Mar 21, 2023 - World

What to know about the ICC arrest warrant against Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin giving a speech

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting at the Interior Ministry on March 20. Photo: Contributor/Getty Images

The International Criminal Court's decision last week to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin marked its most significant step yet to try to hold the Russian leader accountable for the alleged atrocities committed during the war in Ukraine.

Why it matters: The decision was also the first time the court has indicted a leader of one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

  • Putin joins a small group of world leaders who have been indicted for alleged war crimes while still serving as head of state. Others include Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

What is Putin accused of?

The ICC accused Putin of the unlawful deportation and unlawful transfer of children from occupied parts of Ukraine to Russia, in violation of the Rome Statute.

  • The ICC alleged that Putin committed the crimes "directly, jointly with others and/or through others" and failed to properly "exercise control" over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts or allowed for their commission.
  • The ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia's commissioner for children’s rights, over similar allegations.

State of play: The transfers and deportations of Ukrainian children are allegedly ongoing, the ICC said.

  • Russia systematically relocated at least 6,000 children from Ukraine to Russia since the start of the war, a Conflict Observatory report published in February said.
  • The Russian Embassy in the U.S. called the allegations "absurd" in a statement last month, saying that Russia ensured the protected the "lives and well-being" of Ukrainian children.
  • Karim Khan, the ICC's chief prosecutor, said in a statement last week that the cases his office had identified included "at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and children’s care homes."

What is the International Criminal Court?

The ICC, located in The Hague, is intended to investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes, such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

  • The ICC was established by the Rome Statute in 2002 and has 123 member states that are party to the statute.

Zoom in: Some 40 countries — including China, India and Saudi Arabia — never signed the Rome Statute.

  • Dozens of other states — including the U.S., Israel, Syria and Iran — signed it but never had their legislatures ratify it.
  • Russia initially signed the Rome Statute but withdrew its signature in 2016 after the ICC classified its annexation of Crimea as an occupation.
  • Ukraine is not a state party to the Rome Statute but has twice accepted the ICC's jurisdiction in response to alleged crimes occurring on its territory.

Will Putin be arrested and face trial?

Chances are slim that either of the ICC cases will make it to trial at this point. The ICC cannot conduct a trial unless the relevant people are in custody — and Russia is unlikely to turn over its own people.

  • The ICC's 123 member states are obligated to arrest Putin if he steps into their territory, but Putin is unlikely to travel to any country where he would face such a risk.

What does Russia say about the ICC and arrest warrant?

Russia considers the ICC's warrants "null and void" because it does not recognize the court's jurisdiction, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Russian-state media last week.

  • Days after the ICC issued the arrest warrants, Russia's top investigative body issued a symbolic rebuttal, announcing that it was opening a criminal case into the ICC's prosecutor and judges.

What does Ukraine say about the arrest warrant?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the ICC's "historic decision" in his nightly address Friday.

  • "Separating children from their families, depriving them of any opportunity to contact their relatives, hiding children on the territory of Russia, throw them in remote regions — all this is an obvious state policy of Russia, state decisions and state evil. Which begins precisely with the top official of this state," he added.

Go deeper: What counts as a war crime and why they're so hard to prosecute

Go deeper