Russia’s War in Ukraine and Beyond
Since the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, over 19,000 children have been forcibly moved from Ukraine to Russia in what Russian officials are calling a “removal-and-adoption policy” meant to evacuate Ukraine children from militarized zones within Ukraine (Bubola). Although the policy was initially understood to only pertain to Ukrainian children living in group homes and orphanages, growing reports claim that this orchestrated transfer of children across the border into Russia has extended to children with living relatives or guardians (Yale). In some cases, such as areas around the city of Mariupol, pro-Russian checkpoints intercepted families fleeing toward central Ukraine, oftentimes separating children from their families. These children were reported to have been loaded onto buses, and then systematically transported deeper into Russian-held territory. Reports and testimonies from eyewitnesses from these checkpoints have also described the killing or imprisonment of Ukrainian parents who resisted forced separation and transportation (Bubola).
Maria Lvova-Belova, the current Children’s Rights Commissioner for the President of the Russian Federation, first met with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the systematic movement of Ukrainian children to Russia on March 9, 2023. During that conversation, Lvova-Belova was recorded as explaining,“Of course, Russians have big hearts and are already queuing up to take care of these children” (Yale). This recording also suggests that the movement of children from Ukraine to Russia began less than two weeks into the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, with reports detailing around a thousand children transported into Russian territory by March 9, 2023 (Olson). Further reports from Yale’s School of Public Health suggest that Russia began transporting children into Russia even before the full-scale invasion, citing at least 500 children and teens who had been “evacuated” from the Donetsk oblast. This initial movement of children consisted only of those with Russian documentation, as the movement of non-Russian children involved certain “legal caveats” that had to be addressed before mass adoption proceedings could begin. These “legal caveats” were soon dealt with in May 2023, as a decree signed by President Putin made it increasingly difficult for families to reclaim deported children while making it easier for the Russian authorities to both adopt and give citizenship to children without parental consent. As Putin stated in the recording of his meeting with Lvova-Belova in March, he believed that the Russian Federation should “focus on the interests of the children rather than think about red tape” (Bubola). Indeed, the Russian Federation seems to have embraced this sentiment as reports from the region indicate a new influx of children moving into Russian-held territory as of February 2023 (Blinken).
The removal and transportation of children from Ukraine can only be described as an elaborate and highly thorough system, involving an intricate network of a reported 43 camps spanning from the annexed Crimean Peninsula to Magadan in the Russian Far East, crossing through at least eight time zones (Khoshnood). The infrastructure consists of mostly preexisting summer camps that the Russian government repurposed to house masses of Ukrainian children. With the Russian occupation of various regions of both Kharkiv and Kherson, these Russian summer camps were marketed to Ukrainian parents in these areas as an escape for children during the ongoing hostilities. However, when Ukraine re-established control of those regions in the fall of 2022, children residing in the Russian camps were prevented from returning home. Reports indicate that efforts to return children home to Ukraine have been suspended indefinitely in both the Artek camp in Gurzuf, Crimea, and the Medvezhonok (Little Bear) camp in (Sviatoslav Khomenko). Medvezhonok is one the largest camps in use by the Russian Federation with at least 300 children currently being housed there, only 30 or so of whom are currently scheduled to return to their homes.
Reports describe that at least two-thirds of these Russian camps aim to “re-educate” Ukrainian children in Russian national culture, with some reports detailing military training in certain locations (anonymous source whose identity is being withheld for security reasons). Photographs from at least one of these sites show groups of children in uniforms, emboldened with both the Russian and Chechen Republic flags, handling various firearms in an assumed firing drill. It should be noted that militarization in an education system, as well as the handling of firearms in a classroom setting, is considered a violation of multiple articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
For families trying to locate missing children, including those taken to camps, documentation and information are limited and often complicated to obtain. Reports from camps where children were delayed in their return home indicate that parents were not informed about any delays and received no information regarding the status of their children (Isobel Koshiw). Instead, parents and guardians learned about the delays, and in some cases suspended reunification, through word of mouth or local news channels, with little to no information coming from camp representatives (Isobel Koshiw). Communication between parents and children has also been reported to be either limited or completely restricted. In most cases, children being held at camps like Medvezhonok have little to no means to reach relatives. Cell phones for children were prohibited at most camp locations, thus limiting the ability to reach those outside of the camp, including relatives in Ukraine. Some reports indicate smartphones being provided to children once their departure had been officially suspended (Alena Evtiakova). Due to the lack of information available concerning the status and whereabouts of children across such camps, the number of children being held indefinitely at these camps is likely an underestimate.
