Putin 'a war criminal' and should be tried at Hague, Lindsey Graham says

WASHINGTON — Invoking the memory of his late friend Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called on the international community to unite in its condemnation of Vladimir Putin, who sent Russian forces to invade Ukraine last week. The invasion has resulted in civilian casualties, a new refugee crisis and fears of a conflict that could engulf large parts of Europe.

Graham used a press conference on Wednesday morning to call on the U.S. government to “pursue war crimes allegations against Vladimir Putin and his military commanders” through institutions like the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice. His proposed resolution also affirms that the United States “stands with the people who have been affected by the brutality of the Putin regime.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Victoria Spartz stand at a podium as they speak to reporters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Victoria Spartz speak to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Condemnation of Putin seems to be the only conviction uniting Washington today. In keeping with that trend, Graham described the Russian president as “a war criminal” who had committed war crimes against Syria while also enriching himself in the process of exploiting Russia’s oil and gas reserves. Graham also warned Russian military commanders that “you can find yourself in the Hague” — where the ICC is based — if they committed atrocities against Ukrainian civilians.

The United States is not a member of the ICC, while the ICJ is a United Nations body with judges from Russia and China, who would be difficult to enlist in a meaningful prosecution of Putin. Those dynamics make the resolution Graham is introducing largely symbolic — a show of solidarity with Ukraine more than, in all probability, a realistic means of bringing Putin and his top commanders to justice.

Still, Graham took the opportunity to vehemently denounce Putin — just hours after President Biden did the same in his State of the Union address, delivered on Tuesday evening. “The world has let him get away with too much for too long,” Graham said of Putin, who came to power in 2000 and has ruthlessly consolidated power since. “He’s stolen the Russians blind. He’s murdered Russian citizens to maintain his iron grip on the country.”

Graham was joined at Wednesday’s press conference by Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., the first and only Ukrainian-born member of Congress. Spartz read from harrowing accounts of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian onslaught, which appears to be intensifying after early setbacks. “They’re just killing us like we are animals,” she said as Graham stood grimly beside her.

Ukrainian American Rep. Victoria Spartz at a news conference.
Ukrainian American Rep. Victoria Spartz at a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The scene was somewhat reminiscent of a 2017 congressional hearing to which Graham and McCain invited the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza to testify about Putin. Kara-Murza revealed that he believed himself to have twice been a victim of poisoning, a favored Kremlin means of quelling dissent. “It’s very clear that Vladimir Putin has decided that he will eliminate his opponents and anyone who stands up for democracy and freedom,” McCain said at the time.

McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018, was close friends with Graham and a strong supporter of the postwar international order that saw the West checking the Kremlin at every turn. McCain was an unstinting critic of former President Donald Trump, who he accused of undermining the prestige of the United States; Graham, on the other hand, emerged as one of Trump’s closest allies, including during impeachment proceedings stemming from the president’s attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Wednesday saw a glimpse of Graham familiar from the pre-Trump years.

“Putin’s not a genius; he’s a war criminal,” Graham said, a reference to Trump’s praise of the Ukraine invasion. Graham called that praise a “mistake,” though he added that he thought he understood what Trump had been trying to say.

Graham acknowledged that the relationship between the U.S. and the ICC had been “rocky.” Trump placed sanctions on the court, though Biden lifted that order. “If you don’t have a venue like this, there is no place to hold Putin accountable,” Graham said, in recognition that the Kremlin is largely insulated from domestic consequences — and, given widespread reliance on its energy reserves (including by the United States), international ones as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits while attending a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Wednesday. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images) (SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to a question from Yahoo News, Graham said that despite his tough image, Putin was in fact playing a weak hand. “I’m not Dr. Phil here. I’ve never met the guy. I know he has a very big table,” Graham joked, in reference to the photos of Putin’s unusual seating arrangement during meetings with advisers.

Then things turned serious again. “I think it is bluster,” Graham said. “I think the Russian people are losing their life savings. I think their economy is in a death spiral.” Intensified international pressure, he predicted, could end Putin’s grip on Russia.

Where are Russian forces attacking Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

Where are Russian forces attacking Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.