The World

Ways to Hold Putin Accountable Without Starting World War III

A member of South Africa's Ukrainian Association holds a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler during a protest in support of Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Pretoria, on February 25, 2022.
Protesting Putin’s war in South Africa. Phill Magakoe/Getty Images

In the face of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States, NATO, and other States and organizations are mobilizing a range of responses to hold President Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime accountable and to increase the costs of Moscow’s actions. Some measures have been in the works for months, since Putin began ramping up Russia’s military presence along Ukraine’s land and sea borders. A range of other options, which we detail below, are still available to policymakers.

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The primary tools thus far have been diplomatic condemnation, sanctions, and weapons shipments to Ukraine. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on Thursday widened sanctions levied against Russia by imposing economic blockades on Russia’s largest financial institutions, covering 80 percent of all assets, and on the ability of state-owned and private entities to raise capital. The Biden administration also sanctioned more Russian elites and their family members. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom unveiled what Prime Minister Boris Johnson described as the “largest set of sanctions ever imposed anywhere by the U.K. government.” Those include asset freezes on more than 100 new entities and individuals (including all major manufacturers supporting Russia’s military) and banning Aeroflot flights from the country, which could have a particular impact on Russian elites who own real estate in London. The EU imposed financial, energy, transport, and individual sanctions.

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Some private sector actions were particularly creative, literally: Carnegie Hall canceled a five-concert U.S. tour that was to begin today by famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who has often expressed support for his friend, Putin, and accepted a prestigious prize from the leader.

Many more possibilities exist for accountability, though the effectiveness of these options may depend significantly on multilateral or multi-stakeholder action, which means aligning parties with divergent interests and values. Allies have not yet taken the step of cutting Russia off from the SWIFT bank messaging system, which would hamper Russian banks’ and individuals’ ability to operate on global financial markets but might also cause some unintended consequences. In the United States, a sanctions package that began as a bipartisan measure against Russia months ago was earlier (before the Russian invasion) bogged down in partisan bickering, although President Joe Biden has been able to impose a range of economic measures thus far without new legislation from Congress. That said, there are currently bipartisan proposals on the table, including freezing and seizing the assets of the so-called Navalny 35, a list of Russian oligarchs, officials, and others whom jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accuses of corruption, human rights abuses, and political persecution. Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy (CAFCAK), Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and John Curtis (R-UT) called for such a move again Thursday. There have also been calls to use the Global Magnitsky Act much more vigorously against Russian officials implicated in human rights violations and corruption.

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Ambassador Daniel Fried, in a panel discussion co-sponsored by Just Security, offered suggestions for ramping up sanctions and other economic penalties. Sanctions on Russia’s central bank could be risky because of potential financial blowback, Fried said, but this step would be a major strike against Russia’s economy. “You don’t get to make money working with our system when you are attacking our system,” he said.

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But what accountability measures outside of the economic toolkit should policymakers be considering? The following represents a sample of the types of measures that individual countries or coalitions in the international community could impose immediately and as the conflict unfolds. Many of these actions also could be taken against Belarus to send a strong signal for any state that would directly support such a war of aggression.

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Impose Visa Bans

• Visa bans could be used to deny Putin, his close associates, Russian legislators who voted to authorize Putin’s use of military forces in Ukraine, and other relevant Russian officials the ability to travel. Edward Lucas, former senior editor at The Economist and author of books on Russia and geopolitics, suggests “visa bans on all government ministers, on all members of the Duma and Federation Council, all governors and office-holders in Russia’s regions, on all officials in the ‘power ministries’ and security agencies, and on the 35 individuals named in Alexei Navalny’s list… Announce a sweeping program of asset freezes on these individuals, and on companies linked to the Kremlin or owned (even in part) by Kremlin cronies.”

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• Restrictions on travel will be much more effective if implemented as broadly as possible across jurisdictions where the targeted individuals seek to travel or reside.

Withhold Recognition of Unlawful Situation, and Deny Aid or Assistance to Russia

• As Diane Desierto explains, under international law, “No State shall recognize as lawful a situation created by a serious breach [of an obligation arising under a peremptory norm of general international law ], nor render aid or assistance in maintaining that situation” (emphasis added). The International Court of Justice has emphasized the applicability of this customary international law obligation in the context of aggression and unlawful acquisition of territory.

• A concerted diplomatic campaign could bring other States along in respecting this obligation and ceasing aid or assistance to Russia in maintaining its invasion and in what may become an occupation or purported annexation of Ukraine. China, in particular, should be pressed to commit to meeting its obligations and steer clear of supporting Russia’s efforts to evade sanctions and other accountability mechanisms.

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Release Information on Corruption and Money Laundering

• The U.S. Department of the Treasury, in coordination with interagency partners, could release information on corruption and money laundering on the part of Putin and his inner circle. The intelligence community should vet all press releases carefully to ensure protection of sources and methods.

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• This action would be most effective if undertaken in coordination with foreign counterparts, particularly allies that have a large Russian business community, such as the United Kingdom.

Impose Consequences in International Organizations (IOs)

• For some IOs in which Russia is a member, dispute-resolution mechanisms or adjudicative mechanisms could provide an avenue of accountability. Hence, member States should think twice about whether to exclude Russia from those fora. In other IOs, members should consider suspending or expelling Russia.

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• The Council of Europe (CoE), for example, moved today to immediately suspend Russia’s membership from the 47-member human rights organization. Political scientist Jasmin Mujanović was among those suggesting such a move. He says it would “remove significant Russian influence from a key pan-European democratic forum. That’s especially important in vulnerable non-EU states where CoE opinions and decisions carry more weight.”

