Earlier today, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and one of his underlings, for the crime of kidnapping and deporting Ukrainian children. Here is the ICC’s official announcement of the charges:
Mr Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, born on 7 October 1952, President of the Russian Federation, is allegedly 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 (under articles 8(2)(a)(vii) and 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute). The crimes were allegedly committed in Ukrainian occupied territory at least from 24 February 2022. There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes, (i) for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others (article 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute), and (ii) for his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts, or allowed for their commission, and who were under his effective authority and control, pursuant to superior responsibility (article 28(b) of the Rome Statute).
Ms Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, born on 25 October 1984, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, is allegedly 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 (under articles 8(2)(a)(vii) and 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute). The crimes were allegedly committed in Ukrainian occupied territory at least from 24 February 2022. There are reasonable grounds to believe that Ms Lvova-Belova bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes, for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others (article 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute).
Pre-Trial Chamber II considered, based on the Prosecution’s applications of 22 February 2023, that 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.
Russia (like the US and China) is not a party to the treaty establishing the ICC. But the Court can claim jurisdiction based on the fact that the relevant crimes were committed in Ukraine, and Ukraine has accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction.
The abduction and deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children is one of the most horrific Russian war crimes in Ukraine. But it’s also just the tip of a much larger iceberg of Russian atrocities in this conflict.
So long as Putin remains in power, it is unlikely that either he or his senior subordinates will actually be tried and convicted for their crimes, except perhaps in absentia. They certainly aren’t likely to face meaningful punishment. But pursuing the issue of Russian war crimes is still desirable for reasons I outlined in a previous post on this subject:
Despite the strong—and growing—evidence against Putin and other Russian leaders, the odds against trying and convicting them for war crimes are long….
But there is still value to pursuing the war crimes issue, including by investigating offenses and laying the groundwork for potential indictments and trials. First, there is some chance, even if small, that Putin will lose power if the war goes badly enough for him. History—including Russian history—has plenty of examples of despots who lost their grip on power after defeat in war.
Second, even if it turns out to be impossible to try and punish Putin, the same may not be true of other Russian officials and military personnel. Ukraine has taken many Russian prisoners, and some of them may be perpetrators of war crimes. Other Russian officials and military officers could potentially be arrested and detained if they travel beyond Russia’s borders in the future. For that very reason, they might choose to avoid such travel. But that denial itself functions as a modest (though far from properly proportional) form of retribution.
Finally, emphasis on the war crimes issue can help maintain opposition to Putin’s war in the West, and continue to mobilize international opinion against it. The criminal nature of the enterprise is one of the reasons (though certainly not the only reason) why the war has drawn so much international opposition, and turned Russia into a near-pariah state.
None of these admittedly modest gains will be anywhere near as satisfying as a Nuremberg-style tribunal in which Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials get tried, convicted, and punished. Sadly, such proceedings are usually only possible if the regime in question is overthrown. But we should not let the best be the enemy of the good—even the modestly good.
In the past, the ICC has sometimes been criticized for focusing primarily on various African despots and war criminals, often after they have already lost power. This has led to accusations that they are unwilling to go after major powers. Today’s arrest warrant for the leader of one of the world’s most powerful states is something of an answer to that critique.
Finally, the issue of child abduction should put to shame those Western social conservatives who sympathize with Putin because of his opposition to “wokeness.” The large-scale brutalization of children and separation of families should outweigh any possible common ground on things like transgenderism or pronouns. Those who turn a blind eye to the former because of the latter cannot credibly claim to be defenders of “family values.”