Amnesty International’s report “Like a Prison Convoy: Russia’s Unlawful Transfer of Civilians in Ukraine and Abuses During ‘Filtration’” and the Conflict Observatory’s “Russia’s Systematic Program for the Re-education and Adoption of Ukraine’s Children” have provided a thorough account of Russia’s stealing children. Along with additional documentation from Ukraine and UN bodies, the reports were the basis for a decision on March 17, 2023, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue arrest warrants for “Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Alekseyeva Lvova-Belova for the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied territories in Ukraine.”

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Dr. Olena Lennon, a resident researcher in national security policy and instructor at the University of New Haven, tracks developments regarding abduction by Russia of Ukraine’s children. At a public event on Dec. 7, 2023, on the topic of the deportation of Ukraine’s children, she stated that unlike many previous cases brought before the ICC, “this situation was so self-evident that the ICC could not make any other ruling since Russia willingly incriminates itself by bragging about the number of children being taken to Russia.”

During the past 20 months, arrest warrants, numerous studies, reports, international calls for the return of Ukraine’s children have had no impact on Russia. While Russia can neither be shamed nor mandated to act differently, the value of this gathered information is that it begins to establish a body of evidence for the future. Involved in systematically gathering evidence is The Task Force on Accountability for Crimes Committed in Ukraine organized by the Global Accountability Network (GAN), an international legal task force that already supports Ukraine’s prosecutors in coordinating and developing cases against Russia for war crimes.

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The process of tribunals takes away from Russia the option of presenting their lies as history.

David Crane, the founder of GAN, underscores the importance of gathering evidence now if ever Russia and Russia’s leaders are to be held to account in war crime tribunals. According to Crane, the importance of tribunals is not only justice for victims, or of having the satisfaction of a conviction and seeing perpetrators incarcerated, and if possible, receiving remuneration. Tribunals also give victims the chance to tell their story, to establish the historical record that becomes the cornerstone of a truthful historical narrative. This process takes away from Russia the option of presenting their lies as history. Furthermore, such tribunals also confirm an international commitment to a future where nations strive to live in a world governed by rule of law and not the brutality of might makes right.

With hope for justice in the future, Russia’s flagrant and ongoing violation of international laws, to which its predecessor, the USSR, was a co-signatory, is nothing if not consistent.

Lvova-Belova posted a video on social media in which she is seen hugging many of the 11 Ukrainian “orphans” that she adopted. In July 2023, almost a year to the day in July 2022 that Blinken condemned Russian abduction of Ukraine’s children, Vladimir Putin openly and proudly claimed to media that Russia has “welcomed” 744,000 children from Ukraine in the nine years since 2014.

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To that claim, Mykola Kuleba, the president of the non-governmental organization Save Ukraine, the mission of which is to identify missing children and return them home, speaking at a conference in Washington DC on Dec. 6 replied: “We have no accurate means to verify Putin’s claim, or any made by the Russian government. It could be that number, it could be more, it could be less. Although, we have good basis to believe that the actual number of children stolen is indeed in the hundreds of thousands… We know that there were approximately 8 million children in Ukraine immediately prior to first Russian invasion. Of that number, 1.5 million lived in the territories occupied by Russia.”

“Children are taught to hate Ukraine and Ukrainians; they are being taught to hate themselves” – Dmytro Kuleba

As of Dec. 5, 2023, Ukraine has identified 19,546 stolen children, of which 386 have been located and returned. Kuleba continued: “If one counts all children still living in the Ukrainian territories occupied since 2014 and those children now in Russia, then around 1.5 million children have been the victims of a Russian state-mandated policy of russification…  Children’s identities are changed… children are taught to hate Ukraine and Ukrainians, [they are] being taught to hate themselves.”

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The numbers alone, without the details of what these children endure, are staggering: 1.5 million Ukrainian children being actively russified, half of those on occupied territories, the other half dispersed throughout Russia. Russia has stolen Ukraine’s children, deported them, and purposefully made them needles in a haystack, almost impossible to find.

Planning and implementing theft

The methods used to forcibly transfer and deport children are varied. Children traveled with their frightened and coerced parents on Russia-bound “evacuation buses” from places such as Kherson region in 2022, Luhansk, Donetsk regions in 2014. Once in Russia, or another Russian-occupied territory, separated from their families, children were put into patriotism camps, into orphanages, or into places identified as hospitals or “medical facilities” with promises of care. Lennon notes that Russia purposefully misnames places where children are kept with full anticipation that someday Russia may be called to account for its actions and will be prepared to justify the abduction of children as “humanitarian” in nature having offered the children “medical” care.

After the 2014 invasion, Russia also used the ruse of summer camps in Crimea to abduct and keep children, but on a less visible scale. Since 2014, on a regular basis, Russian soldiers made unannounced raids on orphanages, children’s hospitals, and maternity wards, snatching children for transport to Russia. Even more cynically than lying about how Ukrainian children are being “helped,” criminal gangs grab children from schools and playing fields, and then turn over the children to Russian authorities in exchange for money.

