A highly symbolic move by the International Criminal Court, which accused President Vladimir V. Putin of war crimes, carries moral weight.
March 17, 2023Updated 7:15 p.m. ET
LONDON — The International Criminal Court accused the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, of war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest on Friday, a highly symbolic step that deepened his isolation and punctured the aura of impunity that has surrounded him since he ordered troops into Ukraine a year ago.
The court cited Mr. Putin’s responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children, thousands of whom have been sent to Russia since the invasion. It also issued a warrant for Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, the public face of the Kremlin-sponsored program that transfers the children out of Ukraine.
There is little prospect of Mr. Putin standing trial in a courtroom anytime soon. The International Criminal Court cannot try defendants in absentia and Russia, which is not a party to the court, dismissed the warrants as “meaningless.”
Yet the court’s move carried indisputable moral weight, putting Mr. Putin in the same ranks as Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the deposed president of Sudan, accused of atrocities in Darfur; Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader imprisoned for abuses during the Balkans war; and the Nazis tried at Nuremberg after World War II.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility,” said the court, which was created two decades ago to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Both Russians, the court said, bore “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.”
As a practical matter, the warrant could restrict Mr. Putin’s travels, since he could face arrest in any of the 123 countries that have signed on to 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 right activists and Ukrainian officials hailed the warrants as proof that Mr. Putin and his lieutenants could no longer act with impunity in Ukraine. For Mr. Putin, who already operates with a tight circle of advisers in the Kremlin, it makes the world a smaller place, even as he plans to welcome President Xi Jinping of China, perhaps his most powerful ally, to Moscow next week.
The warrants also shine a light on one of the most harrowing, poignant subplots of Russia’s brutal war: the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children and teenagers to Russia or Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine. Many are orphans, but Ukrainian officials say that others were separated from their parents or legal guardians. Russia has acknowledged transferring 2,000 children; Ukrainian officials 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, in which he welcomed Mr. Putin’s arrest warrant as the beginning of “historical responsibility.”
Stephen Rapp, a former ambassador at large who headed the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the State Department, said in an email that “this makes Putin a pariah.”
“If he travels he risks arrest,” he continued. “This never goes away.”
Moreover, he said, Russia cannot have international sanctions lifted without complying with the court’s warrants. Mr. Rapp said he believed Mr. Putin would eventually end up in The Hague, where other accused war criminals were tried — some, like Mr. Milosevic, under ad hoc tribunals of the I.C.C. “Otherwise,” Mr. Rapp said, Mr. Putin “dies with this hanging over his head.”
Still, the public nature of the warrants, and the narrow scope of the crimes, raised questions among legal experts, who noted that the court had been under intense pressure to act against Mr. Putin.
Russian troops have killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and ravaged civilian infrastructure, in artillery strikes on Ukrainian cites. This week, The New York Times reported that the court intended to open two cases tied 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 expert on international law who is the director of the Center on International Courts and Tribunals at University College London. “We don’t know whether the prosecutor wanted an arrest warrant for other crimes.”
Targeting Mr. Putin is an audacious move by the court, which could have begun with midlevel officials and worked its way up to the president, Mr. Sands said. “No doubt there will be many questions about why this particular crime and why the decision to make this public now,” he added.
Unlike in American courts, where suspects are commonly indicted before being arrested, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, presented evidence before a seven-judge chamber showing reasonable grounds to believe that the suspects bore responsibility for war crimes. The arrest warrants put them on notice of what they would most likely be charged with if tried.
If Mr. Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova were taken into custody and brought before the court in The Hague, they would have a pretrial hearing at which prosecutors would present evidence that they would contend was sufficient for the case to go to trial.
The catch is that if a suspect managed to evade capture, he or she would never get a hearing to “confirm” the charges, said Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale Law School and a former top lawyer at the State Department. As a result, Mr. Koh said, “this may be as much as we get” for Mr. Putin.
Still, Mr. Koh said he believed the court’s action was a “net plus,” because it could discourage China from giving Russia weapons and send a deterrent message to others in the Russian bureaucracy about taking part in war crimes like abducting the children. It could also ease resistance inside the Pentagon to sharing evidence with the court.
Russian officials were withering in their reaction to the arrest warrants. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said the announcement had “no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view.”
“Russia is not cooperating with this body,” she added, calling any efforts by the I.C.C. to make arrests “legally null and 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 them or bring them to trial, instead relying on other leaders and governments to act as its sheriffs. This has been most vividly illustrated by the case of Mr. al-Bashir, the deposed Sudanese leader, who has been not been arrested in other countries where he has traveled.
Although the court is backed by many democratic countries, including close American allies like Britain, the United States has long kept its distance, concerned that the tribunal could someday try to prosecute Americans.
A low point came in 2017, when the chief prosecutor for the court tried to investigate the torture of detainees accused of terrorism during the George W. Bush administration. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the court’s personnel, and the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, denounced it as corrupt.
Relations thawed in 2021, when the Biden administration revoked Mr. Trump’s sanctions, and a newly appointed prosecutor, Mr. Khan, dropped the investigation.
A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, said the United States supported efforts to bring war criminals to justice, noting that the prosecutor for the I.C.C. was independent and made decisions based on evidence.
The story of Ukraine’s abducted children has been less shrouded in secrecy than other abuses during the war, in part because Russian officials have sought to portray it as a humanitarian effort to take care of the war’s youngest victims.
Yet a New York Times investigation published in October, which identified several Ukrainian children who had been taken, described a wrenching 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.
On Thursday, a United Nations commission of inquiry said Russia’s transfer of children and other civilians from Ukraine to Russia might amount to a war crime, observing that none of the cases it investigated were justified under international law. Ukraine has reported the transfer of 16,226 children to Russia, but the commission said it had not been able to verify the number.
Mr. Khan, the chief prosecutor, has said the illegal transfers of children were a priority for his investigators. “Children cannot be treated as the 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 Mr. Putin had been branded as a war criminal. Some voiced confidence that the legal vise on the Russian leader would only grow tighter. There are calls to set up a special tribunal that would try Mr. Putin and his lieutenants on the crime of aggression.
“This is just the beginning,” said Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak.
Reporting was contributed by Charlie Savage from Washington, Marlise Simons from Morocco, Emma Bubola from Rome, Carlotta Gall from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Kyiv, Valerie Hopkins from Berlin and Anushka Patil from New York.