Global court accuses Putin of war crimes

Warrant pins the abductions of Ukraine children on him

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to winners of cultural, scientific and sports student competitions at the Museum and Theatre Educational Complex in Kaliningrad, Russia, on Sept. 1, 2022. The International Criminal Court said Friday, March 17, 2023 it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine. (Alexey Maishev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to winners of cultural, scientific and sports student competitions at the Museum and Theatre Educational Complex in Kaliningrad, Russia, on Sept. 1, 2022. The International Criminal Court said Friday, March 17, 2023 it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine. (Alexey Maishev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)


THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- The International Criminal Court announced Friday that it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.

It was the first time the global court has issued a warrant against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

The court said in a statement that Putin "is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of [children] and that of unlawful transfer of [children] from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation."

The move was immediately dismissed by Moscow -- and welcomed by Ukraine as a major breakthrough.

Its practical implications, however, could be limited as the chances of Putin facing trial at the International Criminal Court are highly unlikely because Moscow does not recognize the court's jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.

But the moral condemnation will likely stain the Russian leader for the rest of his life -- and in the more immediate future whenever he seeks to attend an international summit in a nation bound to arrest him.

"So Putin might go to China, Syria, Iran, his ... few allies, but he just won't travel to the rest of the world and won't travel to ICC member states who he believes would ... arrest him," said Adil Ahmad Haque, an expert in international law and armed conflict at Rutgers University.

Others agreed.

"Vladimir Putin will forever be marked as a pariah globally. He has lost all his political credibility around the world. Any world leader who stands by him will be shamed as well," David Crane, a former international prosecutor, told The Associated Press.

The court also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Lvova-Belova, the commissioner for children's rights in the office of the president of the Russian Federation. The AP reported on her involvement in the abduction of Ukrainian orphans in October, in the first investigation to follow the process all the way to Russia, relying on dozens of interviews and documents.

While the International Criminal Courts judges have issued the warrants, Court President Piotr Hofmanski said in a video statement that it will be up to the international community to enforce them. The court has no police force of its own to do so.

The court can impose a maximum sentence of life imprisonment "when justified by the extreme gravity of the crime," according to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, which established it as a permanent court of last resort to prosecute political leaders and other key perpetrators of the world's worst atrocities -- war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

There is little prospect of Putin standing trial in a courtroom any time 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."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia doesn't recognize what Court President Piotr Hofmanski said in a video statement and considers the court's decisions "legally void." He called the court's move "outrageous and unacceptable."

Peskov refused to comment when asked if Putin would avoid making trips to countries where he could be arrested on the court's warrant.

Based on data from the country's National Information Bureau, 16,226 children were deported, said Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine's human-rights chief. Ukraine has managed to bring back 308 children.

Lvova-Belova, who was also implicated in the warrants, reacted with sarcasm.

"It is great that the international community has appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we do not leave them in war zones, that we take them out, we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people," she said.

In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it a "historic decision, from which historic responsibility will begin."

"The world changed," presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the "wheels of justice are turning," and added that "international criminals will be held accountable for stealing children and other international crimes."

In Washington, President Joe Biden calledHofmanski and said in a statement that the decision "justified," telling reporters as he left the White House for his Delaware home that Putin "clearly committed war crimes."

While the U.S. does not recognize the court either, Biden said it "makes a very strong point" to call out the Russian leader's actions in ordering the invasion.

While Ukraine is also not a member of the global court, it has granted it jurisdiction over its territory and International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan has visited four times since opening an investigation a year ago.

Besides Russia and Ukraine, the United States and China are not members of the 123-member International Criminal Court.

INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY

The International Criminal Court said its pre-trial chamber found "reasonable grounds" that Putin "bears individual criminal responsibility" for the child abductions "for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others" and for failing to "exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts."

During a visit this month, court prosecutor Khan said he went to a care home for children just over a mile from the front lines in southern Ukraine.

"The drawings pinned on the wall ... spoke to a context of love and support that was once there," he said in a statement. "But this home was empty, a result of alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their unlawful transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories."

"As I noted to the United Nations Security Council last September, these alleged acts are being investigated by my office as a priority. Children cannot be treated as the spoils of war," Khan said.

While Russia rejected the allegations and warrants, others said the International Criminal Court action will have an important impact.

"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," said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. "The warrants send a clear message that giving orders to commit, or tolerating, serious crimes against civilians may lead to a prison cell in The Hague."

Crane, who indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor 20 years ago for crimes in Sierra Leone, said dictators and tyrants around the world "are now on notice that those who commit international crimes will be held accountable."

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 reeducation efforts.

Taylor was eventually detained and put on trial at a special court in the Netherlands. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

On Thursday, a U.N.-backed inquiry cited Russian attacks against civilians in Ukraine, including systematic torture and killing in occupied regions, among potential issues that amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.

The sweeping investigation also found crimes committed against Ukrainians on Russian territory, including deported Ukrainian children who were prevented from reuniting with their families, a "filtration" system aimed at singling out Ukrainians for detention, and torture and inhumane detention conditions.

