Moscow – President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation.
Putin’s surprise visit to Crimea was his first to the peninsula since he sent troops to Ukraine on February 24 last year, apart from when he drove across the bridge linking the territory to mainland Russia in December.
He was shown visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev, according to images broadcast by Russian state TV.
Razvozhayev said on the messaging app Telegram that Putin had been expected to take part in the opening of a children’s art school by video link.
“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. Behind the wheel. Because on such a historic day, the president is always with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol,” he said.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 following a referendum that was not recognised by Kyiv and the international community.
Speaking at the Davos forum in January, Zelensky said Ukraine aimed to take back Crimea, “our land”. Moscow has refused to include it in possible peace talks.
Putin’s visit came a day after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against him over the “deportation” of Ukrainian children.
The 70-year-old Russian leader has yet to publicly comment on the warrant.
The Kremlin said on Friday that the ICC’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin was legally “void” since Moscow does not recognise the Hague-based court’s jurisdiction.
Top Russian officials and propagandists seethed with anger, while members of the opposition hailed the move.
“Russia, just like a number of different countries, does not recognise the jurisdiction of this court and so from a legal point of view, the decisions of this court are void,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of the ICC, but Kyiv has accepted the court’s jurisdiction and is working with ICC prosecutor Karim Khan’s office.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the decisions of the ICC “have no meaning” for Russia.
“Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and bears no obligations under it,” she said on Telegram.
“Russia does not co-operate with this body and possible ‘recipes’ for arrest coming from the international court will be legally void as far as we are concerned,” Zakharova said, without referring to Putin by name.
Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev also took to Twitter, likening the warrant to toilet paper.
The ICC announced on Friday that it had issued an arrest warrant against Putin for the “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children.
More than 16 000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict last year, according to Kyiv, with many allegedly placed in institutions and foster homes.
Khan said on Friday that Putin was now liable for arrest if he set foot in any of the court’s more than 120-member states.
He said the arrest warrants were “based upon forensic evidence, scrutiny and what’s been said by those two individuals”.
“The evidence we presented focused on crimes against children. Children are the most vulnerable part of our society,” said Khan.
The court had also issued a warrant against Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, on similar charges.
“There have been sanctions against me from all countries, even Japan, and now an arrest warrant…,” said Lvova.
War-battered Ukraine welcomed the ICC announcement, with President Volodymyr Zelensky hailing the “historic decision”.
The ICC said judges found there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect Putin’s criminal responsibility and grant Khan’s application for the warrants, which were madeon February 22.
ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said the execution of the warrants “depends on international co-operation”.
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 Donbas – 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 ICC.
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 recently posted pictures from a visit to Ukraine alongside empty cots in an empty children’s care home, and said that investigating alleged child abduction was a “priority”.
“It’s poignant,” he said. “One sees empty cribs and empty beds juxtaposed with paintings by those children on the walls.”
Zelensky, who met Khan on his visit, welcomed the arrest warrants for his nemesis in Moscow.
“A historic decision from which historic responsibility will begin,” Zelensky said.
Ukraine’s Western allies also hailed the move.
US President Joe Biden said the warrant was “justified,” and “makes a very strong point,” while noting that the US is not a member of the ICC.
Britain called the decision “welcome” and the European Union said it was “just the start.” Human Rights Watch said it was a “big day for the many victims” of Russian forces.
The arrest warrants on Friday came a day after UN investigators said Russia’s forced the transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children to areas under its control amounts to a war crime.
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.