The International Criminal Court said on Friday it issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine.
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."
It also issued a warrant Friday for the arrest of Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, on similar allegations.
The move was immediately dismissed by Moscow and welcomed by Ukraine as a major breakthrough. Its practical implications, though, could well be negligible.
Even if the court has court has indicted world leaders before, it was the first time it issued a warrant against one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The court’s president, Piotr Hofmanski, said in a video statement that while the ICC’s judges have issued the warrants, it will be up to the international community to enforce them. The court has no police force of its own to enforce warrants.
"The ICC is doing its part of work as a court of law," he said. "The judges issued arrest warrants. The execution depends on international cooperation."
The chances of a trial of any Russians at the ICC remains extremely unlikely, as Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction— a position it vehemently reaffirmed on Friday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Russia doesn’t recognize the ICC and considers its decisions "legally void." He added that Russia considers 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 ICC’s warrant.
Ukrainian officials were jubilant.
"The world changed," said presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. 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."
Olga Lopatkina, a Ukrainian mother who struggled for months to reclaim her foster children who were deported to an institution ran by Russian loyalists, welcomed the news of the arrest warrant. "Good news!" she said in an exchange of messages with the Associated Press. "Everyone must be punished for their crimes."
Ukraine also is not a member of the international court, but it has granted it jurisdiction over its territory and ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has visited four times since opening an investigation a year ago.
The ICC said its pre-trial chamber found "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 court statement said that "there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility" for the child abductions "for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others (and) for his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts.
After his most recent visit, in early March, ICC prosecutor Khan said he visited a care home for children two kilometers (just over a mile) from front lines in southern Ukraine.
"The drawings pinned on the wall ... spoke to a context of love and support that was once there. 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," he said in a statement. "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."
And while Russia rejected the allegations and warrants of the court as null and void, others said the ICC 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."
Prof. David 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 to include heads of state."
Taylor was eventually detained and put on trial at a special court in the Netherlands. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years' imprisonment.
"This is an important day for justice and for the citizens of Ukraine," Crane said in a written comment to the Associated Press Friday.
On Thursday, a UN-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.
But on Friday, the ICC put the face of Putin on the child abduction allegations.