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  • Fahad Mirza

For the Children: Russia’s Disinformation Campaign to Justify Abducting Ukrainian Children

Author: Fahad Mirza

June 6, 2023


Symbolic action led by members of Avaaz and Ukrainian refugees with the deposit of thousands of teddy bears and toys representing the thousands of children abducted following the war in Ukraine. [Image Credit: Photo by NICOLAS MAETERLINCK / BELGA MAG / Belga via AFP]

Introduction


On March 17th, 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladmir Putin and his Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova accusing them of being personally responsible for the systematic abduction of Ukrainian children. According to the Ukrainian government, since the beginning of the war, 19,486 children have been deported to Russia, of whom 12,785 have been located and only 369 have returned.


Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine there has been a persistent disinformation campaign focused on discrediting Ukraine and justifying the invasion. Part of this campaign has been to justify Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children and support the idea that they are better off in Russia.


The Abductions


Russian-aligned forces began transporting children from Ukraine into Russia several days before the actual invasion began. In early February 2022, Russian regional leaders and proxy authorities “evacuated” 500 purported orphans from the Ukraine’s Donbas region, moving them to facilities throughout Russia and Crimea. While at these facilities, many children would be adopted by Russian families, often without the children’s consent.


By early March, hundreds more children would be “evacuated” and taken to so-called “summer camps”. While the camps and other facilities holding the children were run by regional and local officials, the overall operation was centrally coordinated by officials in the Russian federal government. Vladmir Putin personally appointed many of the figures involved in this program and publicly supported their efforts, including appointing Ms. Lvova-Belova who was the apparent leader of this operation.


Children attend classroom instruction as part of re-education programming. [Image Credit: Russia’s Systematic Program for The Re-Education & Adoption of Ukraine’s Children; A Conflict Observatory Report/ Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health]

These camps, many of which were set up in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, range in location from Russian-occupied Crimea all the way to Magadan, a Russian port town 4,000 miles from the Ukrainian border. According to statements made by high-level regional officials, these camp programs are designed to “integrate” children from newly-occupied territories into Russian life and to enforce a version of Russia’s history, culture, and society that serves the political interests of Russia’s government. Some children also undergo military training at these camps. These re-education camps are designed to make Ukrainian children more Russian.


There are also allegations that some children are having their personal information altered on their travel documents to age them up so they are no longer legally considered children, making it more difficult for them to return to Ukraine and be reunited with their families.


The children taken from Ukraine generally fall into one of three categories.


1.) Children who lived in orphanages and other state ward facilities who are “evacuated” for various claims of safety that may or may not be true. It should be noted, however, that even if a child was living in an orphanage they are not necessarily an orphan. The government of Ukraine told the United Nations before the invasion that some children in Ukraine’s orphanages “are not orphans, have no serious illness or disease and are in an institution because their families are in difficult circumstances.”


2.) Children with special medical conditions and need extra care who are temporarily sent to facilities. These children are typically sent by their parents or guardians to allow the children to avoid the fighting and receive the care they need with the expectation that they will be returned after a certain time. However, in September 2022, Putin ordered mandatory medical examinations for all children in occupied territories. Some activists worry these exams could provide occupying forces justification for abducting children to Russia under the guise of medical care.


3.) Children who are sent to these camps with the consent of their parents to get them away from the fighting and/or give their children the opportunity to go to a “summer camp”. These summer camps programs are offered to families at no cost and often low-income families will choose to send their children expecting that they will be returned in a few weeks' time.


Diagram of a child’s journey through Russia’s system of re-education camps and adoption. [Image Credit: Russia’s Systematic Program for The Re-Education & Adoption of Ukraine’s Children; A Conflict Observatory Report/ Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health]

The children deemed orphans and/or have special medical needs by Russian authorities are taken by local government officials in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine often without the children’s or their living families' consent then adopted by Russian families.


Russian law prohibits the adoption of foreign children without consent of the home country, which Ukraine has not given. But in May, Putin signed a decree making it easier for Russia to adopt and give citizenship to Ukrainian children without parental care. Russia also has prepared a register of suitable Russian families for Ukrainian children and pays the families a stipend for each child they host who gets citizenship. This amount varies but can go up to 156,428.66 rubles ($2,614.77), especially if the child has a disability. The Russian government even runs a special hotline to pair Russian families with children from Donbas.


