Vladimir Putin chose a sweet, benign face to lead Russia’s systematic abduction of Ukraine’s children: Maria Lvova-Belova, 38, a woman with a long history of caring for the disabled. She and her husband, Pavel Kogelman, a Russian Orthodox priest, care for 23 children—five biological, five adopted, and 13 special-needs kids whom they’ve taken in as foster parents.
But as Putin’s federal commissioner for children’s rights, a position she assumed on October 27, 2021, four months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lvova-Belova has overseen the abduction of a documented 19,393 Ukrainian children to Russia, with an estimated “few hundred thousand” cases still awaiting concrete proof, according to Ukrainian authorities. To date, only 364 have been reunited with their Ukrainian families.
Less than 15 months after her appointment, Putin and Lvova-Belova were named in an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC). A statement issued by ICC prosecutor Karim Akhmed Khan on March 17 charged the pair with war crimes, including “criminal responsibility for the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
When questioned about the arrest warrant as part of television special that ran on Russia’s Kremlin-controlled Chanel One on March 22, Lvova-Belova answered, “How is one supposed to react to news which is based on myths, fakes, and stories which people thought up themselves? What were we supposed to do? Leave the children under bombing?”
For Lvova-Belova, the abduction of Ukrainian children is more than a job—it has become a personal crusade. Among the 18 children she and her husband have taken in is a boy named Filip, a new addition from Mariupol, a city in southeast Ukraine that Russian forces captured in May 2022 after a long siege in which the town was virtually leveled.
“He really is a foreigner,” Lvova-Belova says of Filip. “He didn’t watch the same films and cartoons that our children in Russia watched. He didn’t listen to the same music. He learned history differently. His mind works differently.”
This recognition of her newest adopted son’s “foreignness” echoes comments Lvova-Belova made on September 27, 2022 regarding a group of 30 children evacuated by Russia from Mariupol.
“At first, they said bad things about the [Russian] president. They said all sorts of awful things, sang the Ukrainian national anthem, said ‘Glory to Ukraine!'” she said. “Then some time passed. These children were placed in foster families in the Moscow region. One of the boys was placed in my family, and I saw with my own eyes how this integration takes place…Now, none of them want to go back. They say, ‘we’re very happy here in Russia.’ Maybe there was some negativity at the beginning, but their transformation has resulted in a love for Russia.”
Newsweek sent a request to Russia’s office of the commissioner for children’s rights for comment, but did not receive a reply.
A Program to Erase National Identity
Lvova-Belova’s description of the intentional transformation of Ukrainian children into Russians reveals an underlying reality of the Russian invasion and occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. Contrary to their pre-invasion rhetoric about the need to “liberate” Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Kremlin officials understand that the residents of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions are not, in fact, Russians.
On February 22, 2022, two days before his forces invaded Ukraine, Putin claimed that Ukraine was not a country.
“Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood,” he said in a speech. “There has never been a sustainable statehood in Ukraine.”
Putin’s view is understood clearly by those Ukrainians who fled Russia’s invasion of their homes in 2014 during its first incursion into the Donbas. Among them is the Eastern Human Rights Group’s founder, Pavel Lisyansky, who has helped to document the methods Russia is using to indoctrinate those Ukrainian children who are still living with their parents in the occupied territories, where Moscow’s forces are changing school curriculums, importing teachers from Russia, and aggressively wiping out any symbols of Ukrainian statehood.
“Russia never invests money just because,” Lisyansky told Newsweek. “They’re attempting to forcibly change the character of these territories precisely because they understand that, even if many of the people living there speak Russian at home, that doesn’t make them Russians. It’s not about changing language. It’s about changing identity.”
A report released in February from the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) found more than 6,000 Ukrainian children in Russian custody held in “at least 43 facilities” stretching from Crimea to the east coast of Russia, and north to Siberia.
“At least 32 (78%) of the camps identified by Yale HRL appear engaged in systematic re-education efforts that expose children from Ukraine to Russia-centric academic, cultural, patriotic, and/or military education,” the report reads. “Multiple camps endorsed by the Russian Federation are advertised as ‘integration programs,’ with the apparent goal of integrating children from Ukraine into the Russian government’s vision of national culture, history, and society.”
The breadth and scope of this campaign offers the real possibility that Vladimir Putin, along with other Kremlin officials far more senior than Lvova-Belova, could ultimately be charged with war crimes significantly more serious than the forced transfer of children.