• Three options that are essentially unavailable: challenging Russia’s legal status to hold the USSR’s seat at the United Nations or suspending or expelling Russia from the U.N. The first is likely off the table due, in part, to two decades of silence from member States on the matter (the legal principle of laches applies), and suspension or expulsion are subject to Russia’s (and China’s) veto. Diplomatic efforts would be better spent elsewhere. That said, if there were ever sufficient political support to force Russia to exercise its veto to stay on, that alone may be a powerful diplomatic success.

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• The U.N. Security Council is due to vote today on a resolution condemning the invasion and demanding that Russia immediately halt its military operation and withdraw all troops from Ukraine. The resolution will be blocked by Russia’s veto, but a similar measure is to follow in the U.N. General Assembly, where there is no veto.

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Isolate Russia Diplomatically 

• States can also take individual steps to isolate Russia diplomatically. Governments can declare ambassadors, diplomats, and consular officials persona non grata and send them home, while maintaining a hotline for communication.

• Lucas suggests, “Withdraw all Western (NATO, EU, OECD) ambassadors from Moscow and send their Russian counterparts home. Close all Russian consulates, trade missions. We need barebones embassies, nothing more.”

Shut Down and Counter Disinformation Operations

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• The United States and its allies took unusual steps leading up to the invasion to declassify and share intelligence to debunk Russian propaganda and false flag operations. These efforts could continue, in coordination with foreign partners, to expose and counter Russian disinformation. The clear stakes of declassifying this intelligence before the invasion to try to avert a war remain: the aim would be to stop Putin from expanding his threats to the global order even further. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Feb. 24 that Putin has ambitions beyond Ukraine.

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• In particular, the intelligence community could release intelligence on Russian hackers involved in cyber operations against Ukraine as part of a targeted sanctions package, while protecting intelligence sources and methods.

• The Department of Homeland Security, as part of its larger role in countering the disinformation threat, could step up efforts to warn the American public of Russian efforts to shape U.S. public opinion and media narratives.

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• Some social media companies have already undertaken steps to increase their content moderation and security resources in response to the crisis. All social media companies could step up efforts to take down false flag operations and Russian accounts spreading disinformation, as well as to move Ukraine to the highest priority tier for internal content moderation and monitoring. However, these steps should be undertaken with consideration for preserving evidence of potential atrocity crimes. Justin Hendrix suggests that social media companies could also take further steps to isolate and deplatform propaganda outlets and Russian officials.

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• In contexts in which RT and other official Russian propaganda outlets are broadcast on regulated networks, regulators could kick them off the networks. Following the European Union’s lead, the United States could work with allies to expand sanctions more broadly against outlets taking direction from the Kremlin, such as RT and the Internet Research Agency.

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• The West could also take steps to ensure Ukraine’s continued connectivity to the internet by bolstering the country’s cyber defenses, boosting connectivity from non-Russian neighboring states, and providing financial aid to telecommunications companies to enable them to continue services during the conflict if billing is interrupted.

​​Cut Sports and Cultural Ties

• Amid discussions in 2017 on how to punish Russia for its attempts to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Just Security author John Sipher noted that autocratic leaders can sometimes be more sensitive to cultural and political sanctions than even economic sanctions. The Carnegie Hall cancellation against Putin’s conductor friend could send a message, as could visa bans against children of Russia’s elite who enjoy the privileges of education and culture in the West.

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• The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) yanked the Champions League soccer final from St. Petersburg, Russia, as a result of the country’s invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian soccer federation also called for the suspension of all Russian club and national teams from international competitions. Formula One racing canceled the Russian Grand Prix. The International Olympic Committee urged all sports federations to move their events out of Russia and Belarus.

• Among other potential penalties still pending, the world soccer governing body FIFA was still hedging.

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Prosecute International Crimes

• Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a textbook example of the crime of aggression, and reports of attacks that may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity have started to emerge.

• Neither Ukraine nor Russia are party to the Rome Statute, but Ukraine has submitted a declaration giving the ICC jurisdiction for crimes committed anytime on its territory after February 2014. Ukraine could now request that the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) move from preliminary examination to a full investigation that includes the recent crisis. Prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan QC issued a statement Thursday night saying that he is “closely following recent developments in and around Ukraine with increasing concern” and reminding the parties of his Office’s ongoing jurisdiction.

• There is no avenue for prosecution of the crime of aggression. Both the victim and aggressor State must be parties to the Rome Statute for the Court to investigate or bring these charges. As Russia is not a member of the ICC, the prospects for prosecuting the crime of aggression are nonexistent. Khan’s statement also makes that clear.

• The United States can support the ICC and national courts that might exercise universal jurisdiction (see e.g., Germany) by sharing relevant intelligence about potential perpetrators and actions. Professor Peter Singer wrote, “One thing west needs to be doing more of [is] identifying publicly the Russian unit commanders, to create a public record linking them to war crimes.” The United States should also revisit its position that the ICC should not exercise jurisdiction over non-States Parties.

• Under the Geneva Conventions grave breaches regime, all State parties have an obligation to search for and prosecute individuals within their jurisdiction who commit war crimes in an international armed conflict. States could make public statements reaffirming those obligations, and announce that their domestic authorities are prepared to address war crimes by exercising such jurisdiction, specifically including in the event of Russian attempts to assassinate dissidents, journalists, or political leaders.

More From Just Security:

Expert Backgrounder: NATO Response Options to Potential Russia Cyber Attacks

Putin Can’t Destroy the International Order by Himself

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