THE HAGUE: The International Criminal Court on Friday (Mar 17) announced an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on the war crime accusation of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children.
The Hague-based ICC said it had also issued a warrant against Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia's presidential commissioner for children's rights, on similar charges.
The Kremlin dismissed the orders as "void". Russia is not a party to the ICC so it was unclear if or how Putin could ever be extradited.
War-battered Ukraine welcomed the ICC announcement, with the nation's chief prosecutor saying the "historic" warrant for Putin was "just the beginning".
The court's shock notice came hours after other news with potential to significantly impact Russia's war on Ukraine, including a Moscow visit from Chinese leader Xi Jinping and more fighter jets for Kyiv's forces.
More than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the Feb 24, 2022 invasion, according to Kyiv, with many allegedly placed in institutions and foster homes.
The warrants, issued after an application by ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, were "for the alleged war crimes of deportation of children from Ukrainian occupied territories into the Russian Federation" since the invasion, he said.
ICC President Piotr Hofmanski added "the execution (of the warrants) depends on international cooperation".
"SPOILS OF WAR"
During a meeting with Putin in mid-February, Lvova-Belova said she adopted a 15-year-old child from the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
"Now I know what it means to be a mother of a child from Donbass - it is a difficult job but we love each other, that is for sure," she told Putin.
She added that "we evacuated children's homes into safe areas, arranged rehabilitation and prosthetics for them and provided them with targeted humanitarian assistance."
The arrest warrant for Putin - a sitting head of state of a UN Security Council member - is an unprecedented step for the International Criminal Court.
Set up in 2002, the ICC is a court of last resort for the world's worst crimes, when countries cannot or will not prosecute suspects.
Prosecutor Khan launched an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine just days after Russia's invasion.
Khan said earlier this month after a visit to Ukraine, during which he posted a picture of himself alongside empty cots in an empty children's care home, that investigating alleged child abduction was a priority".
"Children cannot be treated as the spoils of war," he said in the statement on Mar 7.
Ukraine's prosecutor general Andriy Kostin, who met Khan on his visit, hailed the decision.
"The world received a signal that the Russian regime is criminal and its leadership and henchmen will be held accountable," Kostin said on social media.
But Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed the ICC warrants.
"The decisions of the International Criminal Court have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view," Zakharova said on social media.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev added on Twitter that the ICC "has issued an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin. No need to explain WHERE this paper should be used," adding a toilet paper emoji.
Earlier in the day, Beijing and Moscow announced that Chinese leader and strategic ally Xi would be in Russia next week to sign accords ushering in a new era of ties.
The United States has accused China of mulling arms shipments to support Russia's campaign -- claims Beijing has strongly denied.
The arrest warrants come a day after UN investigators said Russia's forced transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children to areas under its control amounts to a war crime, UN investigators said Thursday.
The investigators said parents and children had spoken of youngsters being informed by Russian social services that they would be placed in foster families or adopted.
ICC president Hofmanski said it was forbidden under the Geneva Convention for occupying powers to transfer civilians.
The contents of the arrest warrants were being kept secret "in order to protect the victims", he said.
"Nevertheless the judges of the chamber dealing with this case decided to make the existence of the warrants public in the interests of justice and to prevent the commission of future crimes,"
The court said in a separate statement that there were "reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility".
Putin was allegedly responsible both directly by committing the acts and for "failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates", it said.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of the ICC, but Kyiv has accepted the court's jurisdiction and is working with Khan's office.
Russia denies allegations of war crimes by its troops. Experts have said it is unlikely it would ever hand over any suspects.
With fighting still raging in Ukraine, Kyiv welcomed the news Friday that Slovakia will donate 13 MiG-29 warplanes.
Ukraine has long requested fighter jets from Western allies, although seeking primarily modern US-made F-16s.