“This operation is centrally coordinated by Russia’s federal government and involves every level of government,” the Yale HRL report states. “Yale HRL has identified several dozen federal, regional, and local figures directly engaged in operating and politically justifying the program. Activities of officials allegedly implicated in the operation include logistical coordination (i.e., transporting children), raising funds, collecting supplies, direct camp management, and promoting the program within Russia and occupied areas of Ukraine. At least 12 of these individuals are not on U.S. and/or international sanction lists at the time of this report.”
The Russian program appears to be very effective.
“If you want to destroy some ethnic or national group, there is no necessity to kill all of its members,” Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties and a co-recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize for Peace, tells Newsweek. “You need only to change the group’s identity, and you will have achieved your genocidal aims.”
Since 2014, when Russian-backed forces invaded the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and established separatist “People’s Republics” there, Matviichuk’s organization has been studying Russia’s template for eliminating resistance in the territories under its control.
“We have been documenting war crimes for nine years already: kidnapping, abduction, torture, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, illegal detention, and political persecution of Ukrainians living in occupied territories,” she said. “On the temporarily occupied territories, Russia prohibits the use of the Ukrainian language, it uses its artificially created version of history as the state ideology, it persecutes Ukrainians who display pro-Ukrainian symbols, it is cruelly and deliberately exterminating the Ukrainian local elite—not only mayors and city council members, but also journalists, priests, volunteers, artists.”
“The crime of genocide is about intent, and the actions of the Russian occupiers demonstrate that they are committed to wiping out any hint of Ukrainian identity,” Matviichuk added.
“The deportation of children and their re-education as Russians is only one part of a broader policy,” she explains. “On the temporarily occupied territories themselves, Russia prohibits the use of the Ukrainian language, it uses its artificially created version of history as the state ideology, it persecutes Ukrainians who display pro-Ukrainian symbols, it is cruelly and deliberately exterminating the Ukrainian local elite—not only mayors and city council members, but also journalists, priests, volunteers, artists. It is systematic.”
Matviichuk argues that the eradication of Ukrainian culture and identity has long been Russia’s goal.
“The fact that Russia feels the need to take such measures in the territories it occupies demonstrates that the people living there have a Ukrainian identity, regardless of the language they speak,” Matviichuk says. “There is a logic to what the Russians are doing, even if it is a cruel logic. If they could have, they would have done the same thing in Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Dnipro. They would have done the same thing all across Ukraine.”
While it was the abduction of Ukrainian children which ultimately led the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant against Putin, investigators in Ukraine see Russia’s child abduction programs as one element in a larger campaign aimed at erasing Ukrainian identity in the areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions, which are currently living under the occupation of Russian forces.
The Kremlin and state-controlled Russian media tell the Russian people a very different story. They claim that the Russian government has “rescued” over 744,000 Ukrainian children from the warzone in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. Local reports from far flung Russian regions including Ufa, Orlov, and Omsk have announced both the arrival of new orphans from the Ukrainian Donbas and the availability of these children for adoption by Russian families.
Even Ukrainian children still living with their families on Russian occupied territories are not immune to the Kremlin’s influence. In addition to the targeted removal of the local political and cultural elite in the areas that Russian officials often refer to as “the former Ukraine,” revamped school curriculums devoid of the Ukrainian language are already indoctrinating a generation of pupils with lessons claiming that a “neo-Nazi” Ukrainian government provoked the current war.
Newsweek sent a request for comment to the Russian Foreign Ministry, but did not receive a reply.
Children Trapped Behind the War’s Front Lines
But despite the efforts of investigators like Matviichuk, assembling a comprehensive picture of life under Russian occupation is virtually impossible. Even before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, access to the self-declared “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” was severely limited. Now that a 600-mile long front line blocks off a crescent of territory in Ukraine’s south and east, information about everyday life on the other side of the trenches has only grown harder to come by.
As a result, the individual stories which have found their way out to a wider Western audience often represent exceptional cases. On the topic of child abductions in particular, reports of the lucky 364 who have safely returned to their families often obscure the fact that, for many of the thousands of others, there remains very little to which they can return.
Investigators classify the abducted Ukrainian children under four general categories:
- Orphans who were living in state institutions prior to the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion;
- Children whose parents were deemed to be unable to support them, often because fathers forcibly mobilized to fight on the Russian side in the war had been killed in action;
- Children whose civilian parents were killed in the fighting, along with those whose parents were detained by Russian forces for political reasons;
- Children located behind the Russian front lines while their parents remain in Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Thus far, every publicly available case of an abductee returning home involves children who fall into the fourth category. While neither the Ukrainian government nor individual investigative groups publish statistics outlining the relative size of the four categories, the phenomenon that led to the creation of category four was limited by size and scope, at least suggesting that its membership is limited.
