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Putin: a War Criminal?

March 25, 2023 | Expert Insights

The International Criminal Court (ICC) pulled a rabbit out of the bag when it issued arrest warrants for President Putin and his senior functionary for war crimes. The charge is the alleged forcible deportation of children from Ukraine as an organised move sanctioned by Moscow.

Predictably, the western media cheered the move while there were street protests in Russia in favour of Mr Putin. Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, former President and Prime Minister and now the deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia since 2020, went so far as to say that if any nation made any attempt to arrest the Russian President, it would be an act of war and Russia reserves the right to respond with all the force it can bring to bear, including "rockets." It was an ominous warning.

Russia does not endorse the ICC like the U.S., India, and many other countries.


The ICC warrants are addressed to President Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian children’s rights commissioner. It has been alleged in the charge that Ukrainian children have been forcibly deported from occupied territories to the Russian mainland. Nazi Germany did the same with the citizens of occupied nations in 1940 as millions of youths, male and female, were transported in cattle cars as slave labour for its war industry.

Thanks to a host of video clips going viral on social media, there is already a global impression generated that massive war crimes have been / are being committed in Ukraine by the Russian Army and its affiliates. The Russians, on their part, have been lagging in their influence operations. The only significant videos that have briefly appeared before being taken down by Youtube have been images of surrendering Russian soldiers being shot down out of hand, caught on drone images.

This is the first war crime charge but is unlikely to be the last. In a war that digital media have so much covered, there would be a wealth of information on alleged war crimes committed by both sides and recorded on smartphones by the perpetrators themselves.

Foreign Policy has cited a report released by the Yale School of Public Health, which claims that around 6,000 Ukrainian children were being held in Russian-controlled facilities in Russian and Crimea.



Such a move was widely expected once the European Commission established the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine (ICPA), a first step towards a special tribunal, in the first week of March. However, what is surprising is that it would come so abruptly and directly.

Evidently, the West, under the U.S., feels it is running out of options for forcing Mr Putin to stop the fighting, which is devastating not only Ukraine but also the economies of its western benefactors burdened with the incessant demands for more weapons, ammunition, tanks, aircraft and funds to support millions of displaced Ukrainians seeking shelter in neighbouring countries. Even worse is to come once fighting stops because rebuilding Ukraine will have a hefty price tag, with some experts pitching it at hundreds of billions. And Ukrainian leadership is not above skimming the milk for their betterment, as recent corruption cases at high places have come to light. All in all, there is tremendous pressure on the U.S. and its allies to bring the war to a swift closure and go on with other pressing issues like a crashing economy and resurgent China.

The move is to further isolate Mr Putin on the premise that anyone associating with him or providing arms, equipment and other assistance would be labelled an accessory to the crime. Theoretically, Mr Xi Jinping, who visited Moscow for a summit with Mr Putin after the ICC arrest had been issued, could be held accountable by the ICC. Incidentally, China also does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC.

As an immediate measure, President Putin may avoid travelling to any of the 123 signatory countries of the Rome Statute or a state like Ukraine, which has accepted ICC jurisdiction without signing the Rome Statute. No other coercive measures can be expected as the ICC has no police force under its control.


  • Considering that the western media has been full of images of alleged war crimes by the Russian Army and its affiliates in Ukraine, it was expected that the West-controlled ICC would be used to further tighten pressure on President Putin.
  • However, the move could backfire, making Kremlin even more obstinate and unwilling to make any concessions to Ukraine in future peace talks. It may also invoke domestic support for Mr Putin, as shown by street demonstrations against the ICC warrant, making the chances of a regime change much more difficult.
  • The West has set the ball in motion for the prosecution of Mr Putin and his associates with this charge which has a wider scope and is much easier to prove. More are likely to follow, more specific and targeting specific individuals within the Russian armed forces and government. Will the Ukrainians also be called to answer their war crimes, or have they been given a clean chit?