This pool photograph distributed by Russian state owned agency Sputnik shows Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov attending a welcoming ceremony prior to their talks in Bishkek on October 12, 2023. (Photo by Sergei KARPUKHIN / POOL / AFP)
(AFP) – Vladimir Putin travelled to Kyrgyzstan Thursday on his first foreign visit since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in March.
President Putin is wanted by the court over the deportation of Ukrainian children. Its ruling requires members of the ICC, which does not include Kyrgyzstan, to make the arrest if he sets foot on their territory.
Televised footage showed Putin greeting Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov in the capital Bishkek for a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“I would like to thank the president for the invitation. We have good reasons (to be here), but even without reasons this visit is long overdue,” Putin said in talks with Japarov.
The long-time leader has rarely left Russia since launching the Ukraine offensive in February 2022.
This year, he has travelled only to Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, with his last foreign trips to Belarus and Kyrgyzstan last December — a far cry from the busy international schedule he had earlier in his rule.
He is expected to travel to China next week.
Moscow has likened the prospect of Putin being arrested abroad to an act of war, calling the warrant “illegal”.
In practice, however, it has taken precautions: in August, Russia sent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to a BRICS summit in ICC member South Africa, instead of Putin.
– ‘Political show’ –
While the full-scale Ukraine offensive made Putin a persona non grata in the Western world, the ICC ruling virtually closed the door to a large part of the globe for him.
The Rome Statute, a treaty requiring members to adhere to ICC rulings, has been ratified by 123 countries.
The ruling caused a legal headache for ICC member South Africa, which hosted the BRICS summit to which Putin was invited.
In a last-minute decision, Moscow sent its foreign minister instead of Putin.
“Why should I create some problems for our friends during an event?” Putin said this month, commenting on his absence from Johannesburg.
“If I come, a political show will start,” he added.
Putin is wanted alongside his children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for the war crime of allegedly unlawfully deporting thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Moscow rejects the allegations.
– Armenia PM snubs meeting –
The visit comes amid rifts among Russia‘s allies.
Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan will skip the summit attended by Putin, host country Kyrgyzstan announced two days before the event.
Pashinyan had criticised Moscow for not intervening when Azerbaijan launched a successful offensive to take over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region last month.
His snub came after Armenian lawmakers moved to join the ICC, angering Moscow and potentially limiting Putin‘s travel options further.
Putin is planning to meet with the leader of Armenia’s arch-foe, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev.
Ahead of Putin‘s trip, Kyrgyzstan said it had ratified an agreement for a common air defence system with Russia.
Moscow has similar deals with other allied countries including Kazakhstan, Belarus and Tajikistan.
But suspicion of Russia in parts of the region has grown since the conflict in Ukraine. None of the Central Asian countries supported Russia in a key UN vote on Ukraine last year.
© Agence France-Presse