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The International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to a regional governor via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Oct. 21, 2022. The International Criminal Court said Friday it has issued an arrest warrant for Putin and his children's rights commissioner for possible war crimes.
Gavriil Grigorov
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Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to a regional governor via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Oct. 21, 2022. The International Criminal Court said Friday it has issued an arrest warrant for Putin and his children's rights commissioner for possible war crimes.

Updated March 17, 2023 at 7:28 PM ET

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 Hague criminal court marked a significant step, requesting the arrest of a sitting world leader, while multiple war crime allegations mount against Russia as its war in Ukraine grinds into its second year. Yet analysts acknowledged the chances of arresting President Putin are slim.

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."

However, like Russia and the United States, Ukraine is not a party to the ICC either. Still, 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 children's centers as part of a 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 that worked on the report about Ukrainian children.

"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

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, Feb. 16.
Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, Feb. 16.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Alex Leff
Alex Leff is a digital editor on NPR's International Desk, helping oversee coverage from journalists around the world for its growing Internet audience. He was previously a senior editor at GlobalPost and PRI, where he wrote stories and edited the work of international correspondents.
Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Charles Maynes