Vladimir Putin's arrest warrant: could the Russian leader face trial?

Vladimir Putin - AFP
Vladimir Putin - AFP
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The International Criminal Court issued only its third arrest warrant for a sitting head of state when it ordered the apprehension of Vladimir Putin on Friday.

After a lengthy investigation into potential war crimes in Ukraine, the Hague-based court ruled that the Russian president was allegedly responsible for the “unlawful deportation” of thousands of children from the war-torn country.

Maria Lvova-Belova, a member of Putin's government and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, was also hit with a warrant for her role in the alleged war crime.

The announcement by the ICC was met with jubilation in Ukraine, and praised by Kyiv’s Western allies.

But what does it really mean for Putin?

What is an ICC arrest warrant?

The International Criminal Court in The Hague prosecutes those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Established in 1998, the court was given its powers by 60 countries that signed the Rome Statute. It’s membership has since more than doubled.

The ICC has powers to investigate alleged crimes if the offence is committed inside one of its member states or a country that recognises the court’s powers.

It can issue arrest warrants to anyone where there is legal standing to suggest they have committed a war crime in order to stand trial for the alleged misdemeanour.

What is Vladimir Putin charged with?

The Russian president, and his children’s rights commissioner, were charged with alleged responsibility 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 court said there were “reasonable grounds to believe Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the alleged crimes, for having either committed them directly or ordered others to do so.

The Ukrainian government believes as many as 16,000 children have been forcibly taken to Russia.

Western governments also alleged that Moscow has deported thousands of children to Russia, often through a complex network of re-education camps.

Russia has never hidden the fact that it has moved Ukrainian children, but insists the Kremlin-sponsored scheme is important humanitarian work to protect them from the dangers of war.

Will the Russian president actually be arrested?

It is highly unlikely that Putin will ever face trial for his alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Anyone accused of a crime in the jurisdiction of the court can be tried, but the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia.

This means the Russian president would either have to be handed over by Russia or arrested outside of his own country.

The ICC has no police force on its own so relies on member states to detain and transfer suspects to The Hague for trial.

The court’s limitations are well known. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, has been indicted, but has never been arrested in other countries where he has travelled.

So what does the arrest warrant really mean?

It is mostly symbolic, and likely to give Ukraine a massive morale boost after more than a year of Russian onslaught.

However, an outstanding ICC arrest warrant will have some more practical implications for Putin.

Currently there are 123 member states that have promised to enforce the ICC’s orders, including Britain and the entirety of the European Union.

This leaves the Russian president with very few travel options, and mainly restricted to trips to countries that retain sympathy to his cause such as Iran, China and North Korea.

While the legal move obligates countries to arrest Putin and transfer him to The Hague, not all of the signatories to the Rome Statute will enforce arrest warrants on behalf of the ICC.

Outstanding arrest warrants rarely expire, and are often only rescinded upon death, as with the order to apprehend Muammar Gaddafi, the late Libyan dictator.

How did the ICC reach its decision to charge Putin?

Prosecutor Karim Khan last year launched an investigation into potential war crimes committed in Ukraine.

He has made multiple personal visits to the war-torn country, while a team of investigators have worked relentlessly to gather evidence.

Mr Khan has previously said the illegal deportation of children was a priority for his investigation.

Evidence was collected both to implicate and exonerate for the alleged crimes.

What does Russia have to say about the issue?

Moscow has repeatedly denied accusations that its forces have committed war crimes during its one-year invasion of Ukraine.

Shortly after the ICC made its announcement, the Kremlin branded the court’s decision “null and void”.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said Russia found the questions raised to be “outrageous and unacceptable”.

Asked about Putin’s future travel to ICC countries, he added: “I have nothing to add on this subject. That’s all we want to say.”

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said the announcement had “no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view”.

“Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and bears no obligations under it,” she added.

Has the ICC ever convicted someone for war crimes?

The court made its historic first conviction in March 2012, when Thomas Lubanga was found guilty of war crimes for using child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After two decades, it has heard 31 cases and convicted 10 people.

After a lengthy six-step process, judges can sentence anyone found guilty to up to 30 years in prison, with life sentences handed out in exceptional circumstances.