- The International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine
- The court accuses him of being responsible for forcibly deporting children from Ukraine to Russia after the invasion last year
- ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan says children “can’t be treated as spoils of war” and that it’s possible Putin could stand trial
- Russia, which does not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction, denies its forces have committed atrocities in Ukraine
- Putin’s spokesman called the decision “outrageous and unacceptable” while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed it as “historic”
- If Putin stays in Russia, he cannot be arrested – but he could be detained if he enters a country that wants to put him on trial
- A warrant has also been issued for Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights
ICC uses very specific offence to directly accuse Putin
The ICC has the power to charge political leaders with “waging aggressive war” – meaning an unjustified invasion not undertaken in self-defence.
But Russia is not a signatory to the court so that’s not a route open to its prosecutors. Russia would also use its veto, as it has already done in relation to Ukraine, to stop any attempts at the UN Security Council to grant the ICC new powers in relation to that offence.
So some war crime experts had been calling for world leaders to launch an Ukraine war crimes tribunal as another means of charging Russia’s leaders.
They argued that no other crime but waging aggressive war could be pinned on Putin – meaning the only people who could ever theoretically face court would be his generals and foot soldiers.
But the ICC appears to have found a way around this justice gap by dusting off the very specific offence of deporting children.
The fact that Russia is not a party to the ICC still means Putin won’t be extradited anytime soon but the arrest warrant could leave the president marooned in his own country – unless he wants to voluntarily surrender to The Hague.
Has Putin been anywhere he could now be arrested?
The ICC itself can’t arrest Vladimir Putin – that’s up to the countries that have signed an agreement with the court called the Rome Statute.
123 states have signed up – and Russia isn’t one of them. So Putin won’t be arrested or extradited from Russian territory.
But has he travelled anywhere since the war started where he could now technically be arrested?
Here’s a list of his foreign trips:
- June: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan
- July: Iran
- September: Uzbekistan
- October: Kazakhstan
- November: Armenia
- December: Kyrgyzstan, Belarus
Of these, only Tajikistan is party to the statute.
But it’s also worth mentioning that all of the places he’s been – apart from Iran – are either full or associate members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet group dominated by Russia.
ICC prosecutor urges war criminals: Look at history
Those who feel they can “commit a crime in the daytime, and sleep well at night, should perhaps look at history”.
That’s the message from Karim Ahmad Khan, prosecutor of the ICC, who’s spoken to the BBC’s Anna Holligan.
Khan says no-one thought Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who went on trial for war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, would end up in The Hague.
But he did.
So did Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who was sentenced to 50 years in jail, and Rwanda’s Félicien Kabuga, who was arrested in 2020.
Law will catch up with you, says legal commentator
The ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin is “to some extent symbolic” but it does “send a message”, lawyer and legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg tells the BBC.
He says the message sent by the court is that Putin may be head of state today, but might not in future, and “at some point the law will catch up with you”.
Rozenberg goes on to say the warrant may have a diplomatic impact on other countries that have been sitting on the fence.
He also tells the BBC that we don’t know “what other arrest warrants are lined up but are sealed and haven’t been published”.
“The court thinks it’s in the interest of justice for us to know about these particular arrest warrants,” he adds.
No excuse to deport children to Russia, says ICC prosecutor
Vladimir Putin stands accused of being responsible for war crimes in Ukraine, including the unlawful deportation of children to Russia.
ICC prosecutor Karim Ahmad Khan tells the BBC’s Anna Holligan that the deportation of children was inhumane and that Russia could have taken other measures to protect children – if that was its intention. The children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova has suggested she was helping children by evacuating them from war zones.
“If there was a danger in a particular area, move them to other parts of Ukraine where that danger was not present,” he says.
“If that wasn’t possible, offer to move them to third countries.”
But this “accelerated process that seemed to have been implemented” by Moscow to give children a foreign nationality “is something that required attention, and this is what also gave additional impetus to the investigation”, he says.
This is a historic decision – Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the ICC’s arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin a “historic decision, from which historical responsibility will begin”.
He says Putin and children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova “have officially become suspects in a war crime”.
“The deportation of Ukrainian children is the illegal transfer of thousands of our children to Russian territory,” he said. “It would be impossible to carry out such a criminal operation without the order of the top leader of the terrorist state”.
Russia has rejected the ICC’s decision and described the move as “outrageous and unacceptable”.
What’s the reaction been in Russia?
- Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has called the ICC’s announcement “outrageous and unacceptable” describing the arrest warrants as “null and void” because Russia is not part of the ICC
- Russian children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova – who was also issued an arrest warrant – has reportedly responded with a sarcastic message. “It’s great that the international community has appreciated this work to help the children of our country: that we don’t leave them in war zones,” she said, according to Russian state-owned news agency Ria Novosti.
- “Yankees, hands off Putin!”, Russian parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin aid on messaging app Telegram and calls the warrants evidence of Western hysteria”, Reuters reports.
- And foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova says the decisions of the ICC “have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view”