussein’s chemicals were in Halabja.