KIEV, Ukraine — Russia’s kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children since invading the country has been so well-documented and chilling that doctors at a local hospital hastily hid babies as Russian forces prepared to withdraw from the southern city of Kherson last fall and falsified their records.
When Russian soldiers arrived, staff at the Kherson Regional Hospital said the infants were too seriously ill to move, recalled Olha Pilyarska, head of the neonatal anesthesiology department, in an interview on Saturday.
“They have placed lung ventilators near all the children,” she said.
The efforts saved 14 babies from being taken in a campaign that systematically transferred thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia to be placed in foster care and put them on the path to becoming Russian citizens. When the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday for forcibly deporting children, it was a strong acknowledgment of acts that were not only carried out in public, but continue to this day.
The arrest warrant adds Putin’s name to an infamous list of despots and dictators accused of humanity’s worst atrocities. But this case is unusual in that the charges were not announced years after the abuses began, but rather in real time. The judges in The Hague referred to an urgent need for action, since the deportations are “allegedly ongoing”.
Although the court has issued arrest warrants before – for example for Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – investigations into war crimes often take years, which means that indictments are not announced until well after the atrocities have taken place. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was indicted in 2009 for war crimes that began in 2003.
But Russian authorities, far from covering up the deportations, have paraded the children in photo ops in Red Square and at lavish concerts celebrating the war. They have also signaled that more deportations are underway.
Across southern Ukraine, local Russian proxies are issuing new “evacuation orders” ahead of an expected Ukrainian military offensive this spring. Such orders were often the prelude to increased deportations. And about a month ago, Russian forces blocked all roads leading from the occupied territories to the rest of Ukraine, making it much more difficult for people to escape. Now the only open roads lead deeper into occupied territory or into Russia.
“Russians are deporting more and more people from temporarily occupied Zaporizhzhzhia and Kherson districts,” the Ukrainian National Resistance Center, the government agency overseeing events in occupied Ukraine, said on Friday, noting public statements by local Russian authorities.
More than a year after a war that has turned into a bloody slog, Ukrainian and allied leaders are fighting with shaky – if still strong – support for Ukraine’s continued supply of military equipment. Ukrainian officials said the warrant underscores the moral imperative of the conflict.
“World leaders will think twice before shaking hands with Putin or sitting down with Putin at the negotiating table,” Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, said of the arrest warrant. “It 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 of Justice, dismissed the arrest warrant as meaningless. Their leaders have made it clear that they intend to continue deporting children to Russia, in what they have described as an act of humanitarian compassion.
The court in The Hague also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, the Kremlin’s child rights officer, who is the public face of the deportation program. She proudly spoke about the organization of a large-scale system of deportation of children from Ukraine. After the arrest warrant, she vowed to “keep working.”
Putin acknowledged the work at a televised meeting with Lvova-Belova last month. “The number of applications from our citizens for the adoption of children from the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, from the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions is also growing,” he said.
The scale of deportations in Ukraine last 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’s impossible to quantify how many left voluntarily and how many were forced to do so. That number includes about 700,000 children, according to Russians and Ukrainians, and most are said to be with their families.
The exact number of children separated from their parents or orphaned is not known. Russia has relocated 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 total number of deportees could be much higher,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a statement on Friday after The Hague’s announcement. The court has “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 removing the children permanently from their own country, violated the Geneva Convention and constituted war crimes.
The court in The Hague acted unusually quickly in the case. It has come under intense scrutiny since Russia invaded Ukraine, when 43 countries — a third of the court’s members — called for intervention almost immediately. Major donors, including the European Union, sent money and dozens of prosecutors to speed up what is often seen as cumbersome bureaucracy. And the court’s investigators, who are often thwarted by hostile governments, received unreserved support from Ukrainian authorities.
The forcible transfer of children from one national group to another with intent to destroy the group can also amount to genocide, a charge made by Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer with the Regional Center for Human Rights, a Ukrainian organization investigating the kidnapping of children examined said hoped would be the next step.
Russia has conducted the deportations under the guise of rescue operations, medical rehabilitation initiatives and adoption programs. But the facts have been brought to light through testimonies, reports from the New York Times and other Western media, the Ukrainian news media, independent investigators, the United Nations and a variety of governmental and human rights organizations.
“You committed the crime in full view and you were proud to do it,” Stephen Rapp, a former ambassador at large who headed the State Department’s office for global criminal justice, said in an email.
The Kremlin has repeatedly used Ukrainian children as part of its campaign to bolster support for the war. For example, when children from a dormitory fled the Russian bombing of Mariupol at the beginning of the war, they were stopped at a Russian checkpoint. Pro-Russian media teams rushed to the scene, witnesses said, and cameras followed the children as they were taken deeper into Russian-held territory.
It was presented 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 an orchestrated nature of the Russian kidnappings. Shortly after Russian troops took the city, they worked with local collaborators to compile lists of children in hospitals, orphanages and schools, according to Ukrainian prosecutors and witnesses.
Surveillance 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 were later put in front of cameras in Russia’s state news media, according to Kherson residents.
The deportations recall one of the darkest chapters in Russian history, when Stalin used deportations to tighten control of the Kremlin. From 1936 to 1952, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated at least 3 million people were herded from their homes on the western borders of the Soviet Union and other regions and dumped thousands of miles away in Siberia and Central Asia.
The Kremlin euphemistically referred to these people as “special settlers”.
At the hospital for newborns in Kherson, staff managed to save most of the children, but two were kidnapped, Pilyarska said.
“Some children from Kherson are still in Crimea. We can sometimes see them in Russian media,” she said by phone from the hospital, which has come under fire in recent days. “The others just disappeared and we don’t know anything about them.”