The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of abducting children from Ukraine.
It also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia‘s commissioner for children, on similar allegations of war crimes.
The Kremlin said Russia found the questions raised by the ICC “outrageous and unacceptable”.
They added the warrants are “null and void” as Russia does not recognise the ICC and has not signed up to the Rome Statutes – the treaty underpinning the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal.
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Meanwhile, Ms Lvova-Belova said her arrest warrant validated her work “helping the children of our country”.
In a statement, the court alleges the Russian president is “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 ICC said its pre-trial chamber found there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that the two suspects are responsible for the alleged war crimes and that Putin “bears individual criminal responsibility”.
Russia has brought thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia but has presented the programme as a humanitarian campaign to protect abandoned children and orphans in conflict zones.
Sky News’ international affairs editor Dominic Waghorn said the chances of Putin going on trial are low.
Assessing the warrants, Waghorn said there is “a long list of people” who have been indicted but never had their day in court.
“Unless the war goes very badly for him – he’s toppled from power and he’s handed over – it’s unlikely he’s going to face trial,” Waghorn said.
Read our report from December:
CCTV shows chilling moment Russian FSB agents and soldiers scour Ukrainian orphanage for children
How many children have been taken from Ukraine?
The exact number of children taken from Ukraine is unclear, with different organisations offering different estimates.
Waghorn said: “One respected human rights group in America estimates 6,000 children have been deported to Russia, the Ukrainians reckon it’s more like 16,000, and the Russians themselves have said since 2014, 700,000 children have been taken from Ukraine.”
Andriy Yermak, chief of the Ukrainian presidential staff, said Ukraine had cooperated closely with the ICC and was currently investigating over 16,000 cases of forced children deportation to Russia.
Ukraine has managed to secure the return of 308 children so far.
Waghorn suggests the motivation for the mass abductions is twofold – older children can be trained to serve in the military while younger children are beneficial for Russian propaganda purposes.
“We have seen Ukrainian children and orphans being paraded at events in Moscow recently and paraded for the Russian population [with Putin] saying we’re saving these children, we’re doing a good job, trying to to bolster their claim that they are effectively saving the Ukrainians from themselves,” Waghorn said.
Arrest warrant makes diplomatic solution more problematic
Sky News was the first to reveal video evidence of Russian soldiers searching a place of sanctuary in Ukraine looking for children.
In December we broadcast chilling CCTV footage from an orphanage in Kherson where 15 children were taken at gunpoint by the Russian military and aired claims far younger children suffered the same fate in another orphanage nearby.
One independent study claims 6,000 children have been taken by the Russians, the Ukrainians say the true figure is more than twice that amount.
Throughout this war there have been repeated reports of children being abducted, kidnapped or simply persuaded to go with the Russians and never to return.
We have seen some children resurface in events in Russia some of them presided over by President Putin himself, paraded by the Russians claiming to have saved them from the war and the Ukrainian government that Moscow claims to be run by Nazis.
Those allegations are now the substance of International Criminal Court arrest warrants that go to the very top of the Russian government along with President Putin’s children’s rights commissioner Mara Lvova-Belova.
She has been seen on Russian state TV weeping, she says with joy, having adopted Ukrainian orphans that she claims to have saved.
She has been unashamed in boasting about what is happening to Ukraine’s children. She claims to believe she is rescuing them.
Outside of Russia she is seen as running a system whereby Ukrainian children are effectively being trafficked into Russia.
The development is very significant. It makes far more problematic hopes that a diplomatic solution can be negotiated to this conflict.
It also puts pressure on countries who have been ambivalent about Russia’s invasion abstaining in UN votes condemning it and colluding in Moscow’s efforts to avoid sanctions.
ICC investigation of war crimes
In a press conference, the president of the ICC Piotr Hofmanski said the warrants were “an important moment in the process of justice”.
He also said that the judges dealing with the case “determined there are credible allegations against these persons for the alleged crime”.
“Their execution [of the warrants] depends on international cooperation,” he said.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan had opened an investigation a year ago into possible war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Ukraine.
Mr Khan highlighted during previous trips that he was also examining the targeting of civilian infrastructure and alleged crimes against children, who have special protection under the Geneva Convention.
Ukraine is not a member of the court but has granted the ICC jurisdiction over its territory.
Ukrainian and international response
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it a “historic decision, from which historic responsibility will begin.”
“The head of a terrorist state and another Russian official have officially become suspects in a war crime,” he said.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly welcomed the ICC warrant which he said would “hold those at the top of the Russian regime, including Vladimir Putin, to account”.
“Work must continue to investigate the atrocities committed,” he wrote on Twitter.
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said: “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.”
Josep Borrell, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said the warrants are “just the start of holding Russia accountable for crimes and atrocities in Ukraine”.