Russia Signals It Will Take More Ukrainian Children, a Crime in Progress

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s abduction and deportation of children from Ukraine since its invasion of the country was so well documented and terrifying that when Russian forces prepared to withdraw from the southern city of Kherson last fall, doctors from a hospital there rushed to hide babies and falsified their records.

When the Russian soldiers arrived, staff at the Kherson Regional Hospital said the babies were too sick to move, Olha Pilyarska, head of the neonatal anesthesiology department, recalled in an interview on Saturday.

“They put lung ventilation devices near all the children,” he said.

The efforts saved 14 babies from being trapped in a campaign that has systematically transferred thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia to be resettled in foster families and on the path to becoming Russian citizens. When the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday for the forced deportation of children, it was a powerful acknowledgment of actions that have not only been carried out in public view, but continue today.

The arrest warrant adds Putin’s name to a notorious list of despots and dictators accused of humanity’s worst atrocities. But this case is unusual because the charges were announced not years after the abuses began, but in real time. The judges in The Hague cited the need for urgent action because the deportations are “allegedly ongoing.”

Although the court has quickly issued arrest warrants before – against Libya’s Colonel Muammar el-Gadhafi, for example – war crimes investigations often take years, meaning charges are not announced until long after they occur. the atrocities. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan was indicted in 2009 for war crimes that began in 2003.

But Russian authorities, far from disguising the deportations, have paraded the children in photo ops in Red Square and at lavish concerts celebrating the war. They have also signaled that more deportations are on the way.

Across southern Ukraine, local leaders of Russian proxies are issuing new “evacuation orders” ahead of an expected Ukrainian military offensive this spring. Such orders have often been the prelude to intensified deportations. And about a month ago, Russian forces closed all roads leading from the occupied areas to the rest of Ukraine, making it very difficult for people to flee. Now the only open roads lead further into the occupied territory or into Russia.

“The Russians are deporting more and more people from the temporarily occupied Zaporizhzhia and Kherson districts,” the Ukrainian National Resistance Center, the government agency that monitors events in occupied Ukraine, said on Friday, noting public statements by local Russian authorities.

More than a year into a war that has turned into a bloody resistance contest, Ukrainian and allied leaders face wavering, if still strong, support for continuing to supply Ukraine with military equipment. Ukrainian officials said the arrest warrant highlighted the moral imperative of the conflict.

“World leaders will think twice before shaking hands or sitting down with Putin at the negotiating table,” Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, said of the arrest warrant. “It is another clear signal to the world that the Russian regime is criminal.”

Russia, which like the United States is not a party to the international court, dismissed the order as meaningless. Its leaders have made it clear that they intend to continue deporting children to Russia in what they have called an act of humanitarian compassion.

The court in The Hague also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, the Kremlin’s commissioner for children’s rights, who is the public face of the deportation program. She has spoken with pride about organizing a large-scale system to get children out of Ukraine. After the arrest warrant, she promised to “keep working.”

Mr Putin, in a televised meeting with Ms Lvova-Belova last month, praised the work. “The number of applications from our citizens regarding the adoption of children from the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, from the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions is also growing,” he said.

The scale of the deportations in Ukraine over the last year is something that has not been seen in Europe for generations.

The United Nations estimated that 2.9 million Ukrainians They have moved to Russia since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion, but it is impossible to quantify how many might have gone voluntarily and how many were forced. That number includes around 700,000 children, according to Russians and Ukrainians, with most believed to be with their families.

The exact number of children separated from their parents or orphaned is unknown. Russia It has been recognized transfer of 2,000 children without guardians; Ukrainian officials they say they have confirmed 16,000 cases, although some of them could be with a relative.

“The actual and full number of deportees may be much higher,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in a statement on Friday after the Hague announcement.

The court has identified “at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and child care homes,” said Karim Khan, the court’s chief prosecutor. He said these deportations, carried out with the intent to permanently remove children from their own country, were in violation of the Geneva Convention and amounted to war crimes.

The Hague court moved unusually quickly in the case. It has been under intense scrutiny since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when 43 countries, a third of the court’s members, almost immediately demanded its intervention. Key donors, including the European Union, have sent money and dozens of prosecutors to speed up what is often seen as a cumbersome bureaucracy. And the court’s investigators, who are often frustrated by hostile governments, received the full cooperation of the Ukrainian authorities.

Forcibly transferring children from one national group to another with the intent to destroy the group can also amount to genocide, a charge that Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer with the Regional Center for Human Rights, a Ukrainian organization that investigates child abduction, He said he hoped it was the next step.

Russia has carried out the deportations under the guise of ransoms, medical rehabilitation initiatives and adoption programs. But the facts have come to light through eyewitness accounts, The New York Times reports and other Western media, the Ukrainian Media, independent researchers, The United Nationsand a multitude of government and rights organizations.

“They committed the crime in full view and expressed their pride in doing it,” Stephen Rapp, a former ambassador-at-large who led the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the State Department, said in an email.

The Kremlin has repeatedly used Ukrainian children as part of its campaign to bolster support for the war. When children from a group home fled the Russian bombing of Mariupol early in the war, for example, they were stopped at a Russian checkpoint. Pro-Russian media crews rushed to the scene, witnesses said, and cameras followed the children as they were taken further into Russian-controlled territory.

It was portrayed as a rescue operation.

“All Russian channels showed that Ukrainians are bad,” said Oleksandr Yaroshenko, a volunteer who witnessed the incident at the checkpoint.

In Kherson, local officials and witnesses described an orchestrated nature of the Russian kidnappings. Shortly after Russian forces seized the city, they worked with local collaborators to compile lists of children in hospitals, orphanages and schools, according to Ukrainian witnesses and prosecutors.

Security camera footage showed armed Russian soldiers entering an orphanage in October, and local authorities said 50 children were taken from the facility. Some of them, according to Kherson residents, later paraded before the cameras of Russia’s state media.

The deportations have echoes of one of the most sinister chapters in Russian history, when Stalin used the deportations to solidify control of the Kremlin. From 1936 to 1952, at least three million people were rounded up from their homes along the western borders of the Soviet Union and other regions, and dumped thousands of miles away in Siberia and Central Asia, according to United Nations refugee agency estimates.

The Kremlin referred to these people euphemistically as “special settlers.”

At the Kherson neonatal hospital, staff managed to save most of the children, but two were taken away, Pilyarska said.

“Some of the Kherson children are still in Crimea. Sometimes we can see them in the Russian media,” he said by phone from the hospital, which he said had been shelled in recent days. “The others just disappeared and we don’t know anything about them.”

Anna Lukinova, marlise simons and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.