Mar 21, 2023

Vladimir Putin's arrest warrant.

The ICC is accusing Putin of grave war crimes.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

We're breaking down the international arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and I answer a question about how long a president's impact can last. Plus, we experiment with the Tangle format a little bit. 

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Typo alert.

Yesterday, we referred to the "USB" bank in a quick hits section that should have said UBS. This was an especially unfortunate typo (and almost got tallied as a correction) because "USB" is also an acronym for U.S. Bancorp, an American bank holding company. Anyway, the bank that bought Credit Suisse is UBS, which is the result of the 1998 merger between Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corporation. Thank you to the many readers who pointed it out!

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden issued his first veto, rejecting a Republican-sponsored bill that would have undone a federal rule allowing the consideration of environmental, social and corporate governance in retirement investment considerations. (Our coverage)
  2. In France, a pension reform bill raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 became law and President Emmanuel Macron held onto power through a no confidence vote despite widespread protests (The vote).
  3. Four members of the Oath Keepers militia group were found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding for their role in January 6, and two others were convicted of lesser charges. (The charges)
  4. The United Nations released a new report warning that the Earth is on track to exceed a 1.5 degrees celsius increase in warming from preindustrial levels by the early 2030s. 196 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 specifically to prevent that level of warming. (The warning)
  5. Amazon said it will cut 9,000 more jobs in addition to its previously announced 18,000 layoffs. (The layoffs)

Today's topic.

Putin's arrest warrant. On Saturday, the International Criminal Court accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes, and issued a warrant for his arrest. Putin became just the third head of state to be indicted by the ICC while still in power. Specifically, the ICC accuses Putin of deporting hundreds of Ukrainian children — and potentially many more — to Russia. On Monday, China's leader Xi Jinping visited Putin in Moscow for three days of talks.

What is the ICC? The International Criminal Court was established in 1998, when 120 nations adopted a statute to create an international forum to prosecute heinous crimes committed on the world stage. It's now made up of 123 states. The seat of the ICC is in The Hague in the Netherlands. The court is not associated with the United Nations, and prosecutes individuals as an independent judiciary body.

What does this mean for Putin? Practically speaking, it will limit his travel. The ICC's 123 member states are obligated to detain him if he sets foot in their countries. Russia, China, the United States and India are not members of the ICC. Nor is Ukraine, though it granted the ICC prosecutorial authority over its territory in 2014.

Former President Bill Clinton joined the treaty in 2000 but former President George W. Bush quickly withdrew after taking office. Russia joined in 2000, but withdrew in 2016 after the court classified its annexation of Crimea as an armed conflict. Since India isn't a member state, Putin could theoretically attend the G20 summit in India later this year without fear of arrest. The Kremlin dismissed the allegations, saying the ICC decisions "have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view."

The prospect of Putin being arrested in a foreign country seems low. Sudan's former president Omar al-Bashir was also indicted by the ICC while serving as head of state, and he remained in office for another decade before being overthrown in a coup. He traveled to a number of African and Arab countries while under indictment and none of them opted to detain him.

There is precedent for world leaders facing criminal charges in international court, but experts believe Putin will simply avoid traveling to any countries where he may fear being arrested.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to the warrant from the right, left, and some international commentators. Then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right oppose the warrant, arguing it might make the situation worse for Ukraine and calling the ICC an "unaccountable" international court.

In The Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan argued that the warrant "will do more harm than good."

Yes, Russia has committed the crime Putin is accused of, but "as evinced by its disinterest in confronting China's Uyghur genocide, the ICC is ultimately a politically motivated entity more than an independent arbiter of justice. Moscow will now exploit that reality in furtherance of its own propaganda," Rogan wrote. Putin isn't going to the Hague anytime soon, and his security service isn't going to let him be detained. More importantly, though, the warrant "does not ultimately serve Ukraine's interests."

Instead, Rogan argues, the warrant reinforces the idea that "the war is an existential struggle between Russia's sovereign security and a Western liberal orthodoxy," which fits perfectly into Putin's narrative. Even for Russians skeptical of Putin, this arrest warrant will make him appear as a "courageous Russian patriot struggling against an encroaching Western behemoth," and that will move more Russians to support his invasion of Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board echoed Rogan's sentiment, saying it is "the wrong way to beat Putin."

"The Kyiv government says some 16,000 children have been taken to Russia from Ukrainian territory, and only 307 have been returned," the board noted. And the warrants are "no doubt a satisfying moral statement," but the U.S. hasn't ratified the Rome statute, nor has Russia or China. The U.S. has never "endorsed the idea that a treaty applies to a country that isn't party to it."

The U.S. has long feared "anti-American ICC prosecutors and judges might target U.S. soldiers or government officials," and that fear has been wisely held. Issuing these warrants is "feckless" and "may be worse than doing nothing," the board said. They maintain the best way to beat Putin is "to give Ukraine the arms it needs" and allow Ukraine to "prosecute those responsible, rather than an unaccountable international court."

