Will Putin's ICC Arrest Warrant Reignite The Nuclear Threat? One Plain Reason Not To Worry
The war crimes arrest warrant issued by the Hague puts the pressure on the Russian president. Would that prompt him to follow through on his past threats to use nuclear weapons? An extensive investigation by independent Russian publication Project.Media into Putin's life finds that he has other priorities closer to home.
Over his 23 years in power, Vladimir Putin has gone from a young liberal politician to an authoritarian dictator.
Before becoming president, Putin was a mediocre KGB officer who'd earned him the nickname "Moth" and worked with St. Petersburg thugs on low-level missions. There was no outward sign that he would evolve into the image of a global ideological leader for Russians, and enemy No. 1 of the civilized world.
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His failure to conquer Ukraine and open conflict with the West have prompted him to repeatedly make reference to Russia's nuclear arsenal. Fears and threats of the nuclear option may be revived after Friday's decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant for the Russian President for alleged war crimes, including claims of the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
Moscow has denied the accusations, and denounced the warrants as "outrageous." While some debate whether Putin can actually be arrested, there is also the question of what the Kremlin would do in response. How obsessed is Putin in punishing the West? How far could a cornered Putin go?
While the questions have political aspects, they are also fundamentally personal. And it's worth turning to a recent investigation by the independent Russian publication Proekt.Media into Putin's life. It is not the portrait of the nation's permanent ruler and ideologue of the Russian people, but as a man.
Vladimir Putin and his official mistress, Alina Kabaeva, a Russian gymnast and Olympic medalist, own a castle in Sochi, a complex of villas in Valdai, a castle in Gelendzhik, a 2,600 square meter apartment with a swimming pool, movie theater, patio and helipad, and many smaller properties.
But many of these residences are empty. Kabaeva has never visited the Sochi property; instead, she hides her infant children from the world in her Valdai castle, where she lives guarded by an air defense system.
Life of luxury
The interiors of Putin's favorite residences are striking, even to baroque aficionados: gold mosaics, precious stones and all the accouterments of royal life.
A dedicated railroad line connects the Valdai and Sochi residences, since Putin seems afraid of flying lately and travels around Russia exclusively by armored train. Journalists also learned that the president is so scared of terrorist attacks that his presidential limousine follows Putin on a military plane to places the train cannot reach.
To maintain a luxurious life for himself and his family, Putin has a "wallet" — the Cyprus-registered company Ermira Consultants Ltd. — and people to manage his finances.
Nuclear blackmail has allowed Putin to prevent world leaders from taking stronger action.
Russian journalists also learned that Putin profited not only from the sale of Russian natural resources but also directly from Russians buying "Putinka" vodka, which he owns through Ermira. It's the most popular and affordable vodka in Russia, and was even made cheaper in 2015.
According to journalists' calculations, the production, royalties and sale of Putinka-branded drinks could have earned Putin between $400 million and $500 million from 2004 to 2019.
Putin in Moscow on Jan. 5
Limits of blackmail
"We will go to heaven as martyrs, and they will just die," was Putin's explanation in 2018 that Russia would not start a nuclear war, but would respond in kind to a nuclear threat.
At the same time, since 2014, the Russian president has regularly threatened the world with nuclear weapons. On Feb. 27, 2022, he instructed the General Staff to put the Russian nuclear forces on alert.
For years, nuclear blackmail had allowed Putin to prevent world leaders from taking stronger action than expressions of "deep concern" in response to Russian aggression. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has pushed the idea of "red lines," which may not be crossed without the most severe retaliation.
The Russian president's threats are leadership by intimidation.
But the full-scale war in Ukraine has revealed this to be a lie: there are no red lines, and threats and blackmail will not work.
"We have no red lines, only brown scribbles," Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin confidante and head of the Wagner Group paramilitary, said in Bakhmut, after a year of full-scale war.
The resistance of the Ukrainian military and resilience of Ukrainian civilians have helped the world put Putin's nuclear threats in perspective.
The Russian president's threats have always been a tool in his leadership by intimidation. A man so obsessed with luxury, security, and health will easily throw tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the meat grinder of war, but he will never push the button that could threaten to end his own wealth and lifestyle.
That Putin is a fake nuclear terrorist is good news. The bad news: If the leader is driven by greed, not ideology, he will not put a bullet in his head in a bunker; he will hold on to power until the last day, whatever the cost.