Hey Putin, where are you gonna run to? – POLITICO

With his brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made himself and his henchmen vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes — and they know it.

If you listen to speeches, press conferences and media appearances by Russian pundits and political figures, you’ll hear an undercurrent of fear about ending up at a “tribunal” — the way former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milošević did.

As the Kremlin’s war effort buckles in the face of Ukraine’s fierce counterattacks, and the odds of victory fade and risk of regime change rises, Putin and his pals must surely be considering their exit strategies.

POLITICO spoke with Christine Van den Wyngaert, a former judge at the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICC) in The Hague, one of the courts investigating suspected atrocities in Ukraine. Van den Wyngaert, who is now a special adviser to the ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, said any potential war crimes trial would likely be drawn out and fraught — but the timeline could be helped by the ICC team that’s already collecting evidence on the ground.

Van den Wyngaert said involvement in the atrocities at Bucha alone, where mass graves and bound corpses were discovered in the wake of the Russian withdrawal, would likely be enough for a lifelong sentence — in the event the ICC gets its hands on the perpetrators.

Putin’s dream is, of course, that a sympathetic successor in Moscow just cuts him a deal and allows him to live in his palace, or a cozy dacha at least. After all, Putin gave immunity to Boris Yeltsin and his family immediately upon ascending to power himself.

The problems come if things get really grim for Putin in Russia, and he is blamed for tens of thousands of deaths in Ukraine. Where could he run to avoid facing justice?

Putin’s lawyers would likely advise him to go to a country that hasn’t signed the ICC statute, Van den Wyngaert said, particularly one where there might be “a lot of hesitation to extradite him.”

Here are some of the places Putin may go, rated on the level of friendship he might find with the leaders there, the likely quality of life, and the stability and extradition risk.

China

POLITICO photo illustration/Giulia Poloni/Source images by Getty and Istock

Pros: Putin has called Xi Jinping his “close” pal; the Chinese president reportedly described his Russian counterpart as his “best and bosom friend.” The two autocrats are so close, they even got together for an ice cream party to celebrate Xi’s 66th birthday. And with Xi recently securing his third term as Chinese leader — and essentially cementing his presidency for life — Putin is unlikely to have to deal with anyone other than his bosom bud.

Cons: Chinese-Russian relations have been described as more strategic than genuinely warm, and Beijing may not want to risk its trade with the West by harboring a past-his-prime accused war criminal.

Buddies:

Quality of life:

Extradition risk:

Syria

Pros: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sought Putin’s help to brutally suppress an uprising that began in 2015, so what’s a little exile between two long-time war-criminal BFFs? There are, in fact, rumors swirling online that Putin is preparing to move his entourage to Aleppo if he loses the war.

Cons: Putin would likely have to cross Turkish — and therefore NATO — airspace to get to Syria, leaving him somewhat exposed. More importantly, without Russian support and Wagner mercenaries to help prop up Assad, Syria may not be safe for Putin for long. Plus, it’s not exactly a “place of longing for a worn-out dictator,” in the words of German international law expert Gerd Hankel, who recently published a book that considered how to put Putin on trial. Hankel added that Syria resembles “larger prisons with a standard of living that is not impressive, even for the financial elite.”

Buddies:

Quality of life:

Extradition risk:


Iran

Pros: With the Iran nuclear deal that improved relations with the West all but dead and buried, Tehran has little to lose from cozying up to Putin. In fact, sanctions imposed on both Russia and Iran in recent years have strengthened the relationship, with Tehran becoming Russia’s favorite drone supplier. Bonus: Given Putin famously avoids alcohol, the public booze ban likely won’t faze him.

Cons: Ongoing mass protests against the authoritarians in power mean the regime’s days may be numbered — and there’d go Putin’s safe haven. Friends of the ayatollahs may not be popular in the months and years ahead. Putin wouldn’t want to meet the same fate as 19th-century Russian diplomat and poet Alexander Griboyedov, who was gunned down in Tehran, then decapitated by a kebab seller.

Buddies:

Quality of life:

Extradition risk:


North Korea

Pros: North Korea, another reported Russian arms supplier, has a young “supreme leader” at the helm who shows no sign of losing his grip on power anytime soon. While much of the nation lives in poverty, the Kims have a famously opulent lifestyle of seal-hunting and super-yachts that Putin would presumably be able to share. While Pyongyang isn’t exactly a popular hideout, there could be a lucrative film career up for grabs. Putin would just need to take a leaf out of James Joseph Dresnok’s book — the American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962, before starring in numerous propaganda films, including some reportedly directed by then-Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il himself. Putin could don a mustache and play Stalin in a war movie!