What the left is saying.

  • The left supports the issuing of the warrant, with some arguing it is a stunning statement that will tarnish Putin and others saying it exposes U.S. hypocrisy on international law.

In CNN, Frida Ghitis called it a "stunning statement" that put Putin on a "short list alongside some of the most brutal leaders the world has seen."

Ghitis says the warrant "brands” Putin as an international pariah before the entire world. Only three sitting heads of state have ever faced ICC charges, and the "other two were the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir, both accused of horrifying crimes against their own people," Ghitis wrote. She says Putin inherited a "once-proud nation” with vast natural resources and a highly educated people, then "dismantled democracy" and launched an unprovoked invasion on Ukraine.

Now, he is an "accused war criminal," and perhaps this will give Russians who support him "reason to reconsider." While there is almost no chance Putin faces an ICC tribunal, Ghitis said, he will "forever bear the branding of an accused war criminal" unless he does. Given that Ukrainian officials are painstakingly documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity, "there's good reason" to expect more warrants just like this one. "Whether or not Putin is ever put in handcuffs, his place in history is now secure in the darkest pages of massacres and misrule."

In Al-Jazeera, Andrew Mitrovica said the warrant against Putin is good, but it's also hypocritical.

Putin is "little more than a thug," Mitrovica wrote, saying he was "glad that the ICC charged Putin with a war crime" and that he "earned it." But other leaders of other nations — "including the United States and Israel" — regard themselves as "exempt" from the ICC's authority and have also earned being charged. According to the ICC, "a string of American presidents and soldiers who launched a string of disfiguring wars on several still scarred continents and set up a covert, international abduction and torture racket have never, ever committed a war crime of any sort," Mitrovica said.

The same goes for a "cocksure British prime minister" who joined their "American cousins to invade Iraq and Afghanistan," killing or making refugees of millions of innocents. And what about the “Australian soldiers who murdered scores of Afghan civilians, including slicing children’s throats as part of a sick initiation ritual," or the slew of Israeli prime ministers and soldiers who have "targeted Palestinian kids, women and men and 'civilian infrastructure' in the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, Lebanon and beyond"?

From abroad...

Australian journalist Geoffrey Robertson said the warrant may signal "the beginning of the end."

The ICC contends that Putin "is a man who kills children'' and "kidnaps them from home and family." Its judges have examined the evidence and "found every reason to believe it." Similar indictments have been preludes to the "fall from power" of world leaders like Putin, and "international criminal law has advanced since the ICC was established."

Putin's travel options are now "constricted," and it will be "open to states to take action against those who represent this international criminal." Robertson argued that Australia should "throw out" the Russian spies known in the country, as well as the Russian diplomats. They are all "guilty of complicity in causing suffering to innocent children and will be candidates for war crimes prosecutions in the future."

In The Statesman, an Indian newspaper, Harsha Kakar said this is all "much ado about nothing."

The ICC has "no powers to enforce arrests on warrants" and the U.S. is refusing to hand over evidence it "claims to have collected" on Russian crimes, as it "fears it could open doors for the ICC to prosecute U.S. citizens in the future." This is the same U.S. leadership that "threatened" the ICC not to accuse any American soldier of war crimes in Afghanistan, even though "abundant evidence existed."

European nations "also welcomed the ICC's action against Putin," but "none raised a finger” when the U.S. threatened the ICC. “No wonder Russia adopted a similar approach," Kakar said. "No state, whether a member of the Rome statute or not, is likely to arrest and deport Putin," and the warrant is "unlikely" to have any impact on the Ukraine-Russia conflict aside from "a few minutes of publicity.” In reality, it could “prolong the conflict” and add to the suffering of Ukrainians “who continue to fight a proxy war for the west.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • Putin deserves the warrant, but the U.S. needs to decide whether it wants to live by the ICC or not.

I've written a lot in this newsletter about foreign propaganda but very rarely ever touch on the American variety; the ICC might be the body that best illuminates our own hypocrisy.

In March of 2021, when the ICC announced an investigation into acts by Israel, this same administration cried foul.

“The United States firmly opposes and is deeply disappointed by this decision,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “The ICC has no jurisdiction over this matter. Israel is not a party to the ICC and has not consented to the Court’s jurisdiction, and we have serious concerns about the ICC’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel.”

Under Trump, the U.S. called the ICC "broken" and "corrupted" and essentially executed a quid pro quo to keep it from investigating war crimes in Afghanistan (it imposed sanctions on the court's top prosecutor, then only dropped them once the ICC dropped its probe).

There is something rather absurd about the U.S., Russia, India, China and to a lesser extent Ukraine all using the ICC as a publicity tool when it suits them while none of them have actually signed onto the charter. 123 other nations have, and they appear somewhat committed to actually acting on it.

