The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes involving accusations that Russia has forcibly taken Ukrainian children.
The ICC also issued a warrant for Putin's commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.
The court said in a news release Friday the two are "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."
The move by the criminal court at the Hague marked a significant step, requesting the arrest of a sitting world leader — even as analysts acknowledged the chances of arresting President Putin are slim.
Indeed, in Moscow, officials were quick to note Russia has never signed on as a party to the ICC as they dismissed the charges outright.
"The very question itself is outrageous and unacceptable," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "Russia, like a number of other states, does not recognize the jurisdiction of this court, and therefore any of its decisions are insignificant for the Russian Federation from a legal viewpoint."
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin called the court's decision "historic."
Like the United States, Ukraine is also not a party to the ICC. But Kostin noted that the Ukrainian government has cooperated with the court on criminal investigations in its territory. He said his office handed more than 1,000 pages of documents over to the ICC regarding the alleged forcible deportation of children to Russia.
A report released last month by Yale University researchers and the U.S. State Department accused the Russian government of operating a systematic network of custody centers for thousands of Ukrainian children.
Russian officials have not denied the arrival of Ukrainian children in the country, but have characterized the centers for children as part of a large humanitarian program for abandoned, war-traumatized orphans.
The court warrant is a "stunning move"
ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said the judges decided to make these warrants public to try to deter further crimes.
"It is forbidden by international law for occupying powers to transfer civilians from the territories where they live to other territories," he said. "Children enjoy special protection under the Geneva Convention."
Experts appeared surprised by the news.
"I hoped [this would happen], but I didn't know it would be this quick," said Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab.
"This is a stunning move by the court, which has moved right to the top of the Russian state," said David Bosco, author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics.
However, Bosco cautioned, "The arrest warrant won't have immediate implications because no trial can move forward without Putin being in custody and there's no chance of that happening in the near future."
Despite the difficulty of trying Putin, human rights advocates hailed the news as a major step.
"This is a big day for the many victims of crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "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."
Amnesty International called on countries to deny safe haven for Putin and Lvova-Belova by arresting them and handing them over to the ICC. The organization also said it expects further arrest warrants for Russian leaders as Ukraine war crimes investigations develop.
Russia discusses adopting Ukrainian children
While Russia has vigorously rejected allegations of war crimes committed by its forces in Ukraine, it has made little secret of relocating Ukrainian children to Russia — presenting it as a noble humanitarian effort.
President Putin hosted Lvova-Belova, the children's rights commissioner, for a meeting at the Kremlin in February in which the two openly discussed Russian adoption programs for Ukrainian children in occupied territories in Ukraine — including Lvova-Belova's new teenage son.
A transcript of the conversation is posted on the Kremlin's website.
"You also adopted a child from Mariupol, is that right?" asked Putin.
"Yes, Vladimir Vladimirovich," Lvova-Belova responded, using the Russian leader's patronymic. "Thanks to you."
It was a remarkable admission: Ukraine halted adoptions after Russia invaded the country, and international children's rights groups say countries have an obligation under international law to prohibit adoptions of Ukrainian children during wartime.
Lvova-Belova noted that if biological relatives are found, her commission would work to return the children to their Ukrainian families, "wherever they are located, in Ukraine or another country."
To which Putin said, "That's absolutely right."
For the U.S., it's complicated
Bosco, the international studies expert who wrote about the ICC, said the court's new case raises some uncomfortable questions for the United States, too.
"This is going to be another awkward moment for the United States because of the U.S. position that the ICC should not be able to prosecute nonmember state citizens," Bosco said.
The U.S. government has so far issued a measured response to news of the Putin arrest warrant.
"There is no doubt that Russia is committing war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine, and we have been clear that those responsible must be held accountable," White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement to NPR. "The ICC prosecutor is an independent actor and makes his own prosecutorial decisions based on the evidence before him. We support accountability for perpetrators of war crimes."
The U.S. has had a complicated, at times hostile relationship with the international court, especially since 2002 when former President George W. Bush unsigned the statute that created it.
In 2020, the Trump administration leveled sanctions against the ICC's chief prosecutor at the time, who was investigating allegations that U.S. troops committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
In the Biden administration, meanwhile, there are reports of an internal dispute: While the Justice and State Departments favor providing information to the international court about Russian atrocities, according to The New York Times, the Pentagon has blocked intelligence sharing with the court over concerns of setting a precedent that could allow for international prosecutions against Americans.
Alex Leff and Michele Kelemen reported from Washington, D.C. Charles Maynes reported from Moscow. Eleanor Beardsley contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a wanted man at the International Criminal Court. The Hague-based tribunal issued an arrest warrant against the Kremlin leader and one of his advisers, who is allegedly responsible for the deportation of Ukrainian children. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The ICC's president, Piotr Hofmanski, broke the news in a video statement, explaining that the crimes being investigated involve the deportation of Ukrainian children from lands occupied by Russia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PIOTR HOFMANSKI: It is forbidden by international law for occupying powers to transfer civilians from the territory they live in to other territories. Children enjoy special protection under the Geneva Convention.
KELEMEN: In addition to Putin, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for his commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. Russia was quick to dismiss the court's move.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARIA ZAKHAROVA: (Speaking Russian).
KELEMEN: Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova points out that Russia is not a party to the court, so she says the arrest warrants don't have any legal meaning for Russia. Ukraine is not a member either, but granted the ICC jurisdiction after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country last year. Ukraine's foreign minister hailed the arrest warrant, saying, quote, "the wheels of justice are turning."
It made sense to start on this issue of children, says Nathaniel Raymond. He's a Yale University researcher who recently came out with a report in collaboration with the State Department detailing Russia's program to deport and reeducate thousands of Ukrainian children.
NATHANIEL RAYMOND: These facilities stretch all the way from the Black Sea to the Pacific - well over 3,500 miles, including Siberia, in Magadan, which is closer to Alaska than it is to Moscow.
KELEMEN: Raymond says the evidence that the ICC has is, in his words, about as airtight as you can get.
RAYMOND: They have the statements of the officials involved, showing clear command and control and intent in a program that is systematic in scale and in operation.
KELEMEN: But don't expect to see Putin facing a trial anytime soon, cautions David Bosco, author of a book about the ICC called "Rough Justice." He says the Russian leader will be safe at home, but it could be tricky for him to visit countries that are a part of the court.
DAVID BOSCO: In some ways, the most interesting question might be how this impacts world public opinion and whether it has an impact in terms of the way countries, particularly outside of the West, view Putin and view Russia's leadership.
KELEMEN: Bosco says this case raises some uncomfortable questions for the U.S. too.
BOSCO: This is going to be another awkward moment for the United States because of the U.S. position that the ICC should not be able to prosecute non-member state citizens.
KELEMEN: Because it doesn't want to see Americans hauled before the court over U.S. military actions abroad. Raymond, the Yale researcher, says all nations need to work together on the case against Putin.
RAYMOND: I have been a war crimes investigator for 24 years, and I've learned one major lesson, which is never underestimate who you think is going to get arrested. And so for me - doing this work, you have to always believe that justice, including arrest and trial and conviction, is possible. And I believe that here.
KELEMEN: He's less convinced about the deterrent effect of this announcement. Soon after Raymond released his report on the deportations, President Putin met with his commissioner on children's rights, and they talked about how she adopted a teenage boy from Ukraine, all thanks to the Russian president.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.