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The Hague against Russia – How realistic is a nuclear war?


“Look carefully into the sky!”, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Telegram on Monday, March 20. With this public message, Medvedev threatens the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) with firing a nuclear missile at the courthouse – located in our city, The Hague. But where did this threat come from? The ICC published a press release on March 17 in which it issues an arrest warrant against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. This article will shed light on what this warrant is about, what international consequences it has, how Russia reacted, and whether we now should be afraid of a nuclear strike on The Netherlands.

The ICC operates according to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, which determines its jurisdictional rights, structures, and functions. National states can voluntarily decide to sign this treaty to support the court’s operations, and currently, 123 states are members. According to the Rome Statute, the ICC is entitled to negotiate cases of individuals who committed the “gravest crimes of concern to the international community: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression”. Especially interesting are war crimes “which are grave breaches of the Geneva conventions in the context of armed conflict”. Putin and Lvova-Belova are accused of war crimes in connection to the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Several investigations indicate that thousands of Ukrainian children have been forcefully transferred into Russian “re-education” camps or to be put up for adoption by Russian families.

What will happen now?

The ICC does not have law enforcement entities that are legally entitled to arrest suspects. Therefore, Putin and Lvova-Belova cannot be arrested and put on trial by the court itself. However, if they travel to a state that is a member of the Rome Statute, this state would be entitled to execute the arrest warrants through its police and extradite the defendants to The Hague. Russia itself did not sign the statute and is not bound to the ICC’s authority and legislation. Thus, Putin and Lvova-Belova can stay at large as long as they stay in Russia and do not risk traveling to a member state who had signed the statute. Therefore, the warrant currently only has a symbolic meaning of officially recognizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as war crimes and can have a deterrence effect as Russian officials are made aware that they are committing serious crimes. Moreover, Putin and Lvova-Belova are restricted in their freedom of travel as they risk being arrested in 123 states worldwide which reinforces Russia’s isolation from the global community.

How did Russia react?

As a first reaction, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Zakharova announces that the arrest warrants and the ICC have no legal meaning for Russia and do not influence Russia’s operations in Ukraine. Interestingly, Russia did not deny the deportation of Ukrainian children but used it as a part of its propaganda against Western states. The accused Lvova-Belova presented the warrant as a reaction and “great appreciation” by the international community regarding her efforts to protect children from the war, take them out of the war zones, and offer them opportunities to grow up safely with Russian families. Furthermore, former president Dmitry Medvedev published several reactions ranging from bizarre to alarming. First, he twittered: “The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin. No need to explain WHERE this paper should be used” complemented by a toilet paper emoji. Then, he labeled the ICC a “pathetic” and miserable” institution distorting international law. After that, he announced a range of nuclear threats including the one that introduces this article. By writing that “everyone walks under God and missiles” he explained that he can well imagine firing a hypersonic nuclear-capable Onyx missile from a Russian ship in the Northsea at the ICC’s court building in The Hague. Additionally, he threatened all Western countries that try to execute the arrest warrant with nuclear strikes.

Do we have to be afraid of a nuclear strike on The Hague?

To answer this question we need to take a closer look at nuclear warfare. Medvedev has attracted international attention with his attitude towards nuclear weapons several times before. Next to threatening The Hague and other Western countries with nuclear strikes, he suggested positioning Russian warships armed with nuclear missiles in strategic positions directed at the US and claimed that NATO would not react if Russia dropped a nuclear bomb on Ukraine. In general, nuclear weapons are used for deterrence and not for actual strikes, but recently Russia increasingly stresses its nuclear capabilities. If states use nuclear weapons they are usually strategically applied in four different ways. First, an initial strike targets the enemy’s nuclear or other heavy weapons to limit the capabilities to answer with a counterstrike. Second, via so-called counterforce targeting a state tries to destroy the enemy’s military arsenal, facilities, or infrastructure to also limit possibilities for retaliation. Third, nuclear weapons can be used to kill the enemy’s political leadership and cause political instability, which is called a decapitation strike. Fourth, with counter-value targeting a state aims to eliminate large parts of an enemy’s population or to strike economically important centers to inhibit recovery.

As you can see, none of these strategies provides a serious reason for Russia to target The Hague with nuclear weapons. There are no heavy or nuclear weapons or other important European military facilities located here, and it does not make sense to target the Dutch population or weaken specifically the Netherlands economically. Moreover, even if Russia potentially aims to decapitate the ICC’s leadership, there are other national courts, states, and international organizations, such as NATO, who could counter such an attack or still execute the arrest warrants. Finally, all states owning nuclear weapons are aware that a first nuclear strike can cause a nuclear retaliation strike, and a full nuclear war would be deadly for the whole of mankind. In conclusion, it would be very unlikely that Russia will target us in The Hague with nuclear weapons, and it remains to be seen which other threats Russia will announce in the future.

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