LONDON — The International Criminal Court charged Russian President Vladimir V. Putin with war crimes and issued an arrest warrant for him on Friday, a highly symbolic step that deepened his isolation and pierced the aura of impunity that has surrounded him since who commanded troops in Ukraine a year ago.
The court cited Putin’s responsibility for the kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children, thousands of whom have been sent to Russia since the invasion. He also issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, the public face of the Kremlin-sponsored program that moves children out of Ukraine.
There is little chance that Putin will be tried in court any time soon. The International Criminal Court cannot try defendants in absentia and Russia, which is not part of the court, dismissed the arrest warrants as “nonsensical”.
However, the court’s move carried indisputable moral weight, placing Putin in the same rank as Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the deposed president of Sudan, accused of atrocities in Darfur; Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader jailed for abuses during the Balkan war; and the Nazis tried him at Nuremberg after World War II.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility,” said the court, which was set up two decades ago to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Both Russians, the court said, had “responsibility for the war crime of the illegal deportation of population and the illegal transfer of population from the occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
In practice, the order could restrict Putin’s travel, as he could be arrested in any of the 123 countries that have joined the International Criminal Court, a list that includes virtually all European countries and several in Africa and Latin America. . , but not China or the United States.
Human rights activists and Ukrainian officials hailed the arrest warrants as proof that Putin and his lieutenants could no longer act with impunity in Ukraine. For Putin, who already operates with a close circle of advisers in the Kremlin, it makes the world a smaller place, even as he plans to welcome China’s President Xi Jinping, perhaps his most powerful ally, to Moscow next week. .
The orders also shed light on one of the most heartbreaking and poignant subplots of Russia’s brutal war: the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children and adolescents to Russia or Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine. Many are orphans, but Ukrainian officials say others have been separated from their parents or legal guardians. Russia has admitted transfer of 2,000 children; Ukrainian officials they say they have confirmed 16,000 cases.
“It would be impossible to carry out such a criminal operation without the order of the top leader of the terrorist state,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in a video statement, welcoming Putin’s arrest warrant as the beginning of “historical responsibility”.
Stephen Rapp, a former roving ambassador who headed the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the State Department, said in an email that “this makes Putin a pariah.”
“If you travel, you risk being arrested,” he continued. “This never goes away.”
Furthermore, he said, Russia cannot get international sanctions lifted without complying with court orders. Rapp said he believed Putin would eventually end up in The Hague, where he tried other accused war criminals, some, like Milosevic, in ad hoc ICC tribunals. Putin “dies with this hanging over his head.”
Still, the public nature of the arrest warrants and the limited scope of the crimes raised questions among legal experts, who said the court had been under intense pressure to act against Putin.
Russian troops have killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians and devastated civilian infrastructure in artillery attacks on Ukrainian cities. This week, The New York Times reported that the court intended to open two cases linked to the Russian invasion, according to officials with knowledge of the plans; the second was expected to focus on Russia’s attacks on infrastructure.
“We don’t know what the full application was,” said Philippe Sands, an international law expert and director of the Center for International Courts and Tribunals at University College London. “We don’t know if the prosecutor wanted an arrest warrant for other crimes.”
Targeting Putin is a bold move by the court, which could have started with mid-level officials and worked its way up to the president, Sands said. “There will certainly be many questions as to why this particular crime and why the decision to go public now,” he added.
Unlike US courts, where suspects are typically charged before being arrested, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan presented evidence before a panel of seven judges showing reasonable grounds to believe suspects were responsible. of war crimes. The arrest warrants gave them notice of what they would likely be charged with if they stood trial.
If Mr. Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova were to be arrested and brought before the court in The Hague, they would have a pre-trial hearing where prosecutors would present evidence that they believe would be sufficient to bring the case to trial.
The problem is that if a suspect manages to evade capture, he will never get a hearing to “confirm” the charges, said Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale Law School and a former senior counsel for the State Department. . As a result, Koh said, “this may be all we get” for Putin.
Still, Koh said he believed the court’s action was a “net advantage” because it could deter China from giving Russia arms and send a deterrent message to others in the Russian bureaucracy from engaging in war crimes such as kidnapping children. He could also ease resistance within the Pentagon to sharing evidence with the court.
Russian officials reacted harshly to the arrest warrants. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the announcement “has no meaning for our country, even from a legal point of view.”
“Russia is not cooperating with this body,” he added, calling any effort by the ICC to make the arrests “legally void for us.”
The limitations of the court are well known. Although it can indict sitting heads of state, it has no power to arrest or prosecute them, relying instead on other leaders and governments to act as its bailiffs. This has been illustrated most vividly by the case of Mr. al-Bashir, the deposed Sudanese leader, who has not been arrested in other countries to which he has traveled.
Although the court is supported by many democratic countries, including close American allies like Britain, the United States has long kept its distance, worried that the court might one day try to try Americans.
A low point came in 2017, when the court’s chief prosecutor tried to investigate the torture of detainees accused of terrorism during the George W. Bush administration. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on court staff, and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced them as corrupt.
Relations thawed in 2021, when the Biden administration revoked Trump’s sanctions and a newly appointed prosecutor, Khan, dropped the investigation.
A National Security Council spokeswoman, Adrienne Watson, said the United States supported efforts to bring war criminals to justice, noting that the ICC prosecutor was independent and made decisions based on evidence.
The story of kidnapped children in Ukraine has been less shrouded in secrecy than other wartime abuses, in part because Russian authorities have tried to present it as a humanitarian effort to care for the war’s youngest victims.
However, a New York Times investigation published in October, which identified several Ukrainian children who had been abducted, described a harrowing process of coercion, deception and force. Upon arrival in Russia, the children were often placed in homes to become Russian citizens and subjected to re-education efforts.
Thursday, a United Nations commission of inquiry He said Russia’s transfer of children and other civilians from Ukraine to Russia could constitute a war crime, noting that none of the cases he investigated were justified under international law. Ukraine reported the transfer of 16,226 children to Russia, but the commission said it had not been able to verify the number.
Khan, the chief prosecutor, said illegal child transfers were a priority for his investigators. “Children cannot be treated as spoils of war,” he said after visiting a children’s home in southern Ukraine this month that he said had been emptied as a result of deportations.
In Ukraine, officials expressed satisfaction that Putin has been branded a war criminal. Some expressed confidence that the legal vise on the Russian leader will only tighten. There are calls to set up a special court that would try Putin and his lieutenants for the crime of aggression.
“This is just the beginning,” said Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak.
The report was contributed by wild charlie of washington, marlise simons from Morocco, emma bubola from Rome, Charlotte Gall from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, marc santora from Kyiv, valerie hopkins from Berlin and anushka patil from New York.