Russian President Vladmir Putin meeting with his Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova. [Image Credit: Kremlin]

As stated above, the families who choose to send their children to these “summer camps” do so under the impression that the programs are temporary. Often what actually happens is at the end of the scheduled camp term, the children are not returned to their families. Safety concerns and “ongoing hostilities” in Ukraine are often the reasons given by camp officials for the delayed return. These delays range from several weeks to several months and in many cases are ongoing.

There is a significant lack of communication between parents and camp officials when delays occur, with parents finding out about the delays through phone conversations with their children, word of mouth, and/or local news outlets rather than the camp officials. If parents know where the camps are that their children are being held, and in many instances they do not, they will often have to travel there themselves to retrieve their children. This journey can be extremely dangerous as the camps are usually in Russian-occupied territories or in Russia itself where the parents run the risk of being arrested, especially if they have ties to the Ukrainian military.


Throughout their time in the camps and facilities, many children are lied to and told they weren’t wanted by their parents. They are often used for propaganda in ceremonies giving them Russian citizenship so they can then be permanently adopted by Russian families even if they still have living legal parents and/or guardians.


Whether the children taken from Ukraine are orphans or not, human rights experts argue that raising children of war in another country or culture can be a marker of genocide.


The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has stated:


“Deporting children is a war crime. We know today of at least 16,200 children who were deported, and only 300 have returned so far. These criminal acts fully justify the arrest warrant issued by the ICC…"


Also, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution which states that the transfers of Ukrainian children constitute the crime of genocide because they were “clearly being planned and organised in a systematic way” and “had the abhorrent aim of “annihilating every link to and feature of their Ukrainian identity”.

Disinformation Narratives


When Russian-aligned officials first began their abduction of Ukrainian children prior to the invasion, their justification for the move was to claim there was an imminent Ukrainian offensive against the Russian-backed separatists who controlled the region, therefore they needed to protect the children. In hindsight, this claim of Ukrainian aggression followed very quickly by actual Russian aggression in the form of the invasion, perfectly captures what would go on to be Russia’s pattern of projection through disinformation.


In the months leading to Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government and pro-Russian media has had a persistent disinformation campaign focused on discrediting Ukraine and justifying their invasion. Part of this campaign has been to justify Russia’s forced removal of Ukrainian children and support the idea that they are better off in Russia. While there have been hundreds of claims made throughout this campaign, three major disinformation narratives stand out as the “foundational falsehoods” that many other claims stem from. These claims are:

  1. Ukraine is run by Nazis who look to “Nazify” children.

  2. The central Ukraine government has attempted to genocide citizens in the Donbas and other regions currently occupied by Russian forces.

  3. Russia is completely innocent. The Russian “evacuation” of the children is completely legal, Russia has committed no war crimes throughout their “special military operation” and the children want to go to Russia.

First, the narrative that Ukraine is run by Nazis and the Russian invasion is an attempt to “de-Nazify” the country is a false but powerful claim that goes back to Russia’s initial annexation of Crimea. A statement signed by more than 300 historians who study genocide, Nazism and World War II, said Putin’s rhetoric about de-Nazifying fascists among Ukraine’s elected leadership is “propaganda.” While Ukraine is not without its own ultra-nationalist and far-right groups, those groups are far from the ones in charge.


Screenshot of Russian state media outlet Sputnik online article titled “War as a Purpose: Young Ukrainians in Neo-Nazi Training Camps”. [Image Credit: Screenshot]

Part of this narrative, shared throughout Russian Telegram channels and amplified by Russian media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, include reports that Ukrainian teens are undergoing combat training at academies similar to those of the “Hitler Youth” and are being used on the front line. They claim that these teenagers are “taught to shoot and prepared to kill Russians,” and that Ukraine uses children to fight Russia because of huge losses on the front. These claims have long been debunked but Russian disinformation actors continue to push these narratives regardless.


Next, the narrative that the central Ukrainian government has attempted to genocide citizens in the Donbas, Crimea, and other Russian-occupied regions goes back at least nine years to the annexation of Crimea. This narrative has persisted throughout the invasion and been used by pro-Russian actors to not only justify the invasion but also distract from Russia other war crimes in Ukraine. In reality, there is no evidence that either ethnic Russians or Russian speakers are facing persecution at the hands of the Ukrainian authorities anywhere in Ukraine or abroad, much less the danger of a genocide. This has been confirmed by reports issued by the Council of Europe, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).


