In a major step forward in the effort to recognize Russian crimes in Ukraine , the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The charges focused on some of the most disturbing crimes of the Russian invasion: thousands of Ukrainian children who were kidnapped and transported into Russia. According to analyses by global analysts, these crimes not only threaten the most vulnerable Ukrainians and rip apart families, but also represent a systematic effort to erase Ukrainian identity by re-educating children to be Russian.
In a statement to reporters, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, noted that Russia does not recognize the ICC. “We view even posing this question to be itself outrageous and unacceptable,” he said.
Here’s what you need to know about the charges against Putin, and why they are significant.
What are the charges against Putin?
The ICC has charged Putin over Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian children under two articles of the Rome Statute, which established the court: unlawful deportations of civilians, and unlawfully moving them from occupied Ukraine into Russia.
Additionally, the ICC issued an arrest warrant under the same charges for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, who is believed to be in charge of programs involving children. The announcement follows a report from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday, which found that Russia has committed war crimes, including forcibly moving children.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears 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, in prejudice of Ukrainian children,” the ICC said in a statement.
Although the exact number of children who have been moved to Russia is unknown, both Russian and Ukrainian authorities have said that hundreds of thousands of children have been moved into Russia, according to the U.N.’s report. Russian officials allegedly placed children with foster families and granted them Russian citizenship, including children who had lost or been separated from their parents, or were separated when their parents were detained.
Russia has publicly acknowledged the program, but has argued that the children were transferred for their own protection. But other reports have disputed this, including a U.N. investigation.
“The transfers were not justified by safety or medical reasons,” the report said. “There seems to be no indication that it was impossible to allow the children to relocate to territory under Ukrainian Government control. It also does not appear that Russian authorities sought to establish contact with the children’s relatives or with Ukrainian authorities.”
Could Putin be arrested?
It’s very unlikely that Putin will be arrested while he is in power. The ICC does not have its own police force, so it relies on countries to enforce its arrest warrants.
Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court and which 123 states are signatories to, and Putin is unlikely to travel to a country that agreed to the Statute in the near term. Even if he were to travel abroad, there’s no guarantee that he would be arrested, as countries he traveled to would need to be willing to arrest him.
“Putin is not going to leave Russia. There is no world government that could compel to leave Russia,” says Bill Bowring, a professor at Birkbeck College, University of London who has represented cases against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights. “I don’t think there’s any way he’s going to suffer personal consequences.”
Russia remains one of the most powerful countries in the world, with a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons—and arresting Russia’s leader could have dramatic consequences for any country that attempted it.
There’s also precedent for flouting the ICC: former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir traveled internationally numerous times in spite of an ICC arrest warrant for his involvement in the Darfur genocide.
Even if Putin and his allies were to lose power in Russia, a government that wanted to extradite him would face a major hurdle: the Russian constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens to another state.
The International Criminal Court also isn’t likely to try Putin without arresting him, as the court does not conduct trials in absentia, without the accused present.
If Putin won’t be arrested, why do the charges matter?
The announcement could have major effects on public opinion, both internationally and within Russia itself. The International Criminal Court, which takes judges from around the world, is respected in many parts of the world, says Bowring. This means that the charges will further weaken Putin’s global standing.
While many western countries have shunned Russia, Putin has continued to hope for “sympathy” from countries like India and South Africa, which might feel that Russia was forced to act in Ukraine as a result of its treatment by NATO, Bowring says. The ICC’s charges will make that position less defensible.
“It really shows that Russia is an outlier in the international community,” says Patrick Keenan, a professor with expertise in international law at University of Illinois College of Law.
The announcement may also help to bolster support for Ukraine among NATO member states, and help to push some to send a greater quantity and variety of weapons to Ukraine, Keenan says. In the long term, he says, it may even strengthen support for a powerful NATO.
The charges may also weaken Putin’s position within Russia. As Bowring notes, Putin has positioned himself as the leader who upholds “traditional family values,” and a defender of children, in contrast to an impure west. “I suspect that is something that Russia will be sensitive to, because Russia in general likes to show that it’s particularly concerned about children,” says Bowring.
Could Putin or other Russians be charged with genocide or other crimes?
The International Criminal Court will likely file additional charges related to the Russian invasion—possibly even within the next few months, says Keenan. Russian leaders, soldiers and mercenaries appear to have committed a number of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, including targeting civilians.
The arrest warrant for crimes involving the transfer of children is particularly significant, because such a crime could also have been filed as a charge of genocide. According to Keenan, the ICC may have chosen to charge Russia with war crimes, and not genocide, may have been because it’s easier to make the case—or, he says, because they’re still in the process of building a genocide case. “I would guess that there would be genocide charges,” he says. “I think there is evidence that Russia and Russian forces have tried to exterminate Ukrainians.”