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Are Ukrainian Kids Being Taken to Russia by Force or Necessity?

For some Russian families, taking in Ukrainian orphans isn’t a crime. It’s a gift

Olga Lopatkina paced around her basement in circles like a trapped animal. For more than a week, the Ukrainian mother had heard nothing from her six adopted children stranded in Mariupol, and she was going out of her mind with worry.

The kids had spent their vacation at a resort in the port city, as usual. But this time war with Russia had broken out, and her little ones — always terrified of the dark — were abandoned in a besieged city with no light and no hope. All they had now was her oldest son, Timofey, who was still himself just 17.

The questions looped endlessly in her head: Should she try to rescue the children herself — and risk being killed, making them orphans yet again? Or should she campaign to get them out from afar — and risk them being killed or falling into the hands of the Russians?

She had no idea her dilemma would lead her straight into a battle against Russia, with the highest stakes of her life.

Russia’s open effort to adopt Ukrainian children and bring them up as Russian is already well underway, in one of the most explosive issues of the war, an Associated Press investigation shows.

Thousands of children have been found in the basements of war-torn cities like Mariupol and at orphanages in the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donbas. They include those whose parents were killed by Russian shelling as well as others in institutions or with foster families, known as “children of the state.”

Russia claims that these children don’t have parents or guardians to look after them, or that they can’t be reached. But the AP found that officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent, lied to them that they weren’t wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda, and given them Russian families and citizenship.

The investigation is the most extensive to date on the grab of Ukrainian children, and the first to follow the process all the way to those already growing up in Russia. The AP drew from dozens of interviews with parents, children and officials in both Ukraine and Russia; emails and letters; Russian documents and Russian state media.

Whether or not they have parents, raising the children of war in another country or culture can be a marker of genocide, an attempt to erase the very identity of an enemy nation. Prosecutors say it also can be tied directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has explicitly supported the adoptions.

“It’s not something that happens spur of the moment on the battlefield,” said Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues who is advising Ukraine on prosecutions. “And so your ability to attribute responsibility to the highest level is much greater here.”

Even where parents are dead, Rapp said, their children must be sheltered, fostered or adopted in Ukraine rather than deported to Russia.

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 — and harder for Ukraine and surviving relatives to win them back.

Russia also has prepared a register of suitable Russian families for Ukrainian children, and pays them for each child who gets citizenship — up to $1,000 for those with disabilities. It holds summer camps for Ukrainian orphans, offers “patriotic education” classes and even runs a hotline to pair Russian families with children from Donbas.

“It is absolutely a terrible story,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Mariupol mayor, who claims hundreds of children were taken from that city alone. “We don’t know if our children have an official parent or (stepparents) or something else because they are forcibly disappeared by Russian troops.”

The picture is complicated by the fact that many children in Ukraine’s so-called orphanages are not orphans at all. Ukraine’s government acknowledged to the U.N. before the war that most children of the state “are not orphans, have no serious illness or disease and are in an institution because their families are in difficult circumstances.”

Nevertheless, Russia portrays its adoption of Ukrainian children as an act of generosity that gives new homes and medical resources to helpless minors. Russian state media shows local officials hugging and kissing them and handing them Russian passports.

It’s very hard to pin down the exact number of Ukrainian children deported to Russia — Ukrainian officials claim nearly 8,000. Russia hasn’t given an overall number, but officials regularly announce the arrival of Ukrainian orphans in Russian military planes.

In March, Russian children’s rights ombudswoman Maria Lvova-Belova said more than 1,000 children from Ukraine were in Russia. Over the summer, she said 120 Russian families had applied for guardianship, and more than 130 Ukrainian children had received Russian citizenship. Many more have come since, including a batch of 234 in early October.

Lvova-Belova has said these children need Russia’s help to overcome trauma that has left them sleeping badly, crying at night and drawing basements and bomb shelters. She acknowledged that at first, a group of 30 children brought to Russia from the basements of Mariupol defiantly sang the Ukrainian national anthem and shouted, “Glory to Ukraine!” But now, she said, their criticism has been “transformed into a love for Russia,” and she herself has taken one in, a teenager.

“Today he received a passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation and does not let go of it!” she posted on Telegram on Sept. 21, along with a photo. “(He) was waiting for this day in our family more than anyone else.”

Lvova-Belova has been sanctioned by the United States, Europe, the U.K., Canada and Australia. Her office referred the AP to her reply in a state-owned news agency that Russia was “helping children to preserve their right to live under a peaceful sky and be happy.”


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