Screenshot of Russian state media outlet RT online article titled “Conflict in eastern Ukraine ‘looks like genocide’-Putin”. [Image Credit: Screenshot]

Russia’s claim of genocide is further undercut by the fact that Putin and the Kremlin have never officially appealed to the UN Genocide Prevention Office or any other international institutions over the issues of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the systematic abduction of Ukrainian children to Russia has been documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and resulted in the ICC indictment discussed at the beginning of this article.


Finally, the narrative that Russia is completely innocent in this situation is bolstered by three sub-narratives: 1.) The Russian abduction of Ukrainian children is “in full compliance with international humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child”. 2.) Russia and Russian-aligned forces have committed no war crimes and Ukraine conducts false flag operations and stages atrocities to accuse Russia of committing war crimes. 3.) The children want to go to Russia because horrible things are happening to children in Ukraine including being used as human shields, sexual abuse, and organ harvesting. As expected, there is no evidence to support Russia’s claims of child abuse at the hand of Ukraine, no evidence to support the idea Ukraine is staging atrocities, and a mountain of evidence supporting the idea that their campaign of child abduction is, in fact, illegal.


Bar chart showing pro-Kremlin claims regarding Ukraine from 367 debunks published between 2014 and 2021, ranked by the number of articles. [Image Credit: DFRLab via StopFake and EUvsDisinfo.]

As stated above, these three recurring narratives make up the “foundational falsehoods” the Russian government has pushed since their annexation of Crimea going into the full-scale invasion. The Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), an organization studying disinformation to help build digital resilience, conducted a study looking at 367 claims about Ukraine published by pro-Kremlin sources from 2014 to 2022 and identified 36 recurring narratives. Among the most frequent narratives identified were “Ukrainians are Nazis.” “The Ukrainian army and voluntary formations are brutal,” and “Russia is not the aggressor.”


It is clear that these narratives are being aggressively pushed by Russian-aligned disinformation actors and the results have been effective.


Conclusion

The Russian government and its proxies have spent the last nine years building an alternate reality where Russia is a victim fighting to stave off Western imperialism, a reluctant hero trying to save children from Nazism, and the home of the last honest government. Disinformation has become one of Russia’s most powerful weapons and they have been wielding it effectively for the better part of a decade. Their narratives are especially dangerous because they are built around a bit of truth; Ukraine does have a history of Nazism, there is tension between the Russian-aligned regions and the central Ukraine government, and horrible things are happening to children in this war. What Russia then does with that bit of truth, is manipulate and misrepresent it. Sometimes that results in policy makers buying into the narrative full stop, but more often than not it simply makes people doubt if anything is actually true and in that doubt Russia commits its atrocities.


Clearly, Russia has committed a litany of human rights violations throughout their invasion of Ukraine. The international community is generally united in their opposition to Russia’s actions and steps have been taken to punish Russia for its crimes.


However, they persist. The atrocities Russian forces have committed in Ukraine are ongoing and the Kremlin continues to push forward with their campaign of denial, projection and redirection. Russian disinformation is a “firehose of falsehoods”. It is rapid, continuous, and repetitive. It is an onslaught of lies meant to weaken the world’s resilience until the public loses interest and patience in continuing to help Ukraine.

Policy makers can work to fight this onslaught by pre-bunking or forewarning against potential narratives. People’s opinions on a topic are often shaped by their first impression so getting out ahead of a possible narrative can help prime the public for the disinformation attack.


Additionally, they can support technical efforts to limit the amplification potential of disinformation actors. Often, bot networks and fake accounts are used to amplify disinformation narratives and shape discourse. Through strategic partnerships with social media companies, policy makers can help limit the spread of disinformation.


Finally, it is important to acknowledge that disinformation is a whole of society problem and requires a whole of society approach. Professionals from different sectors and the public at large need to recognize the threat of disinformation and be prepared to counter it. Groups like the DFRLab, EUvsDisinfo, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review are working to help build public resilience to disinformation and should be looked to for more resources. It is vital to educate ourselves on the means by which disinformation campaigns try to manipulate us. Remember that truth still exists, and facts still matter.


 

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