By Mike Corder and Raf Casert
The International Criminal Court said Friday that it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.
Although world leaders have been indicted before, it was the first time the global court has issued a warrant against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
The court said in a statement that Putin “is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of (children) and that of unlawful transfer of (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
It also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation.
The move was immediately dismissed by Moscow — and welcomed by Ukraine as a major breakthrough. Its practical implications, however, could well be limited as the chances of either facing trial at the ICC are extremely unlikely.
But the moral condemnation will likely stain Putin for the rest of his life — and in the more immediate future whenever he seeks to attend an international summit in a nation that could be bound to arrest him.
"So Putin might go to China, Syria, Iran, his ... few allies, but he just won’t travel to the rest of the world and won’t travel to ICC member states who he believes would actually ... arrest him,” said Adil Ahmad Haque, an expert in international law and armed conflict at Rutgers University.
Others agreed. “Vladimir Putin will forever be marked as a pariah globally. He has lost all his political credibility around the world. Any world leader who stands by him will be shamed as well,” David Crane, a former international prosecutor, told The Associated Press.
The court’s president, Piotr Hofmanski, said in a video statement that while the ICC’s judges have issued the warrants, it will be up to the international community to enforce them. The court has no police force of its own to do so.
"The judges issued arrest warrants. The execution depends on international cooperation,” he said.
The court can impose a maximum sentence of life imprisonment “when justified by the extreme gravity of the crime and the individual circumstances of the convicted person,” according to its founding treaty known as the Rome Statute.
Still, the chances of Putin facing trial remain extremely unlikely, as Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction — a position it vehemently reaffirmed on Friday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Russia doesn’t recognize the ICC and considers its decisions “legally void.” He added that Russia considers the court’s move “outrageous and unacceptable.”
Peskov refused to comment when asked if Putin would avoid making trips to countries where he could be arrested on the ICC’s warrant.
Ukraine’s human rights chief, Dmytro Lubinets, has said that based on data from the country's National Information Bureau, 16,226 children were deported. Ukraine has managed to bring back 308 children.
Lvova-Belova, who was also implicated in the warrant, reacted with dripping sarcasm. "It is great that the international community has appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we do not leave them in war zones, that we take them out, we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people,” she said.
Ukrainian officials were jubilant at the move.
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it a “historic decision, from which historic responsibility will begin."
“The world changed," said presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the “wheels of justice are turning," and added that "international criminals will be held accountable for stealing children and other international crimes.”
Olga Lopatkina, a Ukrainian mother who struggled for months to reclaim her foster children who were deported to an institution run by Russian loyalists, welcomed the news of the arrest warrant. “Good news!” she said in an exchange of messages with the AP. “Everyone must be punished for their crimes.”
While Ukraine is also not a member of the global court, it has granted it jurisdiction over its territory and ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has visited four times since opening an investigation a year ago.
Besides Russia and Ukraine, the United States and China are not members of the 123-member ICC.
The ICC said its pre-trial chamber found "reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the child abductions “for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others" and for failing to “exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts.”
After his most recent visit earlier this month, ICC prosecutor Khan said he went to a care home for children 2 kilometers (just over a mile) from front lines in southern Ukraine.
“The drawings pinned on the wall ... spoke to a context of love and support that was once there," he said in a statement. "But this home was empty, a result of alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their unlawful transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories.”
“As I noted to the United Nations Security Council last September, these alleged acts are being investigated by my office as a priority. Children cannot be treated as the spoils of war,” Khan said.
And while Russia rejected the allegations and warrants of the court as null and void, others said the ICC action will have an important impact.
“The ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken its first step to end the impunity that has emboldened perpetrators in Russia’s war against Ukraine for far too long," said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. "The warrants send a clear message that giving orders to commit, or tolerating, serious crimes against civilians may lead to a prison cell in The Hague.”
Crane, who indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor 20 years ago for crimes in Sierra Leone, said dictators and tyrants around the world "are now on notice that those who commit international crimes will be held accountable to include heads of state.”
Taylor was eventually detained and put on trial at a special court in the Netherlands. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years' imprisonment.
“This is an important day for justice and for the citizens of Ukraine,” Crane told the AP.
On Thursday, a U.N.-backed inquiry cited Russian attacks against civilians in Ukraine, including systematic torture and killing in occupied regions, among potential issues that amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.
The sweeping investigation also found crimes committed against Ukrainians on Russian territory, including deported Ukrainian children who were prevented from reuniting with their families, a “filtration” system aimed at singling out Ukrainians for detention, and torture and inhumane detention conditions.
But on Friday, the ICC put the face of Putin on the child abduction allegations.
Casert reported from Brussels.