Will Vladimir Putin End Up In A Prison Cell After International Court Issues War Crimes Warrant?

Vladimir Putin arrest warrant seen in a press release from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Vladimir Putin arrest warrant seen in a press release from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Vladimir Putin arrest warrant seen in a press release from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) 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.

World leaders have been indicted before, but it is the first time the independent international organisation has issued a warrant against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Issuing its first warrant during the Ukraine war, the court called for Putin’s arrest on suspicion of unlawful deportation of children and unlawful transfer of people from the territory of Ukraine to Russia.

The tribunal, which sits at The Hague in the Netherlands, also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the Russian commissioner for children’s right, on similar allegations.

Russia, which is not a party to the court, said the move was meaningless. Moscow has repeatedly denied accusations that its forces have committed atrocities during its invasion of its neighbour. It was welcomed by Ukraine as a major breakthrough.

What is the International Criminal Court?

The ICC, which has 123 member states, was established in 2002 to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression when member states are unwilling or unable to do so themselves. A war crimes investigation can focus on soldiers, commanders and heads of state.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of the ICC and Moscow does not recognise the tribunal. But Ukraine has given its approval to examine alleged atrocities on its territory dating back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has visited four times since opening an investigation a year ago.

How is a war crime defined?

The ICC defines war crimes as “grave breaches” of the post-Second World War Geneva conventions, agreements which lay out the international humanitarian laws to be followed in war time.

Breaches include deliberately targeting civilians and attacking legitimate military targets where civilian casualties would be “excessive”, legal experts have said.

What investigations has it carried out?

The ICC is conducting 17 investigations, ranging from Ukraine and African states such as Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya to Venezuela in Latin America and Asian nations, such as Myanmar and the Philippines.

The ICC has convicted five men of war crimes and crimes against humanity, all African militia leaders from Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Uganda. Terms range from nine to 30 years in prison. The maximum possible term is life imprisonment.

What happens now?

The arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova theoretically mark the first step towards an eventual trial. It will be up to the international community to enforce them as the court has no police force of its own to chase down suspects.

The court’s president, Piotr Hofmanski, said: “The ICC is doing its part of work as a court of law. The judges issued arrest warrants. The execution depends on international cooperation.”

Although the court is supported by many United Nations members and the European Union, other major powers including the US and Russia are not members, arguing it could be used for politically motivated prosecutions.

Why is the charge so specific?

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 charge is specific because of the better likelihood of securing a conviction. Ukraine government figures put the number of children forcibly taken to Russia at 16,221.

After his most recent visit, in early March, ICC prosecutor Khan said he visited a care home for children 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.

What about other war crimes?

It could just be the start of a wave of prosecutions. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andry Yermak, said the arrest warrant issued for Putin is “just the beginning”.

More than 74,500 atrocities have been reported in Ukraine since Russia invaded, according to the prosecutor general’s office in Kyiv.

Ukrainian and Western authorities say there is evidence of murders and executions, shelling of civilian infrastructure, forced deportations, child abductions, torture, sexual violence and illegal detention.

The bombings of the theatre and maternity hospital in Mariupol appear to fall under the definition of war crimes.

Damaged buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine.
Damaged buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Damaged buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine.

What are the other avenues?

War crimes can also be prosecuted in Ukraine’s own courts, as well as a growing number of countries conducting their own investigations. A number of mostly European states have universal jurisdiction laws that would also allow them to prosecute Ukrainian war crimes.

The European Union recently announced the creation of an international centre for the prosecution of “aggression” in Ukraine, which is under the European prosecuting authority Eurojust, also in The Hague. This could eventually form the basis of a new tribunal.

In addition, a United Nations commission is collecting and documenting violations of international humanitarian law, to feed into the evidence being collected and shared at Eurojust. This could also could also support cases taken on by the ICC.

Will Putin appear end up behind bars?

The chances of a trial of any Russians at the ICC remains extremely unlikely. Moscow does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction, so is almost certain to refuse to comply with arrest warrants, meaning the capture and arraignment of Russia’s president is almost inconceivable.

Even if that did happen, previous ICC cases have shown it is hard to convict the most senior officials. In more than 20 years, the court has only issued five convictions for core crimes, and none were top officials.

The first former head of state ever to appear before the ICC, former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, was acquitted of all charges in 2019 after a three-year trial.  A top fugitive is former Sudanese leader Omar al Bashir, wanted for genocide in Darfur.

Russian presidential commissioner for children's rights Maria Lvova-Belova meets with Vladimir Putin at the state residence outside Moscow.
Russian presidential commissioner for children's rights Maria Lvova-Belova meets with Vladimir Putin at the state residence outside Moscow.

Russian presidential commissioner for children's rights Maria Lvova-Belova meets with Vladimir Putin at the state residence outside Moscow.

What about high-profile convictions?

But there are precedents for convictions, albeit under separate courts. The United Nations in 1993 created the separate International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to examine crimes that took place during the Balkan Wars, which issued 161 indictments and sentenced 90 individuals.

A year later, the United Nations set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to judge those responsible for the genocide and other crimes committed there and in neighboring states in 1994. It indicted 93 people and sentenced 62.

Are there other reasons why it matters?

The arrest warrants could prevent Putin from traveling around the world, as member nations are dutybound to arrest him, and may undermine his standing at home. On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment when asked if the president would avoid making trips to countries where he could be arrested on the ICC’s warrant.

Some have said the ICC action will have an important impact in acting as a deterrent and for justice for Ukrainians.

Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said: “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.

“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.”

Professor 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 told the Associated Press.