The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine.
Although world leaders have been indicted before, it is the first time the ICC has issued a warrant against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The court said in a statement that Mr Putin “is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
It also issued a warrant on Friday for the arrest of Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, on similar allegations.
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it a “historic decision, from which historic responsibility will begin”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says that Russia does not recognise the International Criminal Court and considers its decisions “legally void”.
He added that Russia considers the court’s move to issue an arrest warrant against Mr Putin “outrageous and unacceptable”.
The court’s president, Piotr Hofmanski, said in a video statement that while the ICC’s judges have issued the warrants, it will be up to the international community to enforce them. The court has no police force of its own to enforce warrants.
“The ICC is doing its part of work as a court of law. The judges issued arrest warrants. The execution depends on international cooperation,” he said.
A possible trial of any Russians at the ICC remains a long way off, as Moscow does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction — a position reaffirmed on Friday by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“The decisions of the International Criminal Court have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view,” she said.
But Ukrainian officials were jubilant.
“The world changed,” said presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the “wheels of justice are turning” and added that “international criminals will be held accountable for stealing children and other international crimes”.
Ukraine also is not a member of the court, but it has granted the ICC jurisdiction over its territory and ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has visited four times since opening an investigation a year ago.
The ICC said that its pre-trial chamber found there were “reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children.”
After his most recent visit, in early March, Mr Khan said he visited a care home for children two kilometres from frontlines in southern Ukraine.
“The drawings pinned on the wall … spoke to a context of love and support that was once there. But this home was empty, a result of alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their unlawful transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories,” he said in a statement.
“As I noted to the United Nations Security Council last September, these alleged acts are being investigated by my office as a priority. Children cannot be treated as the spoils of war.”
Ukraine’s human rights chief, Dmytro Lubinets, has said that based on data from the country’s National Information Bureau, 16,226 children were deported. Ukraine has managed to bring back 308 children.
Ms Lvova-Belova said: “It is great that the international community has appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we do not leave them in war zones, that we take them out, we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people.”
But Olga Lopatkina, a Ukrainian mother who struggled for months to reclaim her foster children who were deported to an institution ran by Russian loyalists, welcomed the news of the arrest warrant. “Good news,” she said. “Everyone must be punished for their crimes.”
And while Russia rejected the allegations and warrants of the court as null and void, others said the ICC action will have an important impact.
“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,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
“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.”
Professor David Crane, who indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor 20 years ago for crimes in Sierra Leone, said dictators and tyrants around the world “are now on notice that those who commit international crimes will be held accountable to include heads of state”.
Taylor was eventually detained and put on trial at a special court in the Netherlands. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in jail.
“This is an important day for justice and for the citizens of Ukraine,” Prof Crane said.
“Vladimir Putin will forever be marked as a pariah globally. He has lost all his political credibility around the world. Any world leader who stands by him will be shamed as well.”
On Thursday, a UN-backed inquiry cited Russian attacks against civilians in Ukraine, including systematic torture and killing in occupied regions, among potential issues that amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.
The sweeping investigation also found crimes committed against Ukrainians on Russian territory, including deported Ukrainian children who were prevented from reuniting with their families, a “filtration” system aimed at singling out Ukrainians for detention, and torture and inhumane detention conditions.
But on Friday, the ICC put the face of Mr Putin on the child abduction allegations.