The US president, Joe Biden, has backed the International Criminal Court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin over his role in the abduction of Ukrainian children, saying it was “justified”.
Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was among other international leaders who welcomed the decision, saying on Saturdayyesterday that it showed “nobody is above the law”.
Thousands of Ukrainian children have been forcibly deported to Russia, where many have been adopted by Russian families. It is just one of many crimes – including torture and the deliberate targeting of civilians – for which Ukraine wants to see Russian soldiers and politicians held to account.
Volodymr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, hailed it as a historic decision “from which historic responsibility will begin”.
The warrant is unlikely to lead to a trial. Putin cannot be tried in absentia, and can only be arrested if he travels to one of the 123 countries that are members of the ICC. Russia, Putin’s key ally China, and the US have all declined to become members.
Biden acknowledged this, even as he said the warrant made “a very strong point”.
This marks the first time the court has issued an arrest warrant against the leader of one of the five permanent members of the UN security council.
Putin will now be labelled an alleged war criminal for the rest of his life by the court responsible for investigating some of the most serious violations of recent decades. It puts him in the same company as infamous figures such as Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Yugoslavia, and the former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir.
At a time when Moscow is seeking to win support for its war – or neutralise backing for Ukraine – among countries in the global south, it will potentially limit his travel. However, ICC member countries do not have to enforce arrest warrants, and have declined to do so in the past.
The warrant, along with one for Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, also sends a strong message to other senior Russian military and civilian officials who are playing a role in the war.
It is now clear they can be held accountable for what they are doing, by lawyers who are closely monitoring events in Ukraine. Even if Putin’s government protects them at home, at the very least their travel could be severely restricted if they appear on future warrants.
In the UK, the Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, said the decision sent an important message: “There will be no hiding place for Putin and his cronies, and the world is determined to make them pay for what they have done.”
He also suggested more warrants were likely to follow: “These cases are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Russia has denied committing atrocities, and in Moscow the arrest warrant was met with predictable outrage. Pro-Putin figures presented it as evidence that Washington was pushing for regime change in the country, even though the US is not a member of the ICC.
“Yankees, hands off Putin!” the parliamentary speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin – a close ally of the president – wrote on Telegram. “We regard any attacks on the president of the Russian Federation as aggression against our country.”
The warrant is likely to bolster the standing of pro-war Russian hardliners who have sought to present the invasion of Ukraine as an existential battle for national survival.
“All pro-western liberal forces who looked for compromise with the west will be fired,” wrote Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin political analyst and former Kremlin adviser.
“The Kremlin’s only path can be that of a military victory.”
The Russian opposition, which has largely fled abroad since the start of the war, hailed Friday’s announcement.
“Yes, it’s a symbolic step. But what an important one,” said Leonid Volkov, a close ally of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
And while Putin’s opponents acknowledged that the warrant would make little difference to the Russian leader’s status, they welcomed the decision as an appropriate response to his likely role in the abduction of children.
“Now Putin is truly an international pariah,” Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian human rights lawyer, told the Observer.
“I exclude the possibility that the deportation of Ukrainian children was carried out without his knowledge, without his consent and without his order.”
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