Russia's view on the ICC and war crimes

I just published this video about the arrest warrants on Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov. It has not received as much attention as it deserves that Russia's former defense minister and the current chief of the general staff are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But I think there is also a fundamental discussion to be had about the role of war crimes in Russia's larger battle against the Western dominated world order.

Videos about humanitarian law and war crimes always bring out strong emotions, it seems that people start reading all kinds of things into the video that I didn't mention at all. A quick look at the comments section on YouTube reveals that this is also the case this time. So for the record, this is a video about how Russia sees the ICC, and how they use war crimes deliberately as a tool to undermine the notion of a rules-based world order. It is not a video about Israel, Netanyahu, the American view on the ICC, whether the ICC has a racist bias, if the ICC is a good idea, or basically anything else that I don't mention in the video.

As always, available here as a video for watching or as a transcript below.



This week, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov. In the media, it has been overshadowed by other things, so I don't think it's received quite so much attention as it deserves. But this is the former defense minister and the current chief of the general staff in Russia that now have an international arrest warrant against them. And a couple of years ago, this would have been absolutely groundbreaking news. But by now, it's like almost considered a normal event that a high-ranking Russian official is wanted by an international court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But I think it's worth spending some time reflecting on what this means, because in reality, it's much bigger than just, well, we have these people, they've done something bad, now they're wanted by a court. This dispute between the Russian government and the ICC, it's an expression of a bigger battle that is taking place about the world order that we want for the future. And the war crimes, they actually serve a purpose for Russia in the battle that they're waging against the West. So let's talk about it.

The arrest warrants against Shoigu and Gerasimov bring the number of warrants on people in the top of the Russian system up to four. There are already arrest warrants on Vladimir Putin and against Maria Lvova-Belova, who is the commissioner on children's rights in Russia. But there are some important differences between these two sets of arrest warrants. The arrest warrants against Shoigu and Gerasimov are about war crimes and crimes against humanity that have happened because Russia has targeted civilians in the conflict. So they've either inflicted harm on the civilians directly, or they have damaged civilian objects, and then civilians have suffered as a consequence of that. So this is a violation of a whole range of rules in international law. And if you follow the war, then it's not super surprising that they would be charged with this. Russia has been targeting civilians and they have been targeting civilian objects. And they have even been bragging about this on Russian state TV.

But it's a whole different set of rules than the rules that are in the arrest warrants against Putin and Lvova-Belova because they're about genocide. And that's a very different kind of crime. And I made a video about that if you're interested in the legal definition of genocide. But essentially, the crime that Putin and Lvova-Belova are accused of committing, it's related to the abduction of Ukrainian children, which is undermining the existence of the Ukrainian people. I think it looks like the ICC, they wanted to come out with a pretty quick arrest warrant against Putin sort of early in the war. So they put together an easy case against him and the case for genocide. It was easy because it's to a large extent just based on things that he has said on TV. So it's not something that required a whole lot of investigation and sort of securing the evidence and those sorts of things. But the arrest warrants and the cases against Shoigu and Gerasimov, they're a different kind of category where it's more connected to how military force is actually being used in the sort of conduct of the war. And so it shows that the ICC has progressed in their work and that they're now ready to make cases based on more substantial investigation.

And obviously, the Russians, they don't seem to care, they don't seem concerned at all about this. And they've stated clearly they don't recognize the jurisdiction of the court. And Russia has also not ratified the Rome statute, which has established the ICC. But I think it's important to acknowledge that the Russian problem with the ICC is deeper than just that they haven't ratified the statute. Their problem with the court is that essentially the ICC is the ultimate expression of what we sometimes like to call the rules-based international world order. And it is this idea that we have a layer above the states where there is an international system and we have international law and then we have international institutions that enforce those laws. So the sovereignty of the states in the world, it's limited by those international institutions. And this is exactly the type of world order that Russia says that they're fighting against. Like they don't recognize that states should be limited by supranational structures and they think that this type of world order is bad for Russia because it limits the way that the Russia can behave as a great power and how they can use force to get what they want.

And the world order that Russia wants is one where the great powers make the rules and where then small states have to submit to the great powers. So the rules in the international system are for the small countries, but the great powers are above the rules. And in the Russian discourse, this is typically something that they express when they talk about the concept of sovereignty. When the Russians talk about sovereignty, then they mean something different than when we use that word in the West. The Russians understand sovereignty and a sovereign state as meaning that you can act in the international system without restrictions. And it is only the great powers then that can do that. So it's only the great powers that have real sovereignty. The small states, they all the time have to orient themselves against the great powers. So they're not truly sovereign states.

And that is the Russian understanding of what this word means and how the international system is supposed to work. So that is why Russia has such a big problem with the international criminal court. It's perhaps the paramount example of the type of supranational institution that Russia needs to break down in order to get the world order that they want. Like they consider this court to be a part of a plot against Russia to sort of keep Russia down and prevent them from being the great power that they really are. So essentially it's something that the Americans, the Europeans have invented this as a tool to dominate over the rest of the world.

And then when Russia tries to position themselves as the leader of what they like to call the world majority, then that's exactly what they're talking about. They want to unite the countries in the world that don't think that these international structures are good for them.

And that means that when we have these conflicts between the Russian government and the international criminal court, then it's a mistake to reduce that to being a question of arrest warrants on individual persons in the Russian system, because it's actually an ideological battle. It's a battle where Russia needs this conflict with the international criminal court because essentially they need to give the court the middle finger because that is a way to undermine the authority of this court and to enforce a system where the great powers are above the law.

And what I'm saying with that is also that it's a mistake to see the war crimes that are happening in Ukraine as just an expression of bad discipline or cruelty or incompetence. It's also those things. It is also a result of the Russian military having a culture of violence where these things are allowed to happen. But I think first and foremost, it's necessary to understand that the war crimes serve a strategic purpose. They are a way to undermine the international system because it establishes a norm where the great powers are supposed to get away with these sorts of things. That war crimes are one of the tools that the great powers can use to discipline small states when they get out of line.

So from a Russian perspective, it's fine to have these rules, but they're for the small states. But they want to make the explicit point that they are above those rules, that these rules, they don't apply to them because they are a great power. So they have sovereignty and therefore they can commit war crimes and they can get away with it.

So I think it's important to be aware that what's happening between the ICC and the Russian government, it's much more than just cases against individuals or a question of holding these individuals accountable for decisions that they've made. It is a fundamental struggle between conflicting ideas about the world order and how the international system is supposed to work. And Russia is deliberately committing war crimes because they want the court to make these cases and then it undermines the court when it fails. So for example, if there is a peace deal in Ukraine and these people are never brought to justice, then that undermines the court.

And therefore, it also highlights how many things that are at play in the war in Ukraine and how many layers there are in this conflict. And that's also why it's problematic when questions about the war and the possibilities for peace are reduced to just being discussions about territory and sort of where the border should be. Because for Russia, it's about so much more than that. It's also about their idea of sovereignty and it's about establishing a world order where the great powers are above the law. And that's why these war crimes, there's something that they do on purpose because they want to challenge the ICC and they want to break down the international system that gives this court authority.

Okay, I will end it here. If you found the video helpful or informative, then please give it a like and also remember to subscribe to the channel and you can click the bell icon that you will get notifications when I upload new videos. And if you want to support the channel, you can subscribe to my newsletter at Thank you very much for watching and I will see you again next time.