War in Ukraine

Kidnap, Brainwash, Militarize—the Playbook of Russia’s War on Ukrainian Children

Kidnap, Brainwash, Militarize—the Playbook of Russia’s War on Ukrainian Children

Russia’s campaign to kidnap, indoctrinate, and militarize Ukrainian children reveals a strategy of weaponizing childhood itself, deliberately targeting the most vulnerable.

In the darkened corners of Russia’s war in Ukraine, children’s lives disappear, spirited away under the cover of conflict. Families are torn apart, and futures are quietly altered through illicit means. Russia’s reach extends beyond the battlefield; disinformation campaigns creep into public consciousness, twisting narratives with ease. This war inflicts psychological wounds, unseen battle scars that could haunt Ukraine’s youngest long after the war ends.

Today, when information is a double-edged sword, discerning hidden narratives within our newsfeeds is critical. Ukraine’s Center for Countering Disinformation (CCD) plays a vital role, debunking myths and ensuring the truth about Ukraine’s situation is heard. This is especially urgent as Russia continues its war against Ukraine, with disinformation campaigns targeting the most vulnerable — children — in an attempt to manipulate public opinion. We examine CCD’s investigation on Russia’s forced deportation of Ukrainian children.

Illustration by Oleksandr Manukians
Illustration by Oleksandr Manukians

A kidnapper’s playbook

Russia’s systematic kidnapping of Ukrainian children, an estimated 744,000 according to the National Information Bureau, reveals a chilling propaganda tactic. Disguising these abductions as humanitarian “evacuations,” Russia relentlessly demonizes Ukraine in a bid to sway global opinion. Their unfounded accusations paint Ukraine as neglectful, even violent towards its own children. As stated by Russia’s UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia, they justify their actions as saving these youth from “the dangers of military activities.” This twisted narrative attempts to obscure Russia’s true role as the aggressor and to legitimize its heinous war crimes. The most insidious aspect of this strategy is the calculated brainwashing of the kidnapped children, erasing their Ukrainian identity and indoctrinating them against their homeland.

The CCD report identifies three main narratives in Russia’s tactic:

Narrative 1: “Russia is a paradise for children”

Russia falsely paints itself as a sanctuary for children, promising exceptional care and opportunities. Official claims children, “rescued” from Ukrainian “aggression” are placed with loving families, receive top medical care, and even continue a Ukrainian-language education in Russian schools. It’s important to note Russia simultaneously denies any adoption schemes for Ukrainian children, saying the children are in “temporary foster care” — a claim debunked by a 2023 OSCE report.

Narrative 2: “Ukraine doesn’t care about its children”

Russian propaganda relentlessly spins a false narrative that Ukraine abandons its children. Since the 2022 invasion, Russia has escalated its illegal deportation of Ukrainian children, disguising it as a humanitarian “rescue.” Russian officials frequently claim that these children were left neglected in orphanages, ignored by Ukrainian authorities, stranded under fire. They further frame the deportations as “rehabilitation,” especially for those near the frontlines or with medical needs.

On March 20, the Russian UN ambassador asserted that they’d return the children to Ukraine once conditions were safer, implying their removal was purely protective. Moreover, in May 2023, Children’s Affairs Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova denied receiving repatriation requests from Ukraine. During a Vice interview, she baselessly accused Ukraine of using Mariupol’s children as human shields, claiming they made no evacuation efforts.

Narrative 3: “The West preys on children”

Russia actively spreads lies to discredit Western efforts to protect Ukrainian refugees. Beginning in spring 2022, using Western media, Russian news outlets pushed a narrative that Ukrainian children fleeing to Europe were falling prey to human trafficking and sexual abuse. In June 2022, Kremlin-aligned outlets distorted a report on British pedophiles entering Poland under the guise of aid work. This was aimed at discrediting safe havens offered to Ukrainians and to sow distrust in Western humanitarian efforts.

Illustration by Oleksandr Manukians
Illustration by Oleksandr Manukians

Kidnap, brainwash, militarize

Russia’s actions are a violation of the Geneva Convention. Children caught in the chaos of war are at risk of unspeakable horrors: forced into combat, exploited as spies, subjected to sexual abuse, or made to endure forced labor. The Conflict Observatory’s 2023 report exposes the truth: Russia’s systematic abduction of over 6,000 Ukrainian children into a network of 43 re-education camps. These camps are designed to erase identities, replacing them with warped, pro-Russian ideals through education, culture, and military indoctrination. Russia often falsely labels these children as orphans, despite many having living guardians.

Russia plans to expand its military-patriotic education system, epitomized by centers like Avangard, sponsored by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, or the infamous Crimean military camps. These centers, which aim to indoctrinate thousands annually, including forcibly displaced Ukrainian kids, embody the horrifying reality of militarizing children. Avangard and similar camps promote extremist nationalism and weaponize children from a young age. Forcibly removed Ukrainian children face not just the loss of their homeland, but also the perversion of international child-protection laws, robbing them of well-being and the fundamental right to family.

Illustration by Oleksandr Manukians
Illustration by Oleksandr Manukians

The International Human Rights Act is unequivocal: all children, all civilians, deserve protection from such barbarism. It explicitly forbids the use of children in war and demands their protection from harm. Yet, the Kremlin spews vile lies, depicting Ukraine as cruelly using its children as soldiers in a desperate bid for military advantage. These lies aim to tarnish Ukraine’s reputation, painting it as a rogue nation, while Russia itself commits the very atrocities it accuses Ukraine of.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has transformed children into weapons through a systematic campaign of abduction, brainwashing, and forced militarization. In violation of international law, thousands of Ukrainian children were torn from their families and subjected to re-education camps designed to strip them of their identity and instill pro-Russian extremism. Through false claims of orphanhood and the expansion of military-patriotic education centers, Russia perverts child-protection laws, aiming to create a generation of indoctrinated soldiers. This horrifying tactic not only endangers children physically but threatens to alter their minds, robbing Ukraine of its children not only physically, but mentally as well. And the latter is much harder to reverse.

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