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Russia’s deportations of Ukrainian children stir accusations of genocide

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Welcome back. The Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, on Wednesday recognised the Holodomor — the deaths of millions of Ukrainians in a 1932-1933 famine induced by the Soviet collectivisation of farms — as an act of genocide. Now Russia’s abductions and deportations of Ukrainian civilians, including thousands of children, raise the question of whether a new form of genocide is unfolding in Europe. I’m at [email protected].

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For many Ukrainians, the Holodomor is the most horrific national tragedy of a 20th century scarred by war, state violence and mass repressions. Most of this happened after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and, in particular, under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the authorities in Kyiv, along with western governments, human rights groups and the UN, have drawn attention to another ugly phenomenon: the “disappearance” of numerous Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas and their transfer to Russia proper. I will focus on Ukrainian children who have suffered this fate. Is it a war crime? Is it genocide?

The Ukrainian government has a website, Children of War, on which it regularly updates the number of children killed, wounded, missing and deported to Russia. As of yesterday, it estimated those deported at 12,572.

To judge from some Russian reports, the number of child evacuees — a different measure, covering those supposedly moved for their own safety from war zones — may be far higher, at about 200,000.

Investigative news organisations have done some fine work on this topic. One of the best pieces, in my view, is this in-depth report by the Associated Press.

As the AP points out, officials in Moscow defend the transfer of children to Russia on the grounds that they don’t have parents or guardians. Some were moved from orphanages in the Russian-backed separatist area of Donbas, and others from war-ruined, captured cities such as Mariupol.

However, the AP’s reporters also discovered 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 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has reached much the same conclusion. In September it reported: “There have been credible allegations of forced transfers of unaccompanied children to Russian occupied territory, or to the Russian Federation itself.

“We are concerned that the Russian authorities have adopted a simplified procedure to grant Russian citizenship to children without parental care, and that these children would be eligible for adoption by Russian families.”

Indeed, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in May that simplified the procedure for turning Ukrainian orphans into Russian citizens. Among those who have adopted a Ukrainian teenager is none other than Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights.

In September the US Treasury placed sanctions on Lvova-Belova, saying her efforts “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”.

Does all this amount to genocide under international law? Timothy Snyder, an eminent American historian of eastern Europe, thinks so. He and others cite the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Article II of this convention is unambiguous on the subject. Section (e) defines one type of genocide against a national, racial, ethnic, racial or religious group as “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.

But what precisely is the purpose of the Russian authorities in moving children from Ukraine and, in some cases, giving them Russian citizenship? A recent New York Times article made the point that the authorities are hardly concealing their actions. On the contrary, their actions are broadcast on state television “with patriotic fanfare”.

The aim, it appears to me, is partly to demoralise and intimidate the people of Ukraine, and partly to put on a propaganda show to the people of Russia. The message to Russians is: see, our “special military operation” is not a war at all, it’s bursting with humanitarian goodness.

All that said, it’s necessary to keep in mind that mass deportations have a long history in Russia, both in Soviet and in tsarist times.

In 2007 Sciences Po, the Paris-based university, compiled a chronology of deportations under Stalin from the mid-1930s onwards. Finns, Poles, Koreans, Balts, the peoples of the north Caucasus, Crimean Tatars, Germans, Greeks, Armenians, Moldovans — on and on the list goes.

In the tsarist era, one of the largest deportations occurred in 1864: the ethnic cleansing of Circassians in the north Caucasus.

On several occasions in the 18th and 19th centuries, Poles were deported en masse to Siberia. They suffered a similar fate, in even larger numbers, after Stalin’s invasion of Poland in 1939. The definitive study is the late British historian Keith Sword’s Deportation and Exile: Poles in the Soviet Union 1939-1948.

In our times, Russia’s 1999-2000 war in Chechnya led to the “enforced disappearance” of thousands of Chechens, according to Human Rights Watch. Similar actions against Crimean Tatars followed Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In other words, Russia’s deportations of Ukrainians, including children, fit a well-established historical pattern of behaviour. It is another question whether the Russian authorities will ever be held to account.

What do you think? Does Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian children qualify as genocide? Vote here.

More on this topic

Vladimir Putin’s Telegram hawks — Andrey Pertsev explains on the Riddle website how a messenger app became a platform for pro-war Russian nationalists.

Notable, quotable

“This case reaffirms the strength of our democracy and the institutions that protect and preserve it, including our criminal justice system” — Matthew Graves, US attorney for the District of Columbia, speaks after Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, a rightwing militia, was convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 2021 assault on the US Capitol

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Youth unemployment in China is stoking student protests against the Communist party’s zero-Covid policies, the FT’s Thomas Hale in Shanghai and Arjun Neil Alim in London report.

  • Ten years after the EU embarked on the project of a banking union to complement its single currency, the task remains unfulfilled in important respects, but there are opportunities for progress. The Brussels-based Bruegel think-tank analyses what needs to be done.

In case you missed it, for the FT’s Best Books of the Year series, I selected 10 history books which stand out from 2022 — you can read my list here, and see the rest of the annual round-up here.

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