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Putin’s Child Abduction Strategy in Ukraine Parallels Hitler’s Lebensborn Program

Alex Constantine - February 27, 2023

During the "Great" War, Hitler's troops kidnapped blond-haired, blue-eyed children in Poland and spirited them off to Germany for adoption to be "Aryanized." At least 500 newborns were abducted during Argentina's "Dirty War," and  raised by military couples. By 1983, hundreds of these “adoptions” were exposed, but another 18 years passed before an attempt was initiated th rrace their whereabouts. The Trump administration introduced an American version of Lebensborn by kidnapping the children of immigrants from Latin America. And now Putin's troops in Ukraine are stealing children displaced by the onslaught to be "Russianized." Since the start of the war, Putin has denounced the West, yet borrows heavily the worst of western military atrocities. Mass child abductions place Russia's hypocritical ruling mediocrity among the the most rabid despots in world history. - AC

Josh Meyer - USA TODAY, February 25, 2023

Early last October, a smiling senior Kremlin official named Maria Lvova-Belova disembarked from a Russian military jet in Moscow with 53 children she claimed were orphans she’d rescued from the war zone in the contested Donbas region of Ukraine.

The "orphans," ranging in age from nine months to five years, would soon join 350 others who had been adopted, and begin their new lives in Russia, the Kremlin said, as part of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitious effort to place children from war-torn Ukraine with families in Russia.

According to Putin's office , the head of the Russian-occupied Donetsk oblast had “requested their evacuation to safe areas of the country,” claiming that some of the children “need lifesaving assistance and rehabilitation.”

U.S. and Ukrainian officials portray the trip by Lvova-Belova, Putin’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, as something far more sinister. They say Lvova-Belova is the public face of one of the most distressing consequences of Russia’s year-long war in Ukraine: The deportation, including by coercion and force, of potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian children without their families.

More:'We will never be the same': Displaced Ukrainian children risk erosion in school, mental health

U.S. and Ukrainian officials portray the trip by Lvova-Belova, Putin’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, as something far more sinister. They say Lvova-Belova is the public face of one of the most distressing consequences of Russia’s year-long war in Ukraine: The deportation, including by coercion and force, of potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian children without their families.

More:'We will never be the same': Displaced Ukrainian children risk erosion in school, mental health

The numbers vary widely, from a conservative estimate of 6,000 by one recent U.S.-funded study to more than 400,000 when taking into account the full scope of activities by Russian proxies like community leaders in Kremlin-held areas of Ukraine.

Some children have been returned, often after protests and intervention by Ukrainian authorities or non-governmental child advocacy organizations. But an unknown but large number of them – ranging in age from four-month-old infants to teenagers as old as 17 – may never be reunited with their loved ones back home, according to those officials and humanitarian groups focused on Ukraine.

Hundreds of the youngest victims, they say, already have been adopted by Russians, with Putin’s encouragement, while thousands of others are being fed Kremlin propaganda in pro-Russia “re-education” camps.

U.S. and allied authorities say they are only now beginning to comprehend the true scale of the crisis given the intentionally opaque nature of an organized Russian effort that has been underway since before tanks and troops first crossed the border a year ago.

That’s especially the case because Russia has refused to permit the kind of independent centralized registration system that’s required by the international laws of armed conflict to track and protect children in war zones, humanitarian and legal experts told USA TODAY.

“We know the numbers reported are very low and that they will rise significantly,” said Nathaniel Raymond, a war crimes investigator and executive director of the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab.

“There's a lot more of the iceberg,” Raymond said , “and we're just beginning to learn how to see it.”

A Russian 're-education' effort

Some of the new information has come to light after the Yale center released a State Department-funded report last week saying Russia has sent as many as 6,000 Ukrainian children to a network of at least 43 re-education facilities that stretch from the Black Sea coast all the way to Siberia.

Using satellite data, Telegram channel communications and other investigative tools, lab investigators found that Moscow's goal is to make Ukrainian children "more pro-Russia in their personal and political views."

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The report, titled “Russia’s systematic program for the re-education and adoption of Ukraine’s children,” represents the most detailed public accounting to date of what has happened to Ukraine’s children during the war..

Public citations of the report, including by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have drummed up additional information about deported children and potential avenues of investigation into related malign Russian activities, Raymond said.

Some of the camps are “in Ukrainian territory that Russia now holds,” Blinken said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” last Sunday. Others, he said, are in Russia, and “closer to Alaska than they are to Ukraine.”

“Separating them from their families and then having them adopted by Russians; this is in and of itself, horrific,” Blinken said of the Ukrainian children. “It also speaks to the fact that President Putin has been trying from day one to erase Ukraine's identity, to erase its future.”

Russia’s embassy in Washington dismissed as “absurd” the U.S. accusation that it has engaged in the forced transfer of Ukrainian children.

More:'It's hard, but they're holding on': On the ground in Ukraine, the war depends on U.S. weapons

“Russia accepted children who had been forced to flee with their families from the shelling and atrocities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” the embassy said in a statement. “We do our best to keep minors in families, and in case of absence or death of parents and relatives – to transfer orphans under guardianship.”

Prallels to Nazis' 'Germanization' program

U.S. and Ukrainian officials say that denial is contradicted by the public statements of Putin and senior Russian officials. And some Russian and Ukrainian estimates are far higher than those contained in the U.S.-affiliated Yale report.

A website operated by the Ukrainian government, “Children of War,” is updated daily and puts the number at 16,221 children deported as of Feb. 23. Only 307 of them, it says, have been returned, while another 461 children have been confirmed killed by the fighting and another 926 wounded.