XI PLANS VISIT

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to visit Moscow next week, offering a major diplomatic boost to Putin.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby encouraged Xi to reach out to Zelenskyy to get his country's perspective on the war and avoid any "one-sided" proposals.

China has sought to project itself as neutral in the conflict, even while it has refused to condemn Moscow's aggression and declared last year that it had a "no-limits" friendship with Russia. Beijing has denounced Western sanctions against Moscow and accused NATO and the United States of provoking Putin's military action.

Throughout the conflict, China has said the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected. It remains unclear, however, whether it sympathizes with Moscow's claims to seized Ukrainian territory.

Xi's visit would mark his first meeting with Putin since September, when they met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan. Before that, Putin attended the opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games and met with Xi shortly before sending troops into Ukraine.

Peskov said Friday that Putin and Xi would have a one-on-one meeting over an informal dinner Monday. Broader talks involving officials from both countries on a range of subjects are scheduled for Tuesday.

Putin's foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, suggested that the talks could yield new approaches to the fighting in Ukraine.

"I'm sure that our leader and the Chinese leader will exchange their assessments of the situation" there, he said. "We shall see what ideas will emerge after that."

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang reached out Thursday to Kuleba, saying Beijing was concerned about the war spinning out of control and urging talks on a political solution with Moscow.

China has "always upheld an objective and fair stance on the Ukraine issue, has committed itself to promoting peace and advancing negotiations and calls on the international community to create conditions for peace talks," Qin said.

Kuleba later tweeted that he and Qin "discussed the significance of the principle of territorial integrity." Ukraine has listed Russia's withdrawal from the occupied areas as the main condition for peace.

"I underscored the importance of [Zelenskyy's] peace formula for ending the aggression and restoring just peace in Ukraine," wrote Kuleba, who spoke the same day with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Beijing's apparent deeper dive into Ukraine issues follows its success last week in brokering talks between Iran and its chief Middle Eastern rival, Saudi Arabia. Those two countries agreed to restore their diplomatic ties after years of tensions.

The agreement cast China in a leading role in Middle Eastern politics, a part previously reserved for longtime global heavyweights like the United States.

On the back of that, Xi called for China to play a bigger role in managing global affairs.

Washington has marshaled Western military and diplomatic efforts against Putin.

On Friday, Kirby told reporters, "A ceasefire now is, again, effectively the ratification of Russian conquest."

It would "in effect recognize Russia's gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbor's territory by force, allowing Russian troops to continue to occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory."

Russia could use a ceasefire to regroup "so that they can restart attacks on Ukraine at a time of their choosing," he warned.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Friday that Xi and Putin will discuss "bilateral relations and major international and regional issues of common concern."

"Currently, the world is entering a new period of turbulence and reform with the accelerated evolution of changes of the century," Kirby added." As permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and important major countries, the significance and impact of the China-Russia relations go far beyond the bilateral sphere."

PILOTS AWARDED

Russian fighter pilots involved in an incident with a U.S. drone that resulted in its crash will be given state awards, the Defense Ministry announced Friday. The move appears to signal Moscow's intention to adopt a more aggressive stance toward future U.S. surveillance flights.

The U.S. military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the Black Sea on Tuesday after a pair of Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the surveillance drone and then one of them struck its propeller while it was flying in international airspace.

Moscow has denied that its warplanes hit the drone, alleging that it crashed while making a sharp maneuver. It said its aircraft reacted to a violation of a no-flight zone Russia has established in the area near Crimea amid the fighting in Ukraine.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded the pilots Friday for preventing the drone from flying into the area that Moscow has banned for flights. His agency emphasized that the ban was "in line with international norms."

U.S. officials emphasized that they have not been able to determine whether the Russian pilot intentionally struck the American drone and stressed that lines of communication with Moscow remain open.

Russian officials also emphasized the need to maintain lines of communication, but they harshly denounced the U.S. action as arrogant disregard of Moscow's no-flight zone.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia's Security Council chaired by Putin, said Friday, "simply put, the Americans have become far too gross, and we shouldn't be too polite with them." He added on a more cautious note that "of course, contacts between the military are necessary."

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Corder, Raf Casert, Hanna Arhirova, Ellen Knickmeyer, Sarah El Deeb, Karl Ritter and staff members of The Associated Press, by Mark Landler of The New York Times and by Lily Kuo, David Stern, Meaghan Tobin, Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu of The Washington Post.

  photo  FILE - The exterior view of the International Criminal Court are pictured in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. The International Criminal Court said Friday, March 17, 2023 it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
 
 
  photo  FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Governor of Magadan Region Sergey Nosov via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Oct. 21, 2022. The International Criminal Court said Friday, March 17, 2023 it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
 
 
  photo  FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media after the summit of Caspian Sea littoral states in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Thursday, June 30, 2022. The International Criminal Court said Friday, March 17, 2023 it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine. (Dmitry Azarov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
 
 
  photo  Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the social and economic development of Crimea and Sevastopol via a videoconference at the Moscow's Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 17, 2023. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)