Putin’s Arrest Warrant Highlights Deportation of Ukrainian Children
KYIV, Ukraine – Russia’s abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children 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 at a hospital hastily hid babies and tampered with their records.
When the Russian soldiers arrived, staff at Kherson Regional Hospital said the infants were too seriously ill to be moved, Olha Pilyarska, head of its neonatal anesthesiology department, recalled on Saturday.
“They put lung ventilation machines near all the children,” she said.
These efforts saved 14 babies from being drawn into a campaign that has systematically transferred thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia to be resettled with foster families and put on the right path to becoming Russian citizens. When the International Criminal Court on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on charges of forcible deportation of children, it was a powerful acknowledgment of actions that were not only carried out in broad daylight, but which continue today.
The arrest warrant adds Mr. Putin’s name to a notorious list of despots and dictators accused of humanity’s worst atrocities. But this case is unusual in that the charges were announced not years after the abuse began, but actually in real time. Judges in The Hague cited the need for urgent action as evictions are “allegedly underway”.
Although the court has issued arrest warrants quickly before – against Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi of Libya, for example – war crimes investigations often take years, meaning charges are not announced for a long time. after the atrocities. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was charged in 2009 with war crimes that began in 2003.
But the Russian authorities, far from covering up the deportations, exposed the children in photo ops in Red Square and at lavish concerts celebrating the war. They also reported that other evictions are in progress.
Across southern Ukraine, local Russian proxy leaders are issuing new “evacuation orders” ahead of a planned Ukrainian military offensive this spring. Such orders have often been the prelude to expedited evictions. And about a month ago, Russian forces closed all roads leading from the occupied areas to the rest of Ukraine, making it much more difficult for people to escape. Now the only open roads go deeper into the occupied territory or into Russia.
“The Russians are deporting more and more people from the temporarily occupied districts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson,” the Ukrainian National Resistance Center, the government agency that monitors events in occupied Ukraine, said on Friday, noting public statements by Russian authorities. local.
More than a year after the start of a war that has turned into a bloody contest of endurance, Ukrainian and allied leaders are struggling with hesitant – if still strong – support to continue providing the Ukraine military equipment. Ukrainian officials said the arrest warrant underscored the moral imperative of the conflict.
“World leaders will think twice before shaking hands with him or sitting down with Putin at the negotiating table,” Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, said of the arrest warrant. “This 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 mandate as meaningless. Its leaders have made it clear that they intend to continue deporting children to Russia in what they present as an act of humanitarian compassion.
The court in The Hague also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, Kremlin commissioner for children’s rights, who is the public face of the deportation program. She spoke proudly of organizing a large-scale system to get children out of Ukraine. After the arrest warrant, she swore “to continue working”.
Mr Putin, in a televised meeting with Ms Lvova-Belova last month, noted the work with approval. “The number of requests from our fellow citizens regarding the adoption of children from the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions is also increasing,” he said.
The scale of deportations in Ukraine over the past year has not been seen in Europe for generations.
The United Nations estimates that 2.9 million Ukrainians have moved to Russia since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion, but it is impossible to quantify how many might have left voluntarily and how many were forced. That number includes about 700,000 children, according to Russians and Ukrainians, and most are believed to be with their families.
The exact number of children separated from their parents or orphaned is not known. Russia has admitted transferring 2,000 children without guardians; Ukrainian officials say they have confirmed 16,000 cases, although some of them could be with a relative.
“The actual and total number of deportees could be much higher,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a statement Friday after The Hague’s announcement.
The court identified “at least hundreds of children abducted from orphanages and children’s homes”, said Karim Khan, the court’s chief prosecutor. He said these deportations, carried out with the intention of permanently removing the children from their own country, violated the Geneva Convention and constituted war crimes.
The court in The Hague acted with unusual speed in this case. It has come under intense scrutiny since Russia invaded Ukraine, when 43 countries – a third of the court’s members – almost immediately demanded its intervention. Major 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 tribunal’s investigators, who are often thwarted by hostile governments, have enjoyed 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 Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer at the Regional Center for Human Rights, a Ukrainian organization that child abduction investigation, said she hoped would be the next step.
Russia carried out the deportations under the guise of rescues, medical rehabilitation initiatives and adoption programs. But the facts have been brought to light by testimonies, reports from the New York Times and other Western media, Ukrainian media, independent investigators, the United Nations and a host of government and advocacy organizations.
“They committed the crime in plain sight and expressed pride in doing so,” Stephen Rapp, a former roving ambassador who headed the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, said in an email.
The Kremlin has repeatedly used Ukrainian children as part of its campaign to build support for the war. When children from a group home fled Russian bombardment of Mariupol at the start of 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 deeper into Russian-controlled territory.
It was described 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 the orchestrated nature of Russian kidnappings. Shortly after Russian forces seized the town, they worked with local collaborators to compile lists of children in hospitals, orphanages and schools, according to Ukrainian prosecutors and witnesses.
Security camera footage showed armed Russian soldiers entering an orphanage in October, and local officials said 50 children were taken from the facility. Some of them, according to residents of Kherson, then paraded in front of the cameras of Russian state news media.
The deportations echo one of the most grim chapters in Russian history, when Stalin used the deportations to tighten 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 thrown thousands of miles into Siberia and Central Asia, according to estimates. of the United Nations refugee agency.
The Kremlin euphemistically referred to these people as “special settlers.”
At Kherson Neonatal Hospital, staff managed to rescue most of the children, but two were taken away, Ms Pilyarska said.
“Some children from Kherson are still in Crimea. You can sometimes see them in the Russian media,” she said by phone from the hospital, which had been bombed in recent days. “The others just disappeared, and we don’t know anything about them.”
Anna Lukinova, Marlise Simons And Alina Lobzina contributed report.