Reports have also shown that parents have attempted to physically remove their children from these Russian-run camps with varying success, some going so far as breaking into the premises (Olson). Officials from the camps have declared that only parents of children may retrieve them from camp locations, thus disallowing any other relative from access. Retrieval of a child from a Russian camp is an incredibly difficult feat for most families since men 18 to 60 years of age are currently barred from leaving Ukraine during the ongoing war, leaving the responsibility to unify families up to mothers. Even if a mother can leave Ukraine, the expenditure alone to access camp locations, some of which are close to the war’s frontlines, is often overwhelming for Ukrainian families.
Putin’s government has come under fire as discussions centered around this mass movement of children have entered the global spotlight, especially following the charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide leveled by the International Criminal Court against Putin and Lvova-Belova on March 17, 2023. . Lvova-Belova has stood by her statements that the Russian Federation has made every attempt to reunite families, claiming “If parents or legal guardians are able and willing to take them in, we do everything in our power to help them” (Yale). However, Russia’s willingness to reunite families has been greatly contested by Ukrainian officials, who argue that only a small percentage of the thousands of displaced or missing children have been returned to their families. Instead, reports have shown that children from at least two campsites have been moved from camps into Russian homes, including that of Maria Lvova-Belova, in what the UN has called a rushed movement of mass adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families (Donetsko Agenstvo Novostei [Donetsk News Agency]i). This mass movement of adoption has resulted in full Russian citizenship for displaced Ukrainian children, even those with living relatives and guardians. As of now, there is no dual citizenship agreement between Russia and Ukraine, meaning any legal status as a Ukrainian citizen would be severed with the implementation of sole Russian citizenship. The separation of Ukrainian children from their Ukrainian cultural heritage is further supported by reports detailing a ban on the use and learning of Ukrainian within camps and Russian homes (РИА новости). These practices, and in some cases the forced transition to Russian culture, is known as “Russification” a method the Russian Federation has used to acculturate citizens of former Soviet bloc countries back into the Russian cultural sphere.
Allegations of Genocide Brought by the International Criminal Court
On March 17th, 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights of the Russian Federation, Maria Lvova-Belova, on charges of genocide. The warrant was based on evidence that the Russian government had deported Ukranian children to Russia, thus violating the 4th Geneva Convention and international law.The ICC determined that Vladimir Putin was directly or indirectly involved in the removal of Ukrainian children, and had failed to prevent his subordinates from engaging in the deportation and forced transfer of children. Lvova-Belova was likewise charged with directly or indirectly transferringUkrainian children to Russia, as well as with facilitating transfers of Ukrainian children from occupied territories within Ukraine.
The charges against these two important entities within the Russian Federation are complicated. Ukraine, a country that does is not a state party to the Rome Statute and thus does not recognize the ICC, but does allow for the jurisdiction of the ICC over its territory, had brought a case of genocide to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On February 26th, 2022, two days after Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine filed an application against the Russian Federation concerning the 1948 Genocide Convention. In the case, Ukraine claimed that Russia, through the pretext of protecting Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine, justified its own human rights abuses against Ukrainian citizens by Russian-backed armed groups in Donetsk and Luhansk and other regions. The application maintains that Russia had no lawful basis for interfering in and invading Ukraine based on preventing a preconceived genocide of Russian speakers within Ukraine. In addition, Ukraine accused Russia of genocidal intent via killing and causing severe injury with genocidal intent. Along with its application, Ukraine requested provisional measures to, in the words of the government of Ukraine itself, “prevent irreparable prejudice to the rights of Ukraine and its people and to avoid aggravating or extending the dispute between the parties under the Genocide Convention.”
Despite Ukraine’s open allegations of genocide, on May 30, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a law making it easier for Ukrainian children to become Russian citizens through certain criteria, such as having relatives living in Russia or occupied territories. Likewise, if institutions that have hosted Ukrainian children are located in Russia or occupied territories, these institutions have been allowed to detain Ukrainian children indefinitely and grant them Russian citizenship, in violation of international protections. Russian violations of international law, however, extend beyond the act of taking children and sending them to institutions.
