Russia’s kidnapping campaign takes a crushing toll on Ukraine

No one outside of the Kremlin knows how many Ukrainian children have been stolen from their families since the start of Russia’s unprovoked invasion two years ago. 

An estimated 500 Ukrainian children have been returned since February 2022, but that’s just a small fraction of the estimated hundreds of thousands of children —  ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers — torn from their homes and held hostage in Russia. 

The mass kidnapping is a central piece of a war crimes case against Russian President Vladimir Putin, and part of allegations of genocide. The international legal process will take years to play out, but there’s no time to waste for the governments and non-profits working to return kidnapped children. 

“It doesn’t matter if it’s an orphan, non-orphan, it is the same strategy – to brainwash, to indoctrinate Ukrainian children to erase their identity,” said Mykola Kuleba, CEO of Save Ukraine, which carried out covert operations inside Russia to return stolen children.

“They are attending Russian schools where every day they are listening to this propaganda. They have special lessons, they have to attend military monuments, they have to learn that Ukraine is not a state, not a country, not a nationality, that the West is the aggressor, and Russia is victim.” 

Denys, now 18, was among the thousands of Ukrainian children trafficked into Russia. 

“Russian soldiers came to our home and told me I should move to a summer camp, I refused but they did not listen to me, they forced me to go there,” he told the Congressional Helsinki Commission last month.  

Both of his parents are deaf, and could not protest the Russian soldiers. Denys spent 10 months in Russian custody, first taken to a reeducation camp, then spending weeks in the hospital after running out of diabetes medication, and finally being sent to a military college. 

Denys managed to get in touch with a friend that connected him with Save Ukraine, which has helped return nearly 300 Ukrainian children to their families. 

“Once we crossed the border and I saw the word Ukraine, I dropped my head back and started to scream ‘Glory to Ukraine!’” 

While Ukrainian officials say they have identified more than 19,000 Ukrainian children in Russia, they believe that the actual number of kidnapped children is much higher, and cite claims from Russian officials that between 700,000 to 750,000 Ukrainian children have been transferred to Russia. 

Moscow is holding back all data on the children it has taken from territory it occupied in Ukraine. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants against Putin and his top official for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belov, on war crimes charges for the unlawful deportation and transfer of children.

Why is Russia kidnapping Ukrainian children en masse?

“It’s one word. Leverage,” said Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) at the Yale School of Public Health, which is part of a U.S. and Ukrainian effort to track down and identify Ukrainian children. 

“Imagine the single most horrific thing that could happen in war imaginable — and there is something worse than death – it’s that they take your children. And so, that’s what they’ve done.”

Save Ukraine brought returned Ukrainian teenagers to Washington in January to testify on what they endured, and be a voice for those children still in Russia. 

Among the group was Ksenia, now 19-years-old, who is an orphan and spent two years in Russian custody. She was separated from her little brother, who spent five weeks in Russia’s so-called summer camps before being adopted by a Russian family. 

“My brother went under very hard pressure, Russians kept telling him that nobody cares about him in Ukraine, there’s no future in Ukraine and that Ukraine is run by Nazis,” Ksenia told the Helsinki Commission.

Ksenia said she was sent to a school but got kicked out for refusing to accept Russian citizenship, and took shelter at the home of a friend, and then managed to get in touch with Save Ukraine. But she had to go get her brother before she would leave Russia. 

“When I finally had a chance to see my brother, I was told that he refuses to go back to Ukraine,” she recalled. “It took me several hours to explain to my brother that if he’s not going to come back with me now he’s going to stay in Russia and we’re never going to be able to be together again. Several hours later I managed to convince him and he came back with me.”

Raymond, from Yale, said his lab can roughly document some 30,000 kidnapped children, but that that number is likely much higher, into the six digits. 

Identifying and finding the kidnapped children is extremely tedious work, involving combing social media posts by Russian soldiers, identifying location data, and monitoring satellite imagery of camps where kids are being shuttled through. On top of the “summer camps,” children are also separated from their parents in filtration camps set up in occupied Ukraine, then dispersed throughout Russia. 

Raymond likened the task to a carnival game of guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar. “In this case, the jar is covered in black tape, and we can only see pieces through the tape of the jellybeans in the jar,” he said. 

Plus, they don’t know the size of the jar. But the group has identified at least 42 locations across Russia where it believes children are being held and re-educated. 

“We think it’s closer to 80, across Russia, including Siberia, and including Magadan on the Pacific east coast, closer to Japan and Alaska than Moscow. And so we’re dealing with a lot of jelly beans and a very big jar.”

He said Russia has failed to follow every step of appropriate action: from registering the children, to allowing them to contact their embassy, and allowing access to the Red Cross and United Nations. 

Kuleba, of Save Ukraine, said each child they manage to connect with and return is a unique case, making the task to return at least 19,000 children without the participation of Russia nearly impossible. 

“We have no successful ways because always it’s different,” he said. “It’s a special operation for every child, how to find and return this child. It’s because all these kids have different ages. They are in different territories. They have a different experience in different facilities for Russian families. That’s why we are carefully planning escape for every child.”

Kuleba said much of their efforts to rescue Ukrainian children are confidential, since the group is labeled a terrorist organization by Russia.

“You can read in Russian media that Save Ukraine is kidnapping Russian children from new Russian region — I have no words.”

Similarly, Raymond, at Yale, said much of their data collection must be kept private to prevent Russian officials from choking off limited avenues of identification. 

Ukrainian officials and their supporters say more international pressure needs to be applied on Russia to secure the return of children. 

“We should unite our efforts to protect Ukrainian children, but again, what to do? We should recognize all activities of Russian federation as genocide,” Dymtro Lubinets, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Helsinki Commission.

Lubints called for more sanctions on Russia, for the establishment of an international team applying more resources to scouring open source intelligence to find and identify children, and for increased support for rehabilitation centers for children returned to Ukraine.

He called for the U.S. to take a leadership role on convening an international coalition to pressure Russia to release all the children. 

“I know we can’t wait, we don’t have time,” he said. “The children very quickly grow up and this is the problem.”

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