What Russia is trying to accomplish with the alleged forced deportations of Ukrainian children
Awareness of deporting children could be a turning point in the war, says researcher
Earlier this month the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Beside his name was a second individual: Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia's commissioner for children's rights.
The two are accused of the alleged war crime of "unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer" of children from Ukraine to Russia.
"The international community now knows what the stakes are in this conflict, and the stakes are Ukraine's children," said Nathaniel Raymond, from the Yale School of Public Health's Humanitarian Research Lab.
This is really about trying to demolish Ukrainian identity as a key objective of the program on an industrial scale- Nathaniel Raymond
"Russia has not been secret about what it's doing. In fact, it is primarily doing it for a domestic political audience in Russia."
Oleksandra Matviichuk, from the Centre for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, which works to track deported children, and was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, considers the alleged forced deportations a key war tactic in Russia's overall strategy.
"They use children as a tool: how to justify the actions of [the] Russian army in Ukraine," Matviichuk told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
"The strategy is to liquidate Ukrainians as a nation."
According to Ukraine's prosecutor general in March, the number of children deported is at least 16,000.
A spokesperson for the Kremlin has called the warrants against Putin and Lvova-Belova "outrageous," while adding that Russia does not recognize the ICC's jurisdiction in the matter.
Objective of Russia's 'integration camps'
But Raymond and a team of researchers say the deportations are systemic and found a network of at least 43 sites where Ukrainian children were moved, with dozens more sites being reviewed, stretching "from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean over 3,500 miles."
"This is really about trying to demolish Ukrainian identity as a key objective of the program on an industrial scale," he said.
According to Raymond, Russia's objectives do include "Russification" in at least 32 of the camps; meaning children are being indoctrinated to pro-Russian views.
They also want to rebrand the invasion as a humanitarian mission to save children inside of Russia, hoping to gain leverage in future prisoner swaps, or in end-of-conflict negotiations, he said.
"We know that the Russian officials publicly and proudly [said] that we educate Ukrainian children, that Putin is a great leader, that Russia is their own country and they are Russians," Matviichuk said.
Depending on the site, these children could have clear guardianship in Ukraine, or may be deemed orphans by Russia. There are cases where children are without clear guardianship, according to Russian officials and some children who were already in Russian institutions before the conflict.
Raymond's research did find parents who consented to temporary relocation of their children, but only to put them out of danger.
"This caused a lot of problems for parents to come to Russian territory and bring them back," said Matviichuk.
Two sites, one a psychiatric hospital, were associated with the deportation of orphans, according to Raymond's report. Some of the children having been placed with families.
That same Yale Humanitarian Research Lab report positions Lvova-Belova as a leader in the "integration camp" strategy and involved in forced adoptions of Ukrainian children.
Lvova-Belova has publicly endorsed the adoption of Ukrainian children on her own social media. She appears in videos with Ukrainian children and in a recent appearance with Putin she claimed to have herself adopted a child from the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol.
Raymond says that later in that appearance, Lvova-Belova and Putin discuss expanding a military training camp in Chechnya with 2,000 Ukrainian and Russian boys aged 14 to 17. His team studied the site and claims their findings show the boys are being trained in firearms and military vehicle operations.
Based on Raymond's evidence, Lvova-Belova is also overseeing the "military education of potential future fighters."
Humanitarian thresholds for transferring children not met
Russia's United Nations Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said this week that the situation was overblown and the children were being moved "simply because we wanted to spare them of the danger that military activities may bring."
But Matviichuk says Russia hasn't otherwise gone out of its way to remove civilians from danger or respect international law.
"We know for one year of large-scale invasion that Russians constantly refused to provide permission to [the] International Committee of Red Cross to open their humanitarian corridors," she said.
"[They're] even deliberately shelling evacuation corridors when people tried to escape from the danger zone."
Raymond said he agrees that Russia has not followed the Geneva Convention in terms of how children separated from parents should be handled.
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He says Russia hasn't registered the children and they weren't moved to neutral third-party countries. Raymond adds that international monitors have not been allowed access to the children and the children haven't been allowed to call a national authority in Ukraine.
Parents taking risks to find children
Some foundations are working to reunite children with their parents. And some parents, like Yevhen Mezhevyi who was detained during the conflict, reportedly successfully retrieved their children from inside Russia.
"I really don't know how … this father, after the horrible detention, finds energy and resources ... to manage, to succeed, to take his children back," said Matviichuk.
"It's my bet that [it's] parents' love. It's the only one explanation."
Raymond says males of military age are risking arrest entering Russia and it tends to be mothers or grandmothers making long journeys to attempt to retrieve children.
Those journeys are also financially prohibitive for many families, and groups are managing reunification on a "catch as catch can" basis.
Matviichuk thinks international groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF and the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights need to get proactive to organize reunifications.
"They have to step in this problem and try to do something to stop this practice."
Raymond thinks the ICC's warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova are galvanizing organizations like the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to take a multinational approach to co-ordinating child reunifications.
"This co-ordination of the international community [is] how we're going to make sure that it's not decades from now that these kids are coming home as adults and we're having to do DNA identifications … to try to help them find parents that may have passed away by the time they come home."
Radio segment produced by Pedro Sanchez.