Academic Minute Podcast

Victor Peskin, Brandeis University – The Politics of Prosecuting Putin

What would make the U.S. government hesitant to prosecute Vladimir Putin?

Victor Peskin, associate professor in the school of politics and global studies at Arizona State University, looks into this question.

Victor Peskin’s teaching and scholarship lie at the intersection of international law, international relations, and comparative politics. Peskin is the author of International Justice in Rwanda and the Balkans: Virtual Trials and the Struggle for State Cooperation (Cambridge University Press). The book was selected as a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title. He is also the co-author of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to The War on Terror (University of California Press).

The Politics of Prosecuting Putin

Combating the crime of aggression—or the unlawful invasion of a sovereign state—has been a cornerstone of the post-World War II international liberal order. Indeed, the fundamental aim of the United Nations Charter is to prevent wars triggered by powerful states invading their weaker neighbors. To reinforce this point, American and other Allied prosecutors made the crime of aggression the central charge against Nazi and Imperial Japanese leaders at the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals.

So, it is striking that Washington has hesitated to support a growing international movement— backed by the European Union and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—to prosecute Russian President Vladimir Putin for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The invasion, a U.S. official acknowledged, is the “original sin that unleashed” the ongoing Russian wartime atrocities.

Ukrainian courts have prosecuted some low-level captured Russian soldiers for war crimes. And the International Criminal Court is investigating higher-level Russian suspects for mass atrocities committed in the nearly year-long war. But no court exists with the authority to prosecute Russian leaders for the invasion itself.

Yet, the U.S. government—internally divided on the question of an aggression tribunal—remains noncommittal. Although the tribunal would only target Russian leaders, the worry in Washington is that this could create a precedent, prompting scrutiny of the U.S. war in Iraq and future American overseas military action.

Even if an aggression tribunal is established, Putin may never be apprehended and brought to trial.

Even so, an indictment could come quickly, given the ample evidence implicating the Kremlin.

In itself, an indictment, experts believe, could actually advance U.S. (and global interests) in three key ways:

First, by further ostracizing the Russian leader.

Second, by deterring countries, like China, that harbor designs on their own neighbors.

And, third, by reinvigorating international commitment to the elusive ideal of a world without war.


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