The International Criminal Court has just issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, for the alleged crime of unlawfully deporting and transferring Ukrainian children from the occupied territories of the country to Russia.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children,” the court’s statement, released on March 17, said.
Ukraine and numerous allied countries have been thoroughly documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine since the full-scale assault began a year ago, in hopes of future prosecution. The court’s warrants are some of the first to emerge from this process. The fact that Lvova-Belova, 38, a key official directly responsible for the Russian system of forcefully relocating Ukrainian children from their country, is wanted by the ICC suggests there is substantial, credible evidence supporting allegations against her and the practice that is considered a war crime.
“It is forbidden by international law for occupying powers to transfer civilians from the territory they live in to other territories. Children enjoy special protection under the Geneva Convention,” said the court’s President Judge Piotr Hofmanski in a video statement on Friday. “Children enjoy special protection under the Geneva convention.”
Since the start of the invasion, on Feb. 24, 2022, at least 16,226 Ukrainian children have been forcefully relocated to Russian territory, of whom only 308 have returned, according to the Ukrainian government. Some of the children are orphans, others have either lost their parents to the bombings or have been taken from them. In Russia, the children have been placed in Russian families, camps and orphanages and subjected to political re-education, trying to turn them pro-Russia.
In a report released earlier this year by the Yale Conflict Observatory, a program backed by the United States State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, researchers identified 43 facilities in Russia where children were relocated, sometimes placing them thousands of miles from Ukraine. At least 32 of the camps were engaging in re-education plans seemingly designed to erase Ukrainian culture and integrate the children into Russian society.
The report called the abduction of children one of the “grave violations against children during armed conflict” — action that could be considered a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. Lvova-Belova appears to lead the abduction system; according to the report, she personally sponsored numerous camps and, at least once, accompanied more than 50 Ukrainian children on a plane from the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine to the Moscow area.
“Maria Lvova-Belova is one of the most highly involved figures in Russia’s deportation and adoption of Ukraine’s children, as well as in the use of camps for ‘integrating’ Ukraine’s children into Russia’s society and culture,” report stated.
Who is Maria Lvova-Belova?
Born and raised in Penza, a city in western Russia about 400 miles from Moscow, Lvova-Belova is the mother of at least 10 children — five biological and five adopted. In 2021, she and her husband had another 13 children under their guardianship.
After the start of the war last year, Lvova-Belova also “adopted” a teenage boy named Filip from Ukraine.
“Now I know what it means to be a mother of a child from Donbas. It’s hard, but we definitely love each other. I think we can handle anything,” she told Putin, smiling during their working meeting in February 2023.
Lvova-Belova’s involvement in children’s rights activism started in 2008, when she found out that a local hospital had a wing for abandoned children. Lvova-Belova and her husband, Pavel Kogelman, then a programmer who later became a priest, started to volunteer there. In the following years, she became more involved in advocacy and opened several rehabilitation centers helping children with disabilities who were orphaned or couldn’t be cared for by their family to live independently. She entered local politics, and in 2019 she became a member of the presidium of the General Council of United Russia, Putin’s political party, and a senator in the Penza region’s Federation Council, which is the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly of Parliament.
In 2020, Lvova-Belova was appointed as the commissioner for children’s rights in the Office of the President of Russia. It was reported that her religiousness and activism made her a popular candidate in the country, where the Orthodox church was becoming more involved in politics.
Now she is coordinating a large, complicated system that moves children from Ukraine to Russia in an all-of-government effort. The program is meticulously overseen on a local level and started to come together long before last year’s invasion, when Russia began to take children out of the already-occupied territories in the Donbas area and occupied Crimea, in 2014.
In her curated Telegram channel feed, Lvova-Belova often features influential Russian politicians as well as trips across Russia and captured Ukrainian territories. She shares photos of Ukrainian children and pridefully talks about the life Russia has offered them. She boasts about escorting children to Russia, placing them with new families and apparently seeing them get over their anger and hate of Putin.
This practice of publicly documenting her work and taking photos with people involved throughout the system could cause her problems in continuing to work in the operation, given the International Criminal Court warrant against her, said Caitlin Howarth, the director of operations at the Yale Conflict Observatory.
“Maria Lvova-Belova’s biggest problem isn’t whether she feels personally safe, but whether people working with her can continue associating with her,” Howarth told PassBlue. “Others have key decisions to make.”
The issuing of the court warrants also occur as Russia is taking the monthly rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council in April, making it possibly the first country to have that role while its head of state faces international arrest.
“I’m glad the international community has appreciated our work to protect children. [And the fact] that we surround them with care and loving people,” Lvova-Belova wrote on her Telegram channel on March 17, reacting to the news about the warrant. “And it’s especially nice to be on the same team as the Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
Though originally a signatory, Russia walked back its intentions to be a party to the Rome Statute, setting up the court, in 2016, soon after it published a report classifying Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an “occupation.” Since Russia has not joined the court, Putin and Lvova-Belova will have to be physically handed over to the court for prosecution or be arrested outside of Russia to face charges for their alleged crimes. Still, the warrants are considered by many of the court’s members and beyond as a positive step toward justice for Ukraine.
“Today, we have a fundamental decision of international justice,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on March 17. “In a case which has a true prospect. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant of arrest for Putin. The historic decision, from which historical responsibility will begin.”
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the ICC arrest warrants?
Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.