February 23, 2023

The Stolen Children: How Russia Attempts to Kidnap Ukraine’s Future

Children play in front of a ruined building in Mariupol on 28 August 2022 amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine.
Children play in front of a ruined building in Mariupol on 28 August 2022 amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine.

In the first weeks into the full-scale invasion, Ukraine alerted the international community that the Moscow authorities were deporting children from the occupied territories under the plan to put them up for adoption in Russia. Since then, the U.N., the OSCE, the European Parliament, and the U.S. State Department have thrown their weight behind the accusations. The number of confirmed victims is growing by the day, whereas hundreds of thousands of children are suspected to have already been deported. Yet little has been – and can be – done to stop this crime.

By the Kremlin’s own admission and Putin’s May 2022 decree, the early allegations of state-sponsored abductions have translated into a well-articulated – and well-documented – policy. It includes family separations, a network of filtration camps, physical and psychological pressure, and forced deportations, which eventually culminate in illegal adoptions. Multiplying evidence suggests a significant degree of preparation and premeditation.

Not only state officials but ordinary citizens are complicit in this crime. Russian households voluntarily register to adopt children from Ukraine, receive financial benefits, and willingly share their stories of ‘re-education’ with the media. The whole-of-government campaign is championed by Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, who has led by example and adopted a child from Mariupol herself.

The publicity and fanfare serve not only as a continuation of propaganda for domestic purposes but are also wielded as a weapon of psychological warfare against Ukraine. It echoes and parallels many genocidal practices of the past. This case study substantiates why Russia’s deportation and abduction policy is a war crime raising to the level of genocide and must be recognised as such under international law.

Ukraine has vowed to pursue each case and prosecute every perpetrator, but it faces a long and excruciating trial ahead. In addition to examining the evidence of the crime unfolding, this analysis summarises the post-victory challenges and outlines the solutions. Two enterprises will have to run in parallel to each other: a cross-border search and rescue operation supplemented by a recovery and re-integration infrastructure for the repatriated children and their families.

But first, Ukraine and its allies must make sure that the Russian regime is not given another off-ramp – for it has used it as a highway to drive military transports full of stolen children.

Download and read: The Stolen Children (PDF)