On September 30th 2022, Putin announced the annexations of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia. These annexations were deemed illegal by the U.N. and Ukraine, and the referendums were called a sham. The LPR and DPR, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhia, held their purported elections from September 23-27. On the same day (September 30th, 2022), accession documents were signed by the four governors of the regions.
In annexed regions of Ukraine, there is overwhelming evidence that Russia has used threats and intimidation to coerce Ukrainian citizens, including children, into becoming Russian citizens. Putin has signed additional laws speeding up the process for Ukrainians to obtain Russian citizenship in the occupied territories. Refusal of Russian citizenship and passports by citizens within the four annexed areas has led to the denial of basic needs, such as medical, social, and municipal services, as well as restrictions to employment, seizure of property, and the threat of deportation and detention. This development has had drastic effects on children. Children born in the annexed regions, including Kherson and Zaporizhia, after February 24, 2022, automatically receive Russian citizenship. This applies to all children even if their parents are not Russian citizens. Orphans in occupied areas are also given citizenship. Healthcare providers are pressured to register children as Russian citizens, and refusal to do so often leads to the removal of parental rights and children being sent to Russia. Access to education for those who have not registered as Russian citizens has become non-existent, as schools have started requiring parents to provide Russian documents for children to be in school.
The Russian response to the ICC warrant against Putin and Lvova-Belova has been nothing short of extreme and authoritarian. After the ICC’s decision, the Russian state Investigative Committee launched charges against the ICC of knowingly accusing an innocent person of a crime, as well as suspecting that the ICC is preparing an attack on a sovereign state that enjoys international protection in order to complicate international relations. To further exacerbate the situation, former Prime Minister Dimiri Medvedev threatened the ICC with a hypersonic missile strike, adding “Everyone walks under God and rockets. Look carefully at the skies.”
Russia’s allies and adversaries alike have had different responses to Putin’s arrest warrant. For example, the ex-Soviet countries within central Asia have maintained a neutral stance to the arrest warrant as to maintain good relations with their northern neighbor. Kyrgyzstan hosted Putin on October 12th to continue cooperation between the two nations. Armenia, a member of the ICC and a signature of the Rome Statute, has expressed a desire to ensure that the warrant does not strain relations between Armenia and Russia. Hungary has refused to arrest Putin if he arrives in Hungary, since arresting a foreign leader is not in the Hungarian Constitution. In Serbia, president Aleksander Vucic stated that the warrant will not only prolong the war, but that there will be great reluctance to talk about peace and a truce.
Ukraine has celebrated the news of the arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin. Ukraine’s Human Rights minister said that Putin’s arrest warrant has helped return some Ukrainian children to their families. As for the citizens of Ukraine, they are skeptical and doubtful that anything will happen to Putin. Volodymyr Zelensky responded by saying that the warrant for “terrorist” Putin was well warranted. He also praised chief prosecutor Kemri Khan for taking action against Putin while claiming there were reportedly 16,000 cases of child deportation, but the real number could be much higher. He also stated, “It would have been impossible to commit such a criminal operation without the head of a terrorist state.”
The consequences of the ICC charge have been immense. First, it puts Putin in a position where he cannot travel to Europe or North America without fear of arrest. Russia has been an international pariah since the full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022. Due to its isolation from much of the world, Russia will continue to attempt to strengthen relations with other isolated pariah states, such as Iran, North Korea, and Belarus. For Ukraine’s allies, the ICC charge is a first step to delivering justice for Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, the growing divide between the West and Eastern European countries in supporting Ukraine is widening. While the majority of Europe still approves of the arrest warrant of Putin, there is war fatigue among a number of European nations. As for the United States, support is still strong amongst American politicians. Putin’s mobility around the world has been restricted as a result of his arrest warrant. His movement is limited in most of Europe with the exceptions of Hungary and Serbia. Within Asia, Putin’s availability of movement is greater. He has visited Kazakhstan to discuss bilateral cooperation, and visited China to meet with Xi Jingping to expand Russia-China relations.