Cons: Pyongyang is more Hollyweird than Hollywood — the strict rules that govern everyday life mean the state polices everything from the clothes people wear to their hairstyles and use of slang. Plus, there’s always a risk that Kim Jong-un’s nuclear saber-rattling ends in tears. Out of the frying pan…

Buddies:

Quality of life:

Extradition risk:

United Arab Emirates

Pros: Putin would be treading a well-worn path should he seek refuge in the UAE. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled to the country after the Taliban takeover last year and reportedly got treated to months in a five-star hotel; former Spanish King Juan Carlos spent two years in the country after he was linked to an inquiry into alleged corruption. Plus, the UAE described Russian air strikes in Syria as attacks on a “common enemy.” You don’t make friends with salad — but you do with air strikes!

Cons: His enemies would see it as a pretty easy place to conduct a hit. The “UAE is a good option, but probably not powerful enough” to secure Putin’s safety, Hankel said. “The West is much more dependent on neighboring Saudi Arabia.”

Buddies:

Quality of life:

Extradition risk:


Saudi Arabia

Pros: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with Putin’s Russia has been improving over the past year, with ties deepening despite the invasion of Ukraine. The two petro-superpowers coordinate their energy policies and share common values ​​when it comes to how they rule their countries and treat journalists who don’t toe the company line.

Hankel argued Saudi Arabia would be Putin’s best option, should he need to leave Russia, calling it “a country without morals whatsoever in matters of human rights,” which is “experienced in granting asylum to mass murderers.” Case in point: The Saudis granted deposed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin asylum and paid him a generous subsidy, allowing him to live a life of luxury for two decades in Jeddah. “The lack of morality is inversely proportional to the wealth that Putin could enjoy in Saudi Arabia,” Hankel said.

Cons: When push comes to shove, the US can call in favors in Riyadh. Plus, in Syria, Putin sided with the Assad regime, which is also backed by Iran — Saudi Arabia’s archenemy. The Saudis, in response, increased their backing for the rebels. So there could be some tension there.

Buddies:

Quality of life:

Extradition risk:


Couch-surfing at Schröder’s Turkish mansion

POLITICO photo illustration/Giulia Poloni/Source images by Getty and Istock

Pros: Turkey isn’t an ICC member, so no pesky extradition risk on that front. And with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acting as a mediator in negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that Putin may strike a deal that includes amnesty in his country. There’s another upside to choosing Turkey: Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, until recently a member of the boards of Russian oil company Rosneft and gas giant Gazprom, is one of Putin’s closest friends — and used his humble salary to buy a holiday mansion in the Turkish coastal village of Gümüşlük. Surely Schröder has room on his couch for an old friend?

Cons: There’s a glaring problem with this plan: “You cannot get amnesty for war crimes, crimes against humanity,” said Van den Wyngaert, the former ICC judge. She pointed to a precedent set in the case of former Liberian warlord-president Charles Taylor, who was given amnesty in Nigeria. When a special tribunal was set up to investigate Taylor’s role in war crimes and crimes against humanity, his amnesty was revoked and he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Buddies: (+)

Quality of life: (+)

Extradition risk:

Merkel’s spare room in Berlin-Mitte

Pros: From the czarists who fled the Bolsheviks during the revolution, to members of the opposition fleeing Putin’s increasingly czarist Russia now, Berlin has long been a magnet for the Russian diaspora. While Berlin’s real estate market is notoriously tight, Putin might consider giving another former German chancellor a call: Angela Merkel could have space for an old chum in her humble apartment. Although Merkel can’t compete with Schröder in the friendship stakes, she has always been supportive of Putin’s energy policies and pipelines, and the two could converse in either German or Russian. Putin will just need to leave his dogs at home.

Cons: Germany (along with France, Poland and others), has opened its own investigation into alleged Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, with the aim of hauling those responsible before its own courts under the mechanism of universal jurisdiction — so Volodya likely would ‘t get to know his new roomie that well. Plus, Merkel is known for her frugal lifestyle, which could be quite a step down from her golden palace.

Buddies:

Quality of life:

Extradition risk:


Hungary

Pros: Within the EU, Hungary is probably Putin’s best bet for a bolthole. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been the bloc’s holdout when it comes to imposing sanctions on Russia in response to its war on Ukraine, refused to send military aid to Kyiv, and even inked a gas deal with the Kremlin post-invasion.

Cons: Entering the EU would be a bad idea for Putin — even if Hungary is one of the friendlier spots for the Russian president. Despite Budapest’s rule-of-law backsliding, the country is an ICC signatory and party to the European Arrest Warrant system.

Buddies:

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Musk’s Mars colony

POLITICO photo illustration/Giulia Poloni/Source images by Getty and Istock

Pros: “Chief Twit” Elon Musk seems to think he has a “peace plan” to end Russia’s war on Ukraine. Perhaps the SpaceX founder could put his money where his mouth is and give Putin refuge on his Mars colony — well outside the ICC jurisdiction.

Cons: Seats on SpaceX rockets aren’t cheap, and everyone knows Musk doesn’t give anything away for free. So Putin will need to dig deep into the couch cushions to pay for his ticket. It reportedly costs $55 million just to get to the International Space Station — no problem when you’re a de-facto dictator of one of the world’s top resource exporters; trickier when someone else has control of those purse strings.

Buddies:

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