The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin over the abduction of Ukrainian children.
The Russian president was accused of war crimes, including forcibly deporting “hundreds” of Ukrainian children, among them orphans, to Russia.
The announcement came ahead of one of the most crucial weeks of the war, with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, set to visit Moscow on Monday in an attempt to broker a ceasefire.
The US and UK said any Chinese-brokered deal would be meaningless if it accepted Moscow’s refusal to leave territories it occupies inside Ukraine.
The White House declared that such a ceasefire would be a “ratification of Russian conquest”, while Downing Street said any settlement “not predicated on Ukraine’s sovereignty” was “not a peace deal at all”.
The warrant means Putin could face arrest in more than 100 countries that recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. He became only the third serving president to be issued with an an ICC arrest warrant, after Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s late dictator.
Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, said an important marker had been laid down, adding: “It’s going to be a long journey, but people said that about Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and many of those people responsible for the carnage ended up in the dock of a court.”
Mr Raab urged Ukraine’s allies to step up the search for proof of Russian war crimes to aid the investigation.
There was a furious response in Moscow, with Vyacheslav Volodin, the parliament speaker and a close ally of the Russian president, saying: “Yankees, hands off Putin!”
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, said: “The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin. No need to explain where this paper should be used.”
More than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the invasion 13 months ago, according to Kyiv.
Karim Khan, the ICC prosecutor, who is British, said Putin had changed the law in his country to make it easier for Russian families to adopt children snatched from Ukraine.
He added: “We cannot allow children to be treated as if they are the spoils of war. Today is a first, concrete step with respect to the situation in Ukraine.”
Kyiv welcomed the arrest warrant and said it was “just the beginning” of seeking justice over Russia’s invasion.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, said: “The world changed. It’s a clear signal to Russian elites of what will happen to them and why it won’t be ‘as before’. It’s the beginning of the Russian Federation’s end in its current form on the world stage.”
Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said: “Over 16,000 incidents of forcible deportation of children… we fear the real numbers may be higher. Russia is literally tearing apart our future.”
Russia, like the US, is not one of the 123 countries that are parties to the ICC under the Rome Statute, which established the court. A future trial of Putin is therefore highly improbable, but the warrant is expected to have an impact on his ability to travel because he could be arrested and sent to The Hague.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the warrant was “from a legal point of view, null and void”, and also “outrageous and unacceptable”.
The ICC announcement came a month after a report by researchers at Yale University, backed by the US State Department, which said at least 6,000 Ukrainian children, and probably many more, had been held for “political re-education” at sites in Crimea and Russia. The report identified a “large-scale systematic network” of at least 43 camps operated by Moscow.
Some of the children, as young as four months, had been moved through the camps and then adopted by Russian families or placed in foster care in Russia. Nathaniel Raymond, one of the Yale researchers, said: “This network stretches from one end of Russia to the other.”
According to the ICC, there were “reasonable grounds to believe that Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the deportations.
A warrant was also issued for the arrest on similar allegations of Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian president’s commissioner for children’s rights.
In a response, she said: “It is great that the international community has appreciated our work to help the children of our country.”
The ICC has no police force to enforce warrants, and it would be up to the international community to do so. Piotr Hofmanski, the ICC president, said: “The ICC is doing its part of work as a court of law. The judges issued arrest warrants. The execution depends on international cooperation.”
Mr Xi’s expected visit to Moscow next week will be his first meeting with Putin since September. Beijing has offered to help broker peace talks, seeking to portray itself as neutral, but has refused to condemn Russian aggression and declared last year that it had a “no-limits” friendship with Moscow.