Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged war crimes and allegations that Russia forcibly took Ukrainian children.
The ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.
The court said in a press release on Friday that the two are “allegedly responsible for the war crime of the unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of the unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
The move by the criminal court in The Hague marked an important, rare step, requesting the arrest of a sitting world leader – even though analysts acknowledged that the chances of arresting President Putin on the charges were slim.
Indeed, in Moscow, officials were quick to note that Russia had never applied as a party to the ICC, as they flatly rejected the charges.
“The question itself is outrageous and unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Russia, like a number of other states, does not recognize the jurisdiction of this court, and therefore all its decisions are unimportant for the Russian Federation from a legal point of view.”
Ukrainian Attorney General Andriy Kostin called the court’s decision “historic.”
Like the United States, Ukraine is not a party to the ICC. But Kostin noted that the Ukrainian government has cooperated with the court in criminal investigations on its territory. He said his office turned over more than 1,000 pages of documents to the ICC related to the alleged forced deportation of children to Russia.
A report released last month by researchers at Yale University and the US State Department accused the Russian government of operating a systematic network of shelters for thousands of Ukrainian children.
Russian officials have not denied the arrival of Ukrainian children in the country, but have characterized the centers for children as part of a major humanitarian program for abandoned, war-traumatized orphans.
The court order is a “stunning move”
ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said the judges decided to make these orders public in order to prevent further crimes.
“It is prohibited under international law for occupying powers to transfer civilians from the areas where they live to other areas,” he said. “Children enjoy special protection under the Geneva Convention.”
Experts seemed surprised by the news.
“I hoped [this would happen]but I didn’t know it would happen this fast,” said Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab.
“This is a stunning move by the court, which has moved straight to the top of the Russian state,” said David Bosco, author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics.
Bosco, however, warned: “The arrest warrant will have no immediate implications because no trial can proceed without taking Putin into custody and there is no chance that will happen in the foreseeable future.”
Despite the difficulty of bringing Putin to justice, human rights lawyers hailed the news as an important step.
“This is a big day for the many victims of crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “With these arrest warrants, the ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken the first step towards ending the impunity that has encouraged perpetrators in Russia’s war against Ukraine for far too long.”
Russia is discussing the adoption of Ukrainian children
While Russia has vigorously rejected allegations of war crimes committed by its forces in Ukraine, it has made little secret of its transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia — presenting it as a noble humanitarian effort.
President Putin hosted Lvova-Belova, the children’s rights commissioner, for a meeting at the Kremlin in February, where the two openly discussed Russian adoption programs for Ukrainian children in occupied territories in Ukraine — including Lvova-Belova’s new teenage son.
A transcript of the conversation is available on the Kremlin’s website.
“You also adopted a child from Mariupol, is that correct?” Putin asked.
“Yes, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” replied Lvova-Belova, using the patronymic of the Russian leader. “Thanks to you.”
It was a remarkable admission: Ukraine stopped adoptions after Russia invaded the country, and children’s rights advocacy groups called on countries not to adopt Ukrainian children during war.
Lvova-Belova noted that if biological relatives are found, her commission would work to return the children to their Ukrainian families, “wherever they are, in Ukraine or another country.”
To which Putin said, “That’s absolutely right.”
For the US, it’s complicated
Bosco, the international studies expert who wrote about the ICC, says the court’s new case raises some uncomfortable questions for the United States.
Even though US leaders are calling Putin a “war criminal” and accusing Russia of “crimes against humanity” in Ukraine, the US has not signed the statute of the court and has a complicated relationship with it.
“This will be another uncomfortable moment for the United States because of the US position that the ICC should not be able to prosecute third-country nationals,” Bosco said.
In 2020, the Trump administration issued sanctions against the then-chief prosecutor of the ICC, who was investigating allegations that US troops had committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
In the Biden administration, meanwhile, there are reports of an internal dispute: While the Justice and State Department prefers to share intelligence with the International Court of Justice on Russian atrocities, the Pentagon has blocked this due to concerns about creating an precedent enabling prosecution of Americans. according to The New York Times.
Alex Leff and Michele Kelemen reported from Washington, D.C. Charles Maynes reported from Moscow.