Starting in the summer of 2022, Russian occupation forces began organizing weeks-long trips to Crimean camps for children living in the territories that had recently come under Russian control. Multiple residents of recently liberated Ukrainian regions told Newsweek that friends and neighbors had willingly sent their children on such trips, and that up until the time when sudden shifts in the war’s front lines left parents and children on opposite sides of the trenches—the result of successful Ukrainian counter offensive operations in the Kharkiv region in September 2022 and around Kherson that November—the campers were always returned home as scheduled.
Now, however, an untold number of these children remain trapped in temporary housing facilities on Ukrainian territory that is still under Russian occupation, while their parents find themselves in liberated areas. In many instances, the children have mobile phones and are in contact either with their parents or with Ukrainian investigators. Although the Russian side has refused to organize the childrens’ return, some parents have been able to travel to the European Union, then through Russia to Crimea, then make their way to the Russian-controlled facility where their child is being held.
The stories told by the children who have managed to make it back home to Ukraine vary widely. Some speak of bad food, poor heating, and physical abuse for those expressing pro-Ukrainian sentiments, while others tell of a typical summer camp experience, where they had fun being away from home for a few extra months.
But regardless whether the stories are positive or negative from the tiny minority of children who have been reunited with their parents—about 2 percent of documented cases—they do not provide meaningful insight into the issue of the vast majority who are caught up in Russia’s larger child abduction program, which preys on those far more vulnerable than the unlucky few who did not make it back home from Crimea in advance of the Ukrainian liberation of their hometowns.
Children Deliberately Deported to Russia
Children who fall outside of the fourth category—those located behind the Russian front lines while their parents remain in Ukrainian-controlled territory— are much more difficult to track. Many of them were orphans before the war. Others became orphans due to the Russian invasion or were removed from families deemed by occupation authorities to be unable to support them.
“After the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia formed commissions tasked with determining which families on the occupied territories could not support their children,” Vera Yastrebova, a Donbas native and the acting director of Lisyansky’s Eastern Human Rights Group, tells Newsweek. “If they determined that a family did not have the means to care for all of their children, then they might take one or two of them to be put up for adoption in Russia.”
These children are largely not the ones who found themselves unable to make it back home from Crimean holidays, but those who were selected specifically because their families lacked the resources to provide for them, let alone to retrieve them from a Siberian foster home. Most of these parents remain in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, where speaking out about their situation risks reprisals from the very Russian authorities who deported their children in the first place.
“The parents are scared,” Yasterebova explains. “They know that if they say anything publicly, the Russian government will only make it harder for them to get their children back. They understand that even if they know where their child is located, any attempt to travel to Russia to pick them up will likely lead to worse persecutions.”
Yastrebova and her group have located the facilities in Russia where such children are being held. By calling listed phone numbers and inquiring about the possibility of adopting Ukrainian children, they have learned that prospective new Russian parents must successfully complete an ideological instruction course before taking their new Ukrainian child home. In several cases, the adopted Ukrainian children’s identifying information has been deliberately altered.
“If the Russians were really only interested in rescuing children from dangerous areas, they wouldn’t need to issue them with new passports,” she says. “They wouldn’t need to change their names and birthdates. They wouldn’t need to make sure that the parents who are adopting these Ukrainian children are ideologically aligned with the Putin regime.”
“This isn’t being done in order to improve the welfare of these children,” Yastrebova adds. “It is being done in order to forcibly change the identities of Ukrainian kids.”
As the Nobel Prize recipient Matviichuk points out, the Kremlin’s campaign to alter the cultural makeup of the Ukrainian territories it currently occupies is not an accident. Without the defensive efforts of the Ukrainian military and civil society writ large, it is a campaign which could have affected her fellow countrymen on an even wider scale.
“There is a logic to what the Russians are doing,” she says, “even if it is a cruel logic. If they could have, they would have done the same thing in Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Dnipro. They would have done the same thing all across Ukraine.”
For kidnapping, brainwashing and nazifying children, the penalty needs to be death. Preferably preceded by months of torture by electricity.
Yeah, I agree. What does AI have to say about all of this?
Don’t make them happy!
Don’t underestimate their attraction to self-destruction and demonic ecstasies.
An orc feels alive from 230 volts!