Last week, the International Criminal Court announced it was issuing an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin for the unlawful transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia since the start of the Russian invasion last year. According to Ukrainian statistics, over 16,000 children have been forcibly deported in that time; only around 10,000 have been located, and only around 300 have been returned. Some were taken from orphanages, while others were taken from parents under coercion in Russian-occupied areas and spirited away to “summer camps.” Still others were taken after they had become separated from their families at filtration points. Many of these children have been formally adopted by Russian families, amid reports that they are being indoctrinated with anti-Ukraine propaganda.
Though the child deportation scheme is horrifying, the ICC’s decision to focus on it might surprise some observers. It had attracted relatively less attention in the media compared to all the other possible war crimes Russian forces have allegedly committed in Ukraine. And Putin can and probably will argue that Ukraine failed to adequately protect the children in its orphanages, and that the Russians were only seeking to keep these and other children out of a conflict zone.
Why did the ICC not instead—or also—indict Putin for mass rape, after reports that many women, girls, men and boys have been targeted for sexual violence in the armed conflict? Or for the widely reported massacres and indiscriminate shelling of civilians? Why not for the crime of aggression itself? All of these crimes have been in the limelight, and due to the nature of the conflict, they are crimes where there is no possibility of turning the tables by accusing Ukraine of being culpable.