By William J. Furney
What to do when you head the world’s largest country, by size, but have been ostracised by most of the free world? Where do you turn to seek solace against the relentless cascade of criticism and deaths you’re ultimately responsible for, after invading a sovereign, neighbouring nation? To other despotic pariahs, and try to form a sorry alliance you hope will give you some semblance of global clout.
And so it was this week, as heads of state gathered in London for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, that Russian President Vladimir Putin — not invited, due to his ongoing war in Ukraine — travelled to Uzbekistan to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping. President Xi was, however, on the state funeral guest list, sparking dismay from British politicians, who said it was “extraordinary” given widespread allegations of Chinese genocide against the Uyghur minority.
Xi wouldn’t dare show up in England, on his first visit outside China since the covid pandemic, which, strangely, the authorities are still battling, with rolling lockdowns amid the country’s zero-covid strategy. The Chinese leader’s thoughts were not on the long-serving British monarch but the rogue Russian ruler, who in recent days has been suffering hefty war losses as Ukrainian troops repel the invaders and take back their land.
So what was all the Uzbek talk about? The derided pair were in the former Soviet republic to thrash out what they were billing as a new “international order” they hoped would send glacial shivers down the spines of Western leaders, and met under the guise of a body called the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation that drew leaders from around Central Asia, including foes India and Pakistan as well as those from further afield, such as Turkey and Iraq.
Putin and Xi may have energy, financial and manufacturing muscle, which the former is flexing as he cuts off gas supplies to a Western Europe heading into winter, but if they’re not careful, the only international order they’ll bring about is one compelling them to attend a war crimes tribunal in the hague.
Amid calls from the European Union for the Russian president to stand trial for war crimes comes horrific news that 440 or more graves have been discovered at a mass burial site near Izium in northwestern Ukraine. It was, said Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy in a visit to the graves on Wednesday, evidence of Russian terrorism as investigators revealed many of the dead had been tortured.
Speaking to German media a day later, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said war crimes were being committed by Russia in Ukraine and that Putin must be held to account.
“That Putin must lose this war and must face up to his actions, that is important to me,” she told BILD TV. “Therefore we support the collection of evidence” in order to bring a case against Putin at the International Criminal Court, she said.
“That is the basis of our international legal system, that we punish these crimes. And ultimately, Putin is responsible.”
Increasingly out of options, and his inner circle of lieutenants and oligarchs mysteriously dying, Putin is also reaching out to other dodgy leaders, such as the de facto ruler of oil giant Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
His ailing father, King Salman, is 86 and has largely taken a back seat in recent years as his favourite son, better known as MBS, powered ahead with a series of reforms, including allowing Saudi women the freedom to drive; and the CIA says he was behind the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, a charge the crown prince denies.
Not that the grisly murder is likely to be of any concern to Putin. Russia, after all, has been accused of a string of bizarre assassinations in the last several years, including the attempted murder in 2020 of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who is currently, and equally bizarrely, serving time in a Russian penal colony for breaching the terms of his probation.
And just like many crazed leaders at the end of the road, Putin appears increasingly delusional. Speaking at the Uzbek confab, he said he was pressing ahead with his “special military operation” in Ukraine (a new Russian law makes it a criminal offence for anyone, including journalists, to describe what’s happening as a war) and was confident of success. That’s despite Ukrainian forces taking back more than 8,000 square kilometres in the last week. Putin warned of “more serious” action if the Ukrainian military continues to force Russia out, saying with some bluster: “I remind you that the Russian army isn’t fighting in its entirety… Only the professional army is fighting.”
Meanwhile, an outcast on the world stage, Putin may be looking around for the next member of his bad boys’ club, to further thumb his nose at the haughty West. Who might it be — Kim Jong-un?