The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and another Russian official involving allegations of war crimes around the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
The arrest warrant is thought to mark one of the first charges against Putin for war crimes in Ukraine, part of a global effort to hold the Russian president and the Russian Federation accountable for atrocities beginning with the full-scale February 2022 invasion.
An arrest warrant was also issued for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, commissioner for children’s rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, who the ICC alleges “bears individual criminal responsibility” for the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territory to Russia.
“It is forbidden by international law for occupying powers to transfer civilians from the territory they live in to other territories. Children enjoy special protection under the Geneva Convention,” ICC President Judge Piotr Hofmański said in a video statement on Friday.
The arrest warrant marks a stunning global rebuke against Putin, even as the chance of bringing the Russian leader into custody of an international court of law is remote at best.
“The ICC is doing its part of work. As a court of law, the judges issued arrest warrants that execution depends on international cooperation,” Hofmański said.
The warrants and the authority of the ICC were rejected by Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova.
“Russia does not cooperate with this body, and possible ‘recipes’ for arrest coming from the International Court of Justice will be legally null and void for us,” according to a statement posted in Russian on the Foreign Ministry’s Telegram channel.
The ICC maintains it can bring charges against Russian officials because Ukraine has accepted its jurisdiction to investigate crimes that are committed on Ukrainian territory by Russia.
The ICC president underscored the extraordinary nature of the publication of the arrest warrants, though the contents are being kept secret to protect victims and witnesses and to safeguard the investigation.
The international body said that because the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia is ongoing, it felt compelled to publicize the warrants so that it “may contribute to the prevention of the further commission of crimes.”
“This is an important moment in the process of justice before the ICC,” Hofmański continued. “The judges have reviewed the information and evidence submitted by the prosecutor and determined that there are credible allegations against these persons for the alleged crimes.”
The publication of the arrest warrants — a rare move by the ICC — comes ahead of a high-stakes and high-profile meeting between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping set to take place between March 20 and 22.
International law experts say there is an important element of public shaming in publishing an arrest warrant that signals to other countries to carefully consider their dealings with a person who is under investigation on the world stage.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin called the ICC’s arrest warrant “a historic step” but the beginning “of a long road to justice.”
“From now on, the Russian president has the official status of a suspect in committing an international crime – illegal deportation and displacement of Ukrainian children,” Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin wrote on Facebook.
“This means that outside Russia, Putin should be arrested and brought to court. And world leaders will think three times before shaking his hand or sitting with him at the negotiating table. The world has received a signal that the Russian regime is criminal and its leadership and allies will be brought to justice.”
The ICC statement said that the court’s Pre Trial Chamber II, which has the authority to issue an arrest warrant, considered evidence brought by the ICC Prosecutor General on Feb. 22.
This followed the publication on Feb 14. of a report by the Conflict Observatory, which is supported by the U.S. State Department, detailing a vast network of Russian-run sites used in the transfer and deportation of Ukrainian citizens to Russian territory, including thousands of Ukrainian children.
Kostin said his office estimates that more than 16,000 children have been deported from the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories of from Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Kherson regions, but warned the real number is much higher.
Ukraine has managed to bring 308 children back from Russia, Kostin said.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor General said his office cooperated with the ICC Prosecutor General on their investigation to provide 40 volumes, more than 1,000 pages, of materials and supporting evidence of deportations.
“No doubt, this is a planned policy of the Russian Federation aimed at destroying Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation. By kidnapping our children, Russia is literally stealing our future.”
While Ukrainian officials, with the help of the U.S. and international partners, are investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukrainian courts, Kyiv is also focused on holding Russia accountable on the international stage, in particular for the crime of genocide and other crimes against humanity, including the violent targeting of civilians, using rape as a tool of war, imprisonment, torture and executions.
In addition to the work with the ICC, the Ukrainian government is rallying international partners to establish a Special Tribunal to hold Russia accountable for the crime of aggression, but the pathway and support for such a court not yet established.
Kostin, in his Facebook post, called to bring all Ukrainian children back from Russia and pursue justice.
“We need to bring them all back. And condemn in Ukrainian and international courts everyone involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children. As well as other war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the most serious international crime – aggression.”
Updated at 2:02 p.m.