In my view, the ICC is a necessary body. The world is so interconnected and so full of international crimes that if hundreds of nations actually committed to the ICC charter and actually acted on its behalf (by actually executing warrants on accused war criminals) we'd all be a lot safer; and every leader, soldier, and international actor would be much more incentive to act ethically. I'd be fine with that arrangement.

But that’s not the arrangement we have.

Yes, Putin is a war criminal, and he is almost assuredly guilty as charged. There is some complexity to the experience Ukrainian children are having, as many of them are coming from orphanages or group homes. But forcibly relocating children to a new country is a crime nonetheless, and there is no doubt Russia is moving thousands of children to camps in Russian territory. Worse, there are guardians and relatives of these children demanding them back.

The issue of the forced transfer of children is just one of many war crimes — from the indiscriminate bombing of civilian centers to the torture and rape of civilians and soldiers. War is a horrible, tragic, incomprehensibly terrible thing, and this war has been no exception.

If the U.S. and our Western allies want to trumpet the ICC's work, I'm all for it. Putin should be marked as an international criminal and it’s a good thing that he is now limited in his travel. But we should start viewing our own actions on the world stage through the same lens, and should fully commit to the charter if we think it is that important. Otherwise, we're not just feeding Putin his anti-West propaganda on a silver platter, we're giving the rest of the world more reason to scoff at our own lack of self-awareness and hypocrisy.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: The trouble I find myself in is determining just how much the previous administration's decisions are affecting the country today compared to those of the current administration.  Do you have an idea of how far into the future a president's decisions impact it?  Basically, generally speaking, at what point can we reliably stop placing blame (or commendation) on the previous administration and start placing it on the current one?  (I get the feeling the answer is probably "it depends" but I wanted to ask anyway and get your thoughts.)

— Nick from Edmon, Oklahoma

Tangle: Yes, it depends. But I'd argue that an administration's decisions can have an indefinite and everlasting impact on the U.S.

George Washington decided to stay neutral during the French Revolution, and that decision set off a century of U.S. isolationism as its main foreign policy strategy. Some history buffs still reference it to make the case for staying out of war. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on whiskey to pay off U.S. debt, and introducing new taxes to get the deficit down is something presidents still do today. When the U.S. government overcame the whiskey rebellion, it learned it could overcome resistance to new taxation.

I think, broadly speaking, most decisions made by U.S. presidents, especially legislation they sign, won't have an impact until they leave office. Or, more precisely, the impact of the legislation will often only reveal itself with time. Take a look at the Affordable Care Act enrollment over time:

Statistic: Number of Affordable Care Act-related (ACA) enrollments in the Marketplace, Medicaid, and the Basic Health Program (BHP) in the U.S. from 2014 to 2021 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

Biden just signed an infrastructure bill that will launch projects while he's in office, but the impact of those projects is unlikely to be felt until they are totally funded, completed, and up and running. Sometimes it isn't even policy: Trump pushed legislation and executive orders that were designed to directly challenge China, but the lasting impact has been broad bipartisan support for countering China that didn't exist when he came into office. In a big way, Trump is responsible for ushering in that attitude change.

These impacts are tough to measure, but yes — it definitely depends, and I think some decisions can be felt for centuries.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

A federal investigation into gender discrimination at the FBI has revealed one of the most important legal offices in the U.S. government as a hotbed of "dysfunction, turf wars, mismanagement and paranoia," Politico reports. The lawsuit centers on the general counsel's office, where some of America's most powerful attorneys focus on terrorism, organized crime, and cyber threats. A federal jury sided with the FBI, but the lawsuit brought witness testimony that exposed "startling revelations" about the bureau's dysfunction and mismanagement woes. While the trial drew little notice, it offered a peek inside the secretive world of the FBI. Politico has the story.


  • 900. The number of staff members at the International Criminal Court.
  • ~100. The number of states those staff members represent.
  • $182.8 million. The 2023 budget of the ICC.
  • 31. The number of cases that have come before the court.
  • 38. The number of arrest warrants the ICC has issued.
  • 10. The number of convictions issued by the ICC.
  • 4. The number of acquittals issued by the ICC.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

Jean Bailey is 102 years old, and she isn't slowing down. Despite being one of the older residents at Elk Ridge Village, a senior living community in Nebraska, Bailey is the community's fitness instructor. She's been an instructor for 15 years, and during the pandemic roughly 10 to 12 residents started regularly attending her four-times-a-week class, which includes foot and arm stretches along with seated movements. “You don't have to start out doing this as very strict. But, and we have a couple that — one girl has had a stroke and and there's one who has arthritis — and I just tell them to, I don't care what they do but move,” Bailey said. When she's not exercising, Bailey likes to deal blackjack and keep up with the community. Good Morning America has the story.

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