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Russia’s Theft of Children in Ukraine Is Genocide

Moscow is out to destroy a people.

A girl wearing Ukrainian national dress attends a prayer vigil for peace in Ukraine at Bradford Cathedral in northern England on Feb. 24. [OLI SCARFF/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES]

It is now increasingly clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a war of genocide. Mounted with genocidal intent, pursued with determined genocidal effort, the war is an assault not only on Ukrainians and Ukrainian nationhood, but the idea of Ukrainian-ness itself.

It has involved the wholesale killing and mass rape of Ukrainians. And, with increasing obviousness, the war has involved the mass theft of Ukrainian children by Russia—an act of forced population transfer that meets the definition of genocide according to the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Late last year, the Washington Post reported details of a Russian plan to ship Ukrainian children out of their home country, to give them new Russian families and Russian identities, and to in so doing destroy the Ukrainian nation one child at a time.

The numbers are vast and difficult to confirm. But the stories are now being widely reported across Ukrainian areas occupied at any time in the past year by Russia. Most horrifically of all, orphaned Ukrainian children whose parents were killed during the country’s invasion have been scooped up by Russian troops, sent to Russia, and told they are little Russians—and that they were never Ukrainian at all.

This is part of a larger cultural understanding of Russia’s genocidal war: The children can be taken and told they are Russian because, in the Russian official mind, Ukraine does not exist, never existed, and must therefore be stricken from history.

In a report on the legal aspects of Russia’s genocide, co-published by the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in May last year, the authors were careful to attend to the cultural aspects of genocide. Russia’s actions in the occupied territories have been a clear indication of its genocidal ambitions.

As the report states, “High-level Russian officials have repeatedly denied the existence of Ukrainian language, culture, and national identity, implying instead that those who identify as distinctly Ukrainian threaten the ‘unity’ of Russians and Ukrainians.”

This tendency in Russian official circles never went away after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But it was kicked into high gear by the 2014 annexation of Crimea and start of the war in the Donbas. Russian state media and Russian state-affiliated think tanks published a continuous stream of pieces and reports based on the idea of Russian and Ukrainian “brotherhood” (with Ukraine subordinate) and interchangeability.

The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), a Russian government think tank that (its mission statement claims) informs national security policy, has opinions on the “national question.” In 2014, after the seizure of Crimea and parts of the Donbas, RISS published a collection of essays called “Ukraine Is Russia,” which was dedicated “to the unity of the Russian world.” The collection includes a contribution that describes the idea of “Ukrainian-ness” as “a peculiar South Russian regional Westernism”—contorted phrasing for an ugly assertion: that Ukrainians who consider themselves Ukrainian are mentally ill, or corrupted by foreign influence.

The desire to deny the very existence of Ukrainian culture was strong. In March 2016, a RISS analyst, Oleg Nemensky, argued that “the majority of the Ukrainian public have nothing to do with that [Ukrainian] culture.” Only Russian culture exists, in this worldview, and therefore the Ukrainian population can have no interaction with the culture that is claimed to be theirs.

All of this impacted the very top. When, President Vladimir Putin published his now infamous essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in July 2021, he made it clear what he thought: that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people, a single whole”.

In his essay, Putin wrote that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era” and that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” He also slid into the conspiracy theories that he used to justify his invasion the following year: that when the Ukrainian government and people reject these characterizations and maintain their own independence and cultural integrity, they are not a separate people, but neo-Nazis.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, its forces wasted no time in beginning to suppress aspects of Ukrainian culture. Billboards featuring the national poet Taras Shevchenko were torn down or covered up. City signs proclaiming the names of towns in Ukrainian were replaced with the Russified version of those names. Where they were previously painted in blue and white, the colors of Ukraine’s flag, the same signs were daubed with the Russian tricolor.

In Putin’s deranged speech to mark the nominal annexation of four regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia) into Russia proper, he returned to the genocidal themes that have dominated his regime and its policies for the past eight years. “[T]here is nothing stronger,” he said, “than the determination of millions of people who, by their culture, religion, traditions, and language, consider themselves part of Russia, whose ancestors lived in a single country for centuries. There is nothing stronger than their determination to return to their true historical homeland.”

After false referendums, conducted under military occupation and in territories from which the Russian military is now retreating, these people are no longer Ukrainians. In Moscow’s eyes, they are Russians, and those who say otherwise are Nazis, or insane.

The full catalogue of Russian atrocities against the Ukrainian populations in towns and cities it has occupied is yet to be told. Until Mariupol is opened to international investigation, we will never know what went on there. The full numbers of Ukrainian children stolen by the Russian occupiers may never be known. The longer they remain in Russian custody, being re-educated by Russian schools, given new Russian parents and Russian names, the more their connection to Ukraine weakens—as is intended by Russia’s genocidal policy.

It is towns occupied by Russia, and subsequently liberated, from which we have testimony of witnesses who describe how Putin’s doctrine of Ukrainian and Russian “brotherhood” is put into practice.

Men with Ukrainian-themed tattoos are executed. Teachers say they were tortured by Russian occupiers for trying to teach in their own language rather than Russian. Across the annexed regions, similar treatment is at hand for those who still believe themselves to be Ukrainians living in Ukraine, with a right to hold dear and to express their own language and culture and history.

That a Ukrainian conductor was murdered by Russian soldiers last October for refusing to participate in a concert for the occupiers of Kherson makes this point all the starker.

Ukraine’s repudiation of annexation by military victory is not enough. As time goes on, the nature of this genocidal war has not changed. Even if all of Ukraine were to be recaptured, elite Russian opinion would likely not alter.

Surmounting this all is the theft of children. Even months ago, it was determined that Russia has kidnapped possibly as many as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children and deported them to Russia. Their new adoptive parents, and Russian passports, are the tools of genocide: It is genocide that they are slowly taught to hate and despise their former country.

This theft and reeducation of children will continue to be an act of genocide long after the last Russian invader has left Ukrainian soil. Russia’s mere defeat will not uproot the cultural narrative that led to this genocide from its entrenched and hallowed place in Russian national life; and it will not, on its own, return Ukraine’s stolen children.

Russia’s motivation is both genocidal and grimly practical. Its population is aging dramatically. It has thrown away tens of thousands of young male lives in Ukraine, and more in the emigration of its most mobile and future-looking citizenry when the first mobilization was threatened. Putin, an old man in a hurry, needs fresh blood for his dying country. And stealing Ukraine’s children in a textbook act of genocide appears to be his policy to achieve the transplant.

Just as surely as Ukraine must win the war, it must avert this genocidal theft of its young.


(c) 2023, Foreign Policy


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