Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced on Friday that it had issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and another key Russian official for charges related to an alleged scheme to forcibly deport thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, it also effectively placed Putin’s name on a short list alongside some of the most brutal leaders the world has seen since the end of World War II. With that, it branded him before the entire world — including the Russian people — as an international pariah, potentially guilty of historically egregious crimes.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the ICC’s move “outrageous and unacceptable,” dismissing the warrants as “null and void” for Russia. But there’s no question that this is a stunning, historical reputational blow not just to Putin but to modern Russia.
Only three sitting heads of state have faced ICC charges while in office. The other two were the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir, both accused of horrifying crimes against their own people.
Russia is not Libya or Sudan, both impoverished developing nations barely out of colonial rule. Russia is one of the countries that helped defeat Hitler’s Germany in World War II. It is a once-proud nation that emerged from world war, and later from communism, with vast natural resources, a highly educated population and a drive to become a thriving democracy. It faced many challenges, but had a promising future.
Then came Putin, handpicked by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin and then elected president more than 20 years ago, who dismantled democracy block by block, tightening his hold on power and crushing the country’s democratic aspirations even before he launched his brutal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Putin is now an accused — not convicted — war criminal. By most accounts, he enjoys the support of most Russians. Perhaps this will give some of them reason to reconsider. But one day, the Russian people will look beyond the propaganda they’ve been fed, and they will understand the horror of what’s been perpetrated in their name.
There’s almost no chance that Putin will face an ICC tribunal in The Hague anytime soon. As Peskov reiterated in his statement, Russia does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, and as long as Putin is president, he’s likely to remain free. But, unless he faces the court and then somehow manages to clear his name — an outcome that is doubly unlikely — he will forever bear the branding of an accused war criminal.
Putin, along with Maria Lvova-Belova, his “Commissioner for Children’s Rights,” are now formally accused of violating the laws of war by forcibly removing Ukrainian children and deporting them to Russia. In the ICC’s words, they 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.” The arrest warrant states that there are “reasonable grounds to believe Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes.”
For now, the ICC is focusing narrowly on just one, but a particularly horrifying and cruel, aspect of Russia’s Ukraine campaign. Russia has allegedly been removing children from Ukraine and placing them in relocation camps inside Russia and in Russian homes. Lvova-Belova has been instrumental in carrying out the policy, which is not being conducted in secret. In fact, she publicly thanked Putin for making it possible for her, personally, to adopt a child from Donbas, a Russian-occupied area of Ukraine.
The Russian government claims it’s all practically a humanitarian move, aimed at saving Ukrainian children in a war zone. The ICC says it’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions. ICC prosecutors, Ukrainian authorities and groups focusing on locating the children say it’s part of Putin’s concerted effort to erase Ukraine’s nationhood. US and European officials say the children spend time in a network of dozens of camps where they undergo political reeducation, an effort to turn them into Russian citizens.
Ukrainian parents are desperately trying to get their children back.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan said the acts alleged in the warrant, “demonstrate an intention to permanently remove these children from their own country.”
These are just the first two arrest warrants over only one aspect of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Khan’s office said they’re looking for more suspects and will issue more arrest warrants if the evidence justifies.
There’s good reason to expect more. Ukrainian officials and several organizations have been painstakingly documenting what they believe are not only war crimes but also crimes against humanity, in the expectation that eventually there will be a reckoning.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the news. In his nightly update to the nation on Friday, he called the ICC’s move “a historic decision that will lead to historic responsibility.”
Zelensky says Ukraine has already recorded 16,000 individual cases of forcible deportations of children,” but the full number, he noted, is probably much higher. “Such a criminal operation,” he declared, “would have been impossible without the order of the highest leader of the terrorist state.”
By that, he meant Putin.
Putin’s ability to travel is now severely restricted, as more than 120 signatory countries to the Rome Statute creating the ICC are now required to arrest him if he sets foot in their territory. ICC President Judge Piotr Hofmanski said the countries are “obliged to execute arrest warrants issues by the court.”
Putin may think he could never be arrested; could never end up in The Hague. But a small rogue’s gallery of 20th century war-mongers, monsters to many of their people and their neighbors, went from feeling perfectly secure in their palaces to facing a tribunal in The Hague after they lost power at home.
Whether or not Putin is ever put in handcuffs, his place in history is now secure in the darkest pages of massacres and misrule.