Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attend the BRICS summit in South Africa in August, as announced by the South African government. The decision was made by mutual agreement between Putin and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be at the Johannesburg summit Aug. 22-24 instead of Putin, along with the leaders of Brazil, India, China and South Africa. Putin’s decision not to attend the summit was influenced by an arrest warrant issued for him by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
On March 17, 2023 judges at the ICC issued arrest warrants for Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova, commissioner for children’s rights in the office of the president of the Russian Federation. They are accused of committing war crimes related to the deportation of children from Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia and transferring them to the Russian Federation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that Putin is expected to visit Turkey in August; however, there has been no official announcement from the Kremlin to that effect. A meeting between Putin and Erdoğan has recently become even more critical in the context of Erdoğan signaling he is bringing Turkey back to the EU-NATO axis in foreign policy by supporting the accession of Sweden to NATO and repairing ties with the European Union. Erdoğan’s call for the EU to restart the accession process has been widely interpreted in both the Turkish and the international press as a considerable shift away from Russia towards alignment with the EU and NATO.
Under these circumstances, how will the ICC arrest warrant affect Putin’s possible visit to Turkey, and what are the implications of this meeting, if held, for Erdoğan, who wants to mend relations with the EU and NATO?
International Criminal Court
The ICC is a permanent international criminal court that investigates and prosecutes individuals for the most serious crimes with far-reaching global implications. The ICC is mandated to act as a deterrent against future international law violations and hold those responsible accountable for their actions. When evidence warrants, the ICC exercises its jurisdiction and conducts trials in accordance with the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. The Rome Statute sets out the jurisdiction, governance structure and procedures of the ICC for the prosecution of persons accused of crimes within its mandate.
The Rome Statute was adopted in 1998 and entered into force in 2002. By 2022, it had been ratified by 123 countries. Of these, 33 are African states, 19 from the Asia-Pacific region, 18 Eastern European countries, 28 Latin American and Caribbean states, and 25 Western European and other nations. Additionally, some countries, including the United States, Russia and China, have refused to ratify the Rome Statute and do not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction.
The ICC investigates and prosecutes individuals for four types of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Genocide involves the specific intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Crimes against humanity are serious violations committed as part of a large-scale attack against any civilian population, including murder, rape, imprisonment and torture. War crimes include grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, such as targeting civilians, hospitals or religious buildings. The crime of aggression is the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty of another state. This crime was added to the Rome Statute in 2010, and the Assembly of States Parties activated its jurisdiction in 2017.
The ICC has jurisdiction over cases involving genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes committed on or after July 1, 2002, by nationals of State Parties or within their territories. Furthermore, the ICC can investigate crimes referred to by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) under a resolution adopted per Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Since July 17, 2018, the court can also investigate acts of aggression referred to by the UNSC, regardless of the state’s involvement with the ICC. In cases where the UNSC does not determine an act of aggression, the prosecutor may initiate an investigation after six months, with authorization from the Pre-Trial Division. However, the court will not exercise jurisdiction over crimes of aggression involving non-ratifying State Parties.
As an independent institution, the ICC has a cooperation agreement with the United Nations, which can refer to situations beyond the court’s jurisdiction, thus empowering it to intervene. Notable examples include the Darfur (Sudan) and Libya situations.
Turkey and the ICC
In 2004 Turkey began negotiations to join the European Union, and during this period the government of then-prime minister Erdoğan expressed its willingness to ratify the Rome Statute, which established the ICC. To prepare for this potential accession, they revised Article 38 of the Turkish Constitution to clarify the distinction between extraditing citizens to foreign states versus surrendering suspects to the ICC, thus creating a path for Turkey to extradite criminals to the ICC. However, Ankara did not ratify the Rome Statute because of the potential for prosecution by the ICC given Turkey’s ongoing fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Cyprus issue and its alleged support for Islamic jihadist groups in Syria.
Despite not being a State Party to the Rome Statute, Turkey has been closely monitoring ICC activities. Turkish officials attend the annual meetings of the Assembly of States Parties, held in The Hague or New York, to stay up to date on the ICC’s activities.
President Erdoğan’s close personal relationship with Russian President Putin and the circumstances following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 have resulted in a firm economic and political alliance between Turkey and Russia. This partnership’s significance is evidenced by the rise in Turkish exports to Russia, from $2.6 billion in the first half of the previous year to $4.9 billion in this year’s corresponding period, post the Ukraine invasion. Concurrently, Turkey’s imports of Russian oil have sharply escalated. This economic boon chiefly arises from Turkey’s decision not to endorse Western sanctions against Russia.
While the political and economic relations between Turkey and Russia continue in line with the principles of interdependence with a pragmatic understanding, Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Deal on July 17, its blockade of Ukrainian ports again and its announcement that it would consider commercial ships sailing to Ukrainian ports to be military targets have caused the waters of the Black Sea to heat up again. Under these circumstances, a bilateral meeting between Erdoğan and Putin on the future of Russia-Turkey relations is a must. However, in an environment where Putin canceled his visit to South Africa due to the arrest warrant issued for him by the ICC, it is highly unlikely that he will visit Turkey. This visit would put Erdoğan in a difficult position with the EU and the US. Since any tension between Turkey and the EU and the US as a result of Putin’s visit to Turkey and Erdoğan’s subsequent steps to end this tension would be more damaging to Russia’s interests, Putin’s decision not to make such a visit may be considered a more logical course of action.
On the other hand, Erdoğan’s insistence that Putin will visit Turkey is nothing but a tactical message to Russia that Ankara still intends to maintain good relations with Moscow. Erdoğan knows very well that Putin will not come to Turkey under these conditions; therefore, the most plausible option is for the two leaders to meet in a third country, such as Azerbaijan, to discuss the future of Turkish-Russian relations.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.