The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia.
The court said there “are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the alleged crimes, for having committed them directly alongside others, and for “his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts.”
The ICC charges, which relate to an alleged practice that CNN and others have reported on, are the first to be formally lodged against officials in Moscow since it began its unprovoked attack on Ukraine last year.
The Kremlin has labeled the ICC’s actions as “outrageous and unacceptable.”
“We consider the very posing of the question outrageous and unacceptable. Russia, like a number of states, does not recognize the jurisdiction of this court and, accordingly, any decisions of this kind are null and void for the Russian Federation from the point of view of law,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tweeted on Friday.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the ICC for its “historic” decision, saying in his nightly address on Friday that Ukraine’s investigations also suggest the Kremlin had direct involvement in the forced deportation of children into Russia.
“In the criminal proceedings being investigated by our law enforcement officers, more than 16,000 forced deportations of Ukrainian children by the occupier have already been recorded. But the real, full number of deportees may be much higher,” he said. “Such a criminal operation would have been impossible without the order of the highest leader of the terrorist state.”
The message from Friday’s warrants “must be that basic principles of humanity bind everybody,” Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan said in an exclusive interview with CNN later on Friday.
“Nobody should feel they have a free pass. Nobody should feel they can enact with abandon. And definitely nobody should feel they can act and commit genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes with impunity,” he told CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward at the Hague.
Asked if he believed that one day Putin would be in the dock, Khan pointed to historic trials of Nazi war criminals, former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević, and former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, among others.
“All of them were mighty, powerful individuals and yet they found themselves in courtrooms,” he said.
Russia – like the US, Ukraine and China – is not a member of the ICC. As the court does not conduct trials in absentia, any Russian officials charged would either have to be handed over by Moscow or arrested outside of Russia.
War crime allegations
One senior Ukrainian official told CNN on Monday that Kyiv has been pushing the ICC for some time to seek arrest warrants against Russian individuals in relation to the war in Ukraine.
The Russian government doesn’t deny taking Ukrainian children and has made their adoption by Russian families a centerpiece of propaganda.
In April, the office of Lvova-Belova, the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, said that around 600 children from Ukraine had been placed in orphanages in Kursk and Nizhny Novgorod before being sent to live with families in the Moscow region.
As of mid-October, 800 children from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area were living in the Moscow region, many with families, according to the Moscow regional governor.
Some of the children have ended up thousands of miles and several time zones away from Ukraine. According to Lvova-Belova’s office, Ukrainian kids have been sent to live in institutions and with foster families in 19 different Russian regions, including Novosibirsk, Omsk and Tyumen regions in Siberia and Murmansk in the Arctic.
Lvova-Belova dismissed the ICC’s arrest warrant against her, saying it was “great” that the international community appreciated her work for children, according to Russian state news agency TASS on Friday.
“It’s great that the international community has appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we do not leave them in the war zones, that we take them out, that we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people,” she said to reporters, according to TASS. “There were sanctions against all countries, even Japan, in relation to me, now there is an arrest warrant, I wonder what will happen next. And we continue to work.”
Zelensky’s Chief of Staff, Andry Yermak, said on Telegram on Friday that the arrest warrant issued for Putin was “just the beginning.”
“The world has received a signal that the Russian regime is criminal and that its leadership and accomplices will be brought to justice,” Ukrainian General Prosecutor, Andriy Kostin, added in a post on Facebook on Friday.
“This means that Putin must be arrested outside of Russia and brought to trial. And world leaders will think twice before shaking his hand or sitting down with him at the negotiating table.”
Human Rights Watch called the ICC decision a “wakeup call to others committing abuses or covering them up.”
“This is a big day for the many victims of crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014. With these arrest warrants, 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,” Balkees Jarrah, the NGO’s Associate International Justice Director, said in a statement Friday.
“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. The court’s warrants are a wakeup call to others committing abuses or covering them up that their day in court may be coming, regardless of their rank or position,” Jarrah said.
Court of ‘last resort’
Moscow rejected the warrant on Friday. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the ministry of foreign affairs, said the court has “no meaning” for the country, “including from a “legal point of view.” Russia withdrew from the ICC treaty under a directive signed by Putin in 2016.
“Russia is not a member of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and bears no obligations under it. Russia does not cooperate with this body, and possible [pretences] for arrest coming from the International Court of Justice will be legally null and void for us,” she said.
Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and Deputy Chair of the Security Council of Russia, wrote on Twitter: “The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin. No need to explain WHERE this paper should be used” along with a toilet paper emoji.
News of the warrants was welcomed on the streets of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Friday but some expressed doubts over whether it would result in action.
Victoria Tkachenko, a 64-year-old museum worker, told CNN the warrants were “great news” but was realistic about how long legal proceedings could take.
“I support and welcome the news because Ukraine is fighting an aggressor. The year of war has shown that even with all the help, this fight is a difficult one,” Tkachenko said. “All legal proceedings are long and detailed work. Even if it takes a long time, I am still optimistic about the outcome.”
Twenty-year-old student and teacher Olexandra Zahubynoga praised the ICC for raising awareness of the issue, telling CNN: “The fact that this is being brought to the public is good and I support it. I would like to believe (that the arrest warrant will bring practical results), but to be honest, I have my doubts, because most international organizations are very concerned, they say a lot of things, but I personally do not see any obvious action.”
Meanwhile, Serhii Voloshenyuk, a 44-year-old businessman, said that while he believes the arrest warrants are “meaningful and important,” he doesn’t think they will be seen that way in Moscow.
“Russia is a criminal country itself and it behaves by its own rules,” he said.
He added: “I would like Putin to be jailed and serve time in prison, just like the Yugoslavian war criminals are jailed in Hague.”
ICC President Judge Piotr Hofmanski told CNN on Friday that the ICC’s arrest warrants were “not magic wands” but that he believed in their “deterrence” effects amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine as they act as a sort of “sanction” on the individuals.
Asked whether the ICC is asking signatory countries to arrest Putin if he travels to them, Hofmanski referred to ICC statute, saying: “All state parties have the legal obligation to cooperate fully with the court, which means that they’re obliged to execute arrest warrants issued by the court. And it is indeed one of the most important effects of the arrest warrants, that is a kind of sanction, because the person cannot leave the country.”
“There are 123 states, two-thirds of the states of the world in which he will not be saved,” Hofmanski continued.
Located in The Hague, Netherlands, and created by a treaty called the Rome Statute first brought before the United Nations, the ICC operates independently. Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty, but there are very large and notable exceptions, including Russia.
The ICC is meant to be a court of “last resort” and is not meant to replace a country’s justice system. The court, which has 18 judges serving nine-year terms, tries four types of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes.
The UN on Thursday found in a report that Russia has “committed a wide range of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” in Ukraine.
The report claims that the war crimes perpetrated by the Russians included “attacks on civilians and energy-related infrastructure, wilful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and other sexual violence, as well as unlawful transfers and deportations of children.”
Its findings also documented a small number of violations perpetrated by the Ukrainian forces, “including likely indiscriminate attacks and two incidents qualifying as war crimes, where Russian prisoners of war were shot, wounded and tortured,” the United Nations Human Rights statement said.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Gul Tuysuz, Svitlana Vlasova, Dima Olenchenko, Uliana Pavlova, Hira Humayun, Olga Voitovych, Ivana Kottasová, Yulia Kesaieva, Richard Roth contributed reporting