Michael Scharf, a human rights lawyer who tries cases at the International Criminal Court, said the real number is likely closer to 400,000 children.  That's based, he said, on “numerous reports of Russian forces seizing children from orphanages, schools and hospitals in areas of Ukraine under Russian occupation and transferring them to Russia where they are sent to foster families to be transformed into Russians.”

The reported estimates of transferred Ukrainian children likely dwarf those from all other 21st-century conflicts combined, said Scharf, the dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

The only conflict comparable to the situation in Ukraine has been World War II, when about 200,000 Polish children were taken to Germany by the Nazis under Heinrich Himmler's notorious "Germanization program," said Scharf and former Justice Department child exploitation prosecutor Kayla Brochu.

“The Russians may try to justify their actions as necessary to safeguard children found in an area of combat. But that does not permit deportation back to the occupying state unless no other alternative is available,” Scharf said, citing international laws requiring that children be sent to a neutral third country for protection, and so they won’t be used as bargaining chips in prisoner swap and end-of-hostility negotiations.

“Moreover,” Scharf said, “there are public statements of Russian officials indicating that the reason for these transfers was to transform the children into Russians, which indicates that any justification is merely pretext.”

Brochu, now an international human rights lawyer, said parallels to the Nazis' “Germanization program” are especially chilling because of the long-lasting damage it caused.

“The children were deported to Germany and … German families then adopted them,” Brochu said. “Close to a century later, social justice advocates are still trying to uncoil the branches of those mangled family trees.”

Months after the onset of war, the Biden administration accused Putin and his generals of committing war crimes in Ukraine, citing numerous violations of the Geneva Conventions including attacks on population centers and the rape and murder of civilians. But last Saturday, Vice President Kamala Harris brought up the child deportation issue in accusing Russia of committing crimes against humanity, an even more serious breach of international law.

“"We have examined the evidence. We know the legal standards," Harris told world leaders in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. “And I say to all those who have perpetrated these crimes and to their superiors who are complicit in these crimes: You will be held to account."

A massive and coordinated effort

Reports of Russia’s program of child deportation have surfaced since the onset of war.

Ukraine's ombudswoman, Lyudmyla Denisova, said in May that Russia had relocated more than 210,000 children during the conflict and that she was treating it as a war crime.

In its report, the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab described the Russian effort as a massive and coordinated logistical undertaking that involves both civilian and military leaders in Russia and in Russian-occupied and contested areas of Ukraine.

Its team found that Russia began systematically transporting Ukrainian children to Russia even before the full-scale invasion began.

The military effort to take children from Ukrainian institutions expanded as Russia secured more territory. And while some of those children were indeed orphans without parents, many more of them had parents or guardians, but were mentally or physically disabled, or “kids who had come from abusive homes and were in foster care type situations.” Others, he said, “were street kids or kids in transitional housing” whose parents or guardians were never told what happened to them.

Meanwhile, an even more insidious campaign was also underway, in which Ukrainian parents were being persuaded to send their kids to summer camp facilities so they’d be out of harm’s way, the Yale report said.

“You're talking about parents who are in a desperate situation, often who have local people they can trust including teachers and members of village councils coming to them and saying we can give your kids a vacation,” or needed medical services or evacuation to safer parts of Ukraine, Raymond told USA TODAY. “We’re hearing story after story where the mother is saying I shouldn't have sent my kid but I just wanted to get her out of the fighting.”

Many of those parents, Raymond said, were effectively tricked into signing consent forms, and Russian authorities often prevented them from contacting their children or from being told that they’d been moved from nearby camps to re-education facilities potentially hundreds of miles away.

Putin’s patriotic patronage campaign

Until last year, Russia forbade its citizens from adopting “foreign” children. But Putin waived that and encouraged Russian cities and individuals to support a “patronage” program to help – and adopt – Ukrainian children in Kremlin-held territory.

Putin also “personally appointed many of the figures involved in this program and publicly supports their efforts,” the Yale investigators, part of a State Department war crimes investigation collaboration, concluded. That's especially the case, they saidwith Lvova-Belova

A telegenic late-thirtysomething, Lvova-Belova has traveled widely through the Russian-held parts of Ukraine, documenting via video and social media her purported campaign to save vulnerable children caught in the crossfire.

Raymond, however, says Lvova-Belova’s real mission is to “proselytize, recruit and take children.”

Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Lvova-Belova for her role in deporting Ukrainian children, saying that “working directly under Putin, (she) has led Russia’s efforts to deport thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia.”

Her efforts, Treasury said, specifically include the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families, the so-called “patriotic education” of Ukrainian children, legislative changes to expedite the provision of Russian Federation citizenship to Ukrainian children, and the deliberate removal of Ukrainian children by Russia’s forces.

Many other Russian leaders identified in the Yale report and by other researchers have so far evaded sanctions or other reprisals by Washington and its European allies.

In January 2023, Putin doubled down, directing Lvova-Belova to “take additional measures to identify minors” living in the occupied territories “left without parental care, and to promptly provide them with state social assistance.”

Dig deeper::The War in Ukraine - One Year Later

Last week, Putin noted that Russian authorities are planning a major expansion of the so-called “Happy Childhood” relief effort this spring. And he asked Lvova-Belova if she had adopted a child for herself from Mariupol.

“Yes, Mr President, thanks to you,” she replied.

“Is he small?,” Putin asked.

“No, he is 15 years old,” Lvova-Belova replied. “Now I know what it means to be a mother of a child from Donbas – it is a difficult job but we love each other, that is for sure.”

“This,” Putin replied, “is the main point.”

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