In addition to the violations outlined above, many of the institutions housing Ukrainian children have violated international law by not accommodating children with disabilities and not giving them proper medication or required medical attention. Conditions within these institutions have been described by Ukrainian children as harsh, with a lack of food and abusive staff. However, denial of services and verbal abuse by staff are not the only actions committed by these institutions to Russify Ukrainian children.
The Political and Cultural Re-education of Ukrainian Children
Information wars have been a weapon of choice in the Russification of Ukrainian children. Two main groups have been victims of Russian propaganda: the children themselves and the Russian people.
First, “political re-education” has been one of the main goals of the camps. In thirty-two of forty-three (78%) camps identified, ranging from the Russian-occupied Crimea to its far east coast on the Pacific Ocean, widespread political re-education is occurring (Zmina). Re-education entails teaching a nationalistic narrative of Russia as well as, crucially, a Russian view of historical and current relations with Ukraine. As a case in point, Ukrainian children are taught according to the Russian public school curriculum, which glorifies heroes of Russia’s past and emphasizes appreciation for and the strength of its armed forces, much like the mandatory school curriculum of Soviet times. A program begun in September 2022, coined “Conversations About Important Things” by the Russian Ministry of Education, expressly states a goal of instilling “love for the Motherland, pride in their country, [and] patriotism.” As part of the program, students in all schools in the Russian Federation, including those with Ukrainian children, spend the first half hour of their Monday classes discussing Russia’s traditions, geography, and the remembrance of “outstanding fellow countrymen and their achievements” (SkySmart). On the twenty-third of February, students celebrate “Defender of the Fatherland Day,” in which they are given many reasons for great pridefulness in the Russian military’s historical and current endeavors. Citing examples of the “liberation of Donbas” and other “peacekeeping operations,” students are taught that “the Russian soldier is rightfully considered a warrior-liberator… that continues to save to this day” (Defender Day Script).
These glorious actions are contrasted with the actions of “aggressors,” most notably Europe and the U.S. (“The West”). This juxtaposition is designed to build further confidence in the Russian “peacekeeping” way while stripping the moral ground of outsiders, with whom Ukraine is affiliated in its ongoing struggle (Defender Day Script). Extracurricular events further promote Russian patriotism over the childrens’ Ukrainian background. For instance, patriotic recreation programs involving representatives of Russian political parties were organized at a camp in the Russian region of Kabardino-Balkaria (Zmina). For deported children from Kherson, the national anthem of the Russian Federation (“their country”) was played (Zmina). Both in and outside of the classroom, pro-Russian rituals of this sort aim to rewire Ukrainian children towards the Russophile perspective. Where children go to school is also important: according to sources at one camp in Russia, high school-aged students are largely being educated within the camps, while younger children are being placed in school alongside Russian children in nearby areas (Yale). The effect of propaganda on the already more vulnerable young children is enhanced with direct immersion into the Russian education system.
Another element of political re-education is military training in the camps. A key player in the military education of Ukrainian children is Yunarmia (Young Army Cadets National Movement), an “all-Russian military-patriotic movement” whose leaders have expressed desire to foster “patriotism and love for the Russian homeland.” One Yunarmia-run center in Crimea, known as the “School of Future Commanders”, was attended by fifty Ukrainian children and involved hands-on education with weapons. The Yunarmia influence was also present in then-Russian occupied Kherson, where members promoted places like Artek to schools in the area (Yale). When Yunarmia interacts with Ukrainian children, the children not only experience their own history and culture being erased, but they are also being given the means and foundational training to destroy it themselves through their eventual conscription into the Russian army to fight against Ukraine. Furthermore, there is evidence that Russia has a camp in Chechnya, in partnership with the Russian University of Special Forces, where designated “at risk” boys, many with past criminal records, are taught to become “young fighters.” This program, crafted for two hundred “difficult teenagers” from the Russian Federation (which includes, according to the Russian definition, the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic”) involved “preventative… military and patriotic education.” Activities included a “detailed tour of the training ground and the largest air center” as well as the testing of “physical abilities on an obstacle course” (Yale, Telegram). Ukrainian children deemed “difficult” are singled out specifically for breeding into Russian fighters; once again, Russia is targeting not just children but those children who are most vulnerable.
