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 very 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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
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.
Senior Ukrainian officials applauded the ICC, with Ukraine’s prosecutor general Andriy Kostin saying the decision was “historic for Ukraine and the entire international law system”.
“Wheels of justice are turning: I applaud the ICC decision to issue arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova over forcible transfer of Ukrainian children,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.