Recently, President Joe Biden off-handedly called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” like a kid in a schoolyard taunting another by calling him names.
Now, the U.S. State Department officially declared that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, but stopped short at declaring Putin a “war criminal.” Instead, they said it would be up to the courts to decide if Putin, as the Commander in Chief, should be held accountable.
What is a “war crime?” The International Criminal Court in The Hague defines war crimes as “grave breaches” of the post-World War II Geneva Conventions, which laid out international humanitarian laws to be followed in times of war. These breaches are designed to protect those not taking part in the fighting, such as civilians, doctors, wounded troops and prisoners of war.
Ukraine and Western allies are accusing Russia of deliberately targeting civilians, when they aimed bombs, rockets or missiles at a maternity hospital, a psychiatric hospital, a museum, schools, factories, shopping centers, ambulances, a theater clearly labeled as sheltering children and nuclear power plants. Russia denies any such breaches, and may decide not to cooperate with the ICC. However, if guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, this won’t stop the Court from pursuing prosecution and issuing arrest warrants.
COULD PUTIN BE TRIED AS A WAR CRIMINAL?
Who could be charged? Anyone from the lowest foot soldier to a country’s leader can be held accountable for war crimes. Putin could be charged if there’s evidence he ordered an illegal attack, or knew crimes were being committed and did nothing to prevent them.
If the International Criminal Court finds sufficient evidence to try Putin, it could issue an arrest warrant. But the court has no police powers and countries who don’t recognize it – which include Russia, China and the U.S. – would have no obligation to hand him over. The court doesn’t try defendants in absentia, but if there were to be a new Russian leader, he could be pressured into delivering Putin. There are also domestic Ukrainian courts and others who could want a bite of Putin.
COULD HE PLEAD NOT GUILTY BY REASON OF INSANITY?
The defense of not guilty by reason of insanity is accepted in most states, but it is still controversial in the International Criminal Court. Although it is extremely unlikely that Putin would want to claim he’s “insane,” even if it meant being found not guilty, let’s examine whether this defense could theoretically have merit for him.
In the U.S., in order to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, the defendant has to prove that, at the time of the alleged criminal act, he had “a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act… or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.”
This is called the M’Naughten Rule, and is followed by half of the U.S. The other half follows a slightly different rule, put forth by the American Law Institute, where the defendant has to prove that, at the time of the alleged criminal act, “as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.”
Applying these rules to Putin is somewhat more challenging because, as Commander in Chief of his troops, committing alleged criminal acts over a period of time, as compared to a single act of murder, it would be harder for Putin to prove that during all these weeks of war and horrendous atrocities, he never knew what he was doing was wrong. On the other hand, his “defect of reason” could possibly be skewing his ability to appreciate the “wrongfulness” of what he was ordering his troops to do and to stop it.
I have put Putin on my couch (metaphorically), and determined that his traumatic childhood, in war-torn Leningrad, made him feel endlessly vulnerable and left indelible scars.
World War II affected his parents physically and psychologically, such that they were unable to provide young Vladimir with a sense of security. Kids bullied him because he was small and odd. They lived in poverty and he entertained himself by chasing and killing rats with sticks, only to have a particularly large rat, who he’d cornered, shock and terrify him by suddenly leaping at him just when Vlad was going to go in for the kill. He managed to save himself, but this traumatic memory stayed with him.
Surrounded by threats of death and destruction throughout his childhood, he promised himself never to be vulnerable again and developed a Paranoid Personality Disorder.
A Paranoid Personality Disorder would not, in itself, meet the criteria for not guilty by reason of insanity. But Putin’s mental condition has been exacerbated in recent times, such that he sees ‘rats’ on all sides of him and has been driven to stomp them out – starting with Ukraine. What has caused this exacerbation?
A number of factors: his prolonged isolation to protect himself from Covid19, confronting his own mortality at age 69 (only 2 years younger than the lifespan of the average Russian man), and possibly physical factors – such as having used steroids to enhance his muscular build.
Putin’s paranoia has him convinced that Ukraine, NATO, the United States and other countries are determined to invade Russia. So, he feels bullied, just like he was as a child. At that time, he learned martial arts to protect himself. Now, he has nuclear weapons.
If his Paranoid Personality morphs into a Paranoid Psychosis, which may indeed be happening as he gets pushed further into a corner, he could develop command hallucinations. If these voices tell him, “Psst, Vlad, push the button,” he would meet the criteria for not guilty by reason of insanity.
But… there might not be anyone left to try him.
Carole Lieberman, M.D., M.P.H., is a Board Certified Beverly Hills Forensic Psychiatrist/Expert Witness who has worked on hundreds of criminal (and civil) cases. She’s a bestselling/award-winning author and her upcoming book, Murder By TV: A Descent Into Madness, is the story of the Jenny Jones Talk Show Murder for which she was the defense psychiatrist. Dr. Lieberman is an Emmy-honored News-Talk commentator. She’s appeared on Oprah, Today, Good Morning America, CNN, FOX, HLN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Court TV, Law and Crime and many more. She was trained in Forensic Psychiatry at NYU-Bellevue. (www.expertwitnessforensicpsychiatrist.com)
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