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The patriotism camps generally are populated with mostly older and disabled children. Infants and younger children, especially those incapable of self-identification, are more readily adoptable under the Russian government’s plan. Their russification, with help from the government, will be taken care of by the willing, adoptive parents.

To encourage adoption, a monetary incentive is offered by the Russian government, ostensibly to cover the burdensome costs of an additional child. In order to accelerate the process of adoption, according to the ICDS, there is a special hotline for families to call when they are ready and willing to adopt a “rescued” Ukrainian child. Moreover, according to Lennon, because they are so inundated with propaganda, most Russian parents really do believe the Ukrainian children are orphans and listen to Putin’s assurances that they, by adopting a child, are doing a good deed.

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Kuleba proposes that a massive social media campaign, bypassing official Russian state propaganda, be developed to explain to these Russians that they are actually participants in a war crime, for which they can be prosecuted. He notes that several families have come forth already once they understood the reality of their actions.

Conflict Observatory released another report on Nov. 16, 2023, this time about the role of Belarus in helping Russia deport children from Ukraine: “More than 2,400 children from Ukraine between 6 and 17 years old have been taken to 13 facilities across Belarus since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022… Children had been transported from at least 17 cities in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions… Russia’s federal government and Belarus’s regime have been working together to coordinate and fund the movement of children from Russia-occupied Ukraine through Russia to Belarus… [Belarus President Aleksandr] Lukashenko approved the use of state organizations to transport children from Ukraine to Belarus and finance their transport. Once in Belarus, children have been subjected to military training and re-education.”

In a finding that provoked a scandal in Europe, the report identifies the Belarus Chapter of the International Red Cross and President Dmitriy Shatsou as central to this process of abduction and deportation. Shatsou fervently claims that he only did so to “help” the children, whereas Belarusian opposition leaders, who uncovered the scheme, claim that Shatsou’s incentive was less noble – money. Russian authorities in occupied Ukrainian territories convinced families that their children would be safe in Belarus under the supervision of the International Red Cross. Like the summer camp swindle, parents believed the lie, felt reassured, believing that the Red Cross was a reputable organization.

The information Ukraine has on the almost 20,000 verified deportations of children primarily came from parents or family reporting the stolen child. The hundreds of thousands of children whose parents were killed in the war, children in Ukrainian orphanages, or children separated from their parents upon arriving in Russia, all have nobody who can report them as stolen. Kuleba flatly states that for him it is quite clear that “we will never find the vast majority of stolen Ukrainian children; we will never get them back.”

As Lvova-Belova posted on Russian social media on July 19, 2022, after 108 so-called “orphans” from Ukraine arrived in Moscow: “They’re ours now!”

In May 2023, in an update on the number of Ukrainians deported to Russia, the news website Ukraine World quoted Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, as saying that the number was 2.8 million Ukrainian civilians in the 15 months since February 2022. In turn, semi-official Russian sources proudly report higher numbers: between 4 to 4.5 million Ukrainian deportees are lableed “refugees.” For perspective, during the almost 70 years of the Soviet Union’s existence, the total number of people in all Soviet republics subjected to deportations by the Kremlin was six million.

Lennon notes that when compared to the period between 2014 and 2022, international experts who follow the topic of child deportation concur that the number of deportations of Ukraine’s children into Russia, where they then disappear, has increased markedly and rapidly since the 2022 invasion. As 2023 ends, she says, there is a frenetic, almost frantic sense on the part of Russia, after suffering major military setbacks during the first 15 months of the second invasion, that there may not be much time left to complete Russia’s ultimate goal of eliminating the Ukrainian nation. Since Russia is not having the planned for success in stealing Ukraine’s land, Russia is therefore hell-bent determined to steal Ukraine’s future.

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Comments ( 1)

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Ken Hallett
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

In the context of 'brainstorming', DNA might help some find the truth. Certain 'Russians' born after 1997 could be tested, and Ukrainians who have reported missing children could be tested and matched. In 2014 those over 17 would have been born prior to 1997.

Using such a broad DNA collection scheme would be worrisome. Data should be disallowed and discarded for any other purpose, unless individuals consented otherwise.

Many Ukrainian children have died, some fighting for Russia in Ukraine. Russians know their government is corrupt. Like Nazi Germany, they can't evade responsibility for what is obvious for all to see. They are responsible for their own misery. They must own their guilt. History must condemn Russia as strenuously as Nazi Germany. This is at least the second genocide Russia has committed against the Ukrainian people. Russia should be defeated so soundly that it must acknowledge the reality of what it's done. Russia's cooperation in a national mission to find the truth should be forced. The UN and the world should be more involved in Russia's defeat.

For many simply knowing the truth and letting them decide what is mutually beneficial might be the only possible 'justice.' Many Ukrainian children have spent their entire lives in Russia and simply deserve to know. They may not have nor want a home in Ukraine. I cannot begin to comprehend the pain of Ukrainians who've lost children or childhoods permanently and irrevocably to Russia.

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