Here’s what you should know about the ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes


The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin and a Russian official on war crimes charges. Here’s a look at the warrant and what it could mean for Russia’s leader.

A smashed portrait of Russian President Vladimir V Putin seen last year outside a police jail in Cherson City, Ukraine, where Russian occupation forces were holding Ukrainian prisoners. Lynsey Addario for the New York Times

The International Criminal Court on Friday issued an arrest warrant for war crimes against President Vladimir Putin and a second Russian official. Here’s a closer look at the court, the warrant, and what it could mean for Russia’s leaders.

Why did the International Criminal Court issue the arrest warrants?

The court says Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for kidnapping and deporting Ukrainian children since the start of the full-scale invasion of Russia in February last year. The court also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, who was the public face of a Kremlin-sponsored program in which Ukrainian children and youth were brought to Russia.

The court said in a statement “that there are reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and illegal transfer of population from the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”

A New York Times An investigation released in October identified several Ukrainian children who had been taken away as part of Russia’s systematic resettlement effort. The children described an agonizing process of coercion, deception and violence. Russia has defended the transfers on humanitarian grounds.

Lawyers familiar with the ICC case recently said they expected prosecutors to proceed with the warrants given the strong trail of public evidence. In a statement on Friday, the court said it was “aware that the conduct addressed in the current situation is alleged to be ongoing and that public awareness of the warrants may help deter further commission of crimes.”

What is the International Criminal Court?

The International Criminal Court was created two decades ago as a permanent body to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity under a 1998 treaty known as the Rome Statute. Previously, the United Nations Security Council set up ad hoc tribunals to deal with atrocities in places like the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The court is based in The Hague, a Dutch city that has long been a center for international law and justice.

Many democracies joined the International Criminal Court, including close American allies like Britain. But the United States has long kept its distance, fearing that the court might one day seek to prosecute American officials, and neither is Russia a member.

The Biden administration has been embroiled in an internal dispute over whether to show the court evidence gathered by US intelligence agencies on Russian war crimes. According to people familiar with the internal deliberations, most of the government supports sharing the evidence, but the Pentagon has refused because it doesn’t want to set a precedent that could pave the way for eventual prosecutions of Americans.

What does the arrest warrant mean for Putin?

Human rights groups hailed the arrest warrant as an important step towards ending impunity for Russian war crimes in Ukraine, but the likelihood of a trial while Putin remains in power appears slim given the court’s inability to try the accused in absentia and Russia has said that it will not capitulate its own officials.

The Russian Foreign Ministry quickly dismissed the arrest warrants, noting that it was not a party to the court. Still, the arrest warrant against Putin deepens his isolation in the West and could limit his movements abroad. If he travels to a state party to the International Criminal Court, that state must arrest him in accordance with its obligations under international law.

“That makes Putin an outcast,” said Stephen Rapp, a former ambassador-at-large who heads the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the US State Department. “If he travels, he risks arrest. It never goes away.” And, he said, Russia cannot get sanctions lifted without complying with arrest warrants.

“Either Putin will be tried in The Hague,” Rapp said, or “he’ll become increasingly isolated and die with this hanging over his head.”

So maybe Putin will never be tried for war crimes?

The court has no power to arrest or try incumbent heads of state, and must instead rely on other leaders and governments worldwide to act as its sheriffs. A suspect who manages to evade arrest may never be heard to confirm the charges.

However, a legal action late last year complicated matters. In November, the court’s prosecutor sought confirmation of the war crimes and crimes against humanity charges against Joseph Kony, the Ugandan activist and founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army, although he is not in custody and has been on the run for years. Kony, who turned kidnapped children into soldiers, is accused of murder, cruel treatment, enslavement, rape and attacks on civilians.

Khan’s request amounts to a trial balloon to see if the court will agree that the charges can be upheld even if someone is not in custody. The decision is pending.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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