Updated March 17, 2023 at 3:30 PM ET

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes involving accusations that Russia has forcibly taken Ukrainian children.

The ICC also issued a warrant for Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

The court said in a news release Friday the two are “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.”

The move by the criminal court at the Hague marked a significant, rare step, requesting the arrest of a sitting world leader — even as analysts acknowledged the chances of arresting President Putin on the charges were slim.

Indeed, in Moscow, officials were quick to note Russia had never signed on as a party to the ICC as they dismissed the charges outright.

“The very question itself is outrageous and unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Russia, like a number of other states, does not recognize the jurisdiction of this court, and therefore any of its decisions are insignificant for the Russian Federation from a legal viewpoint.”

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin called the court’s decision “historic.”

Like the United States, Ukraine is also not a party to the ICC. But Kostin noted that the Ukrainian government has cooperated with the court on criminal investigations in its territory. He said his office handed more than 1,000 pages of documents over to the ICC regarding the alleged forcible deportation of children to Russia.

A report released last month by Yale University researchers and the U.S. State Department accused the Russian government of operating a systematic network of custody centers for thousands of Ukrainian children.

Russian officials have not denied the arrival of Ukrainian children in the country, but have characterized the centers for children as part of a large humanitarian program for abandoned, war-traumatized orphans.

The court warrant is a “stunning move”

ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said the judges decided to make these warrants public to try to deter further crimes.

“It is forbidden by international law for occupying powers to transfer civilians from the territories where they live to other territories,” he said. “Children enjoy special protection under the Geneva Convention.”

Experts appeared surprised by the news.

“I hoped [this would happen], but I didn’t know it would be this quick,” said Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab.

“This is a stunning move by the court, which has moved right to the top of the Russian state,” said David Bosco, author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics.

However, Bosco cautioned, “The arrest warrant won’t have immediate implications because no trial can move forward without Putin being in custody and there’s no chance of that happening in the near future.”

Despite the difficulty of trying Putin, human rights advocates hailed the news as a major step.

“This is a big day for the many victims of crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “With these arrest warrants, 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.”

Russia discusses adopting Ukrainian children

While Russia has vigorously rejected allegations of war crimes committed by its forces in Ukraine, it has made little secret of relocating Ukrainian children to Russia — presenting it as a noble humanitarian effort.

President Putin hosted Lvova-Belova, the children’s rights commissioner, for a meeting at the Kremlin in February in which the two openly discussed Russian adoption programs for Ukrainian children in occupied territories in Ukraine — including Lvova-Belova’s new teenage son.

A transcript of the conversation is posted on the Kremlin’s website.

“You also adopted a child from Mariupol, is that right?” asked Putin.

“Yes, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lvova-Belova responded, using the Russian leader’s patronymic. “Thanks to you.”

It was a remarkable admission: Ukraine halted adoptions after Russia invaded the country, and adopting children from a country at war is against international law.

Lvova-Belova noted that if biological relatives are found, her commission would work to return the children to their Ukrainian families, “wherever they are located, in Ukraine or another country.”

To which Putin said, “That’s absolutely right.”

For the U.S., it’s complicated

Bosco, the international studies expert who wrote about the ICC, says the court’s new case raises some uncomfortable questions for the United States.

Even though American leaders call Putin a “war criminal” and accuse Russia of “crimes against humanity” in Ukraine, the U.S. is not a signatory to the court’s statute and has a complicated relationship with it.

“This is going to be another awkward moment for the United States because of the U.S. position that the ICC should not be able to prosecute nonmember state citizens,” Bosco says.

In 2020, the Trump administration leveled sanctions against the ICC’s chief prosecutor at the time, who was investigating allegations that U.S. troops committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

In the Biden administration, meanwhile, there are reports of an internal dispute: While the Justice and State Departments favor sharing intelligence with the international court about Russian atrocities, the Pentagon has blocked it over concerns of setting a precedent that allows for prosecutions against Americans, according to The New York Times.

Alex Leff and Michele Kelemen reported from Washington, D.C. Charles Maynes reported from Moscow.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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