International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for Putin over alleged war crimes in Ukraine

The International Criminal Court on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of his ministers – a largely symbolic move but one that could resonate strongly with those hoping top Kremlin leaders will be held accountable for a brutal war.

The arrest warrants, which were first issued in connection with the years-long Ukraine conflict, cite the alleged involvement of Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian commissioner for children’s rights, in the deportation and transfer of thousands of Ukrainian children from the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine in the wake of last February’s invasion.

According to Ukraine, at least 10,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia without their parents. Lvova-Belova, in particular, has praised the practice of bringing Ukrainian children to Russia, previously disclosing her own “adoption” of at least one Ukrainian child.

Putin, ICC judges said in a court-issued statement from The Hague, bears ultimate responsibility for the transfers, which constitute war crimes.

Russia does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and there is virtually no chance Moscow will extradite Putin or other suspects barring dramatic developments such as regime change.

But Ukrainian officials hailed the court’s move as a milestone on the road to accountability.

“The wheels of justice are turning,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

Human rights groups have welcomed the court’s actions, although acknowledging its practical limitations.

“The ICC has made Putin a wanted man,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement in New York. She called the warrant a first step toward ending “the impunity that has encouraged perpetrators in Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

The court’s lawsuit grants Putin membership in an exclusive but undesirable club. Arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court have only been issued against two other incumbent presidents: Sudanese Omar al Bashir and Libyan Muammar Kadafi.

Russia again scoffed at the idea that the ICC had any influence on Ukraine-related matters. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement via messaging app Telegram that the court’s actions were meaningless to Russia — “legally null and void.”

The court has no police powers, and its president, Piotr Hofmanski, said in a video statement that any steps to execute the warrants must be taken by the international community.

An immediate consequence for individuals named in ICC warrants is the difficulty of traveling to countries that accept the court’s jurisdiction. Although Putin and senior officials rarely travel to such countries, the arrest warrants represent a powerful rebuke — and another sign of Moscow’s isolation.

The issuance of the arrest warrant comes just days before China’s Supreme Leader Xi Jinping is due to visit Russia in a continuation of what has been an uncomfortable alliance over Ukraine. The two countries expressed solidarity just before the invasion, but China has expressed caution about some of Putin’s actions related to Ukraine, including nuclear saber-rattling. China did not immediately comment on the court’s move.

Like Russia, Ukraine is not a member of the court. However, it has given the ICC jurisdiction over its territory. ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan launched an investigation in the early days of the war and has visited Ukraine four times since then.

In its statement, the ICC cited “reasonable reasons” to believe that Putin and Lvova-Belova were responsible for the transfers. In the case of the Russian leader, however, it went further, saying there were also grounds for individual criminal liability for his “inability to exercise control over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts in question,” including child abductions.

While Russia vehemently denies committing war crimes in Ukraine, it has been open about bringing Ukrainian children to Russia but viewed such renditions as a humanitarian gesture.

Last spring, the Russian president personally issued a decree that paved the way for the formal adoption of Ukrainian children by Russians.

The arrest warrants came a day after a United Nations-backed report into alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including the killing and torturing of civilians in Russian-held territories.

This investigation also focused on the issue of forced deportations of Ukrainians, including children.

For Ukrainians, the arrest warrants are a great moral boost at a difficult time in the war. Ukraine is openly concerned about the need for timely western supplies of advanced weapons, which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government said the country desperately needs to launch a credible spring offensive in the coming weeks.

The two sides have been engaged in an ugly battle of attrition over the eastern city of Bakhmut, with huge casualty rates on both sides, though Western analysts believe Russia sees significantly larger casualties in troops and equipment.

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