Re-education is not a seamless process for Russia, especially for high-school-aged Ukrainian children, who have a more developed sense of national identity than their primary school peers. Thus, resistance to the onslaught of Russian propaganda does not go unpunished in the camps. Rostyslav Lavrov, a 17-year-old from then Russian-occupied Kherson, detailed to The Washington Post being held in solitary confinement for over a week as punishment for not singing the national anthem of the Russian Federation. His peer, Denys Berezhnyi, a diabetic, describes being unwillingly hospitalized for weeks on end because of a lack of insulin (The Washington Post). Re-education, though professed to be solely that, involves coercion. As these examples illustrate, the Russian re-education system in camps holding deported Ukrainian children expressly uses patriotic and nationalistic propaganda, often by force, with clear intention to sever ties to Ukrainian identity.
As part of the propaganda campaign misrepresenting Russia’s role in the invasion of Ukraine, propaganda has equally misled the Russian population with regard to the deportation of Ukrainian children. While the international community has condemned the genocidal actions undertaken by Russia, to the point of issuing an arrest warrant for President Putin and Commissioner Lvova-Belova by the International Criminal Court, state media and official statements from the Kremlin portray Russia as a savior to Ukrainian children.
The statements and media consumed by the Russian people paint this starkly different image through carefully crafted language. In an October 2023 news conference, Commissioner Lvova-Belova spoke of “provid[ing] targeted humanitarian aid to families with children” as part of the “Into the Hands of Children” campaign (Kremlin 1). Such language implies concern for the war-ravaged children by helping them get back on their feet in Russia. However, this aid to families is part of a broader goal to incentivize the adoption of Ukrainian children and advance their Russification. Many claims made by state propaganda are also outright false, as seen in a conversation between Commissioner Lvova-Belova and President Putin made public on the Kremlin’s official website. Lvova-Belova speaks of how “they [Ukrainian children] tell you, especially in Mariupol, how Ukrainian troops were shooting people in the back and how children shielded their brothers and sisters with their bodies” (Kremlin 2). There is no evidence of such events occurring; to the contrary, Mariupol is the documented site of some of the greatest atrocities of the war perpetrated by Russian forces (The New York Times, PBS).
Russian state media similarly propagates the narrative of children fleeing Ukrainian callousness and war crimes, with Russia as their savior. The state-owned media outlet Vesti (News) describes the very first children taken from the Donbas region as “evacuees.” It further goes on to say that Ukraine was staging “information attacks” to “sow panic among the population,” adding that “they don’t take into account” the safety of countless victims, and that “telephone terrorism and regular shelling is happening.” By contrast, the article states that “evacuees” from the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics will be “provided with hot meals, medicine and paid 10 thousand rubles” (Vesti). Attempting to purchase loyalty to the Russian Federation is a long-standing Kremlin strategy which additionally was used on the population of Crimea shortly after its annexation and has been used on the Russian populace throughout the Putin era.
The government and state media often cooperate to create staged photo ops portraying warmth towards Ukrainian children. In Donetsk, the puppet mayor Alexey Kulemzin was photographed with children from Mariupol while telling them “now you are at home, in a circle of friends.” Furthermore, reporters are routinely invited into homes to capture moments where Ukrainian children are given gifts such as cell phones and clothes (The New York Times).
Characterizations of Ukrainian children as victims of Ukraine itself, and demonstrations of Russian welcoming and warmth, have mobilized much of Russia to adopt Ukrainian children into their lives. Commissioner Lvova-Belova professes that “you saved them, so you have every right to their care.” Despite international humanitarian law’s prohibition of this practice, many citizens of Russia follow Lvova-Belova’s views. In an interview with The New York Times, an adopter of four Ukrainian children who lives in Siberia, more than 1,600 miles away from their native Donetsk, stated that her family “took in” the children, adding “we are not taking what is not ours” (The New York Times).
The propaganda campaign undertaken by the Russian government and its media has been strategically promoting the assimilation of Ukrainian children by the Russian people themselves. Without the role of citizens as adoptive parents, the Russification of children — and the erasure of their Ukrainian national identity — would be difficult to achieve. Thus, this coordinated media campaign is a crucial puzzle piece in the systematic deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.