Українською читайте тут.
The text was prepared by Orest Slyvenko, Yehor Brailian, Pavlo Rud, Maryna Kryzhnia, Kostiantyn Zadyraka, Oleksandr Siedin, Oleksii Pivtorak, Maksym Kazakov, Lesia Bidochko, Vitaliy Mykhailiv.
The children related issues have been politicized for a long time - since the ancient times when ancient Greek philosophers discussed ideas about the need for the socialization of children and the uniformity of their upbringing, to modern times – when in almost all countries, the First Ladies/Gentlemen are engaged in the protection of children, orphans, their education, and health care. Children are one of the most vulnerable population categories, who need special protection, especially in conditions of an armed conflict. Ukrainian children on both sides of the front line are suffering from the war. During the war, all the rights of Ukrainian children are violated: the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the right to health, and the right to personal development. In addition to preserving life, guaranteeing the safety of children, and observing their rights, an important task of the state is to prevent children’s militarization. Russian agitational propaganda brands Ukrainian children as "underage neo-Nazis", "descendants of Bandera", "improperly educated", and "unnecessary, and therefore abandoned". Therefore, Russian propagandists consider it lawful either to physically destroy "ideologically incorrect" Ukrainian children or to deport them to Russia and "re-educate them". Detector Media analyzed Russian propagandist methods directed against Ukrainians and how they work.
International law, in particular the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a "child" as any person under the age of 18. The abduction and deportation of children is one of the six grave violations against children during armed conflict and is prohibited by international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law. It is one of the five prohibited actions, according to the Convention on Genocide of 1948.
Since 2014, Russia has been using all available methods to eradicate Ukrainian identity among children living in [Ukraine’s] occupied territories. Deportation, separation from family, transfer to Russian families or state institutions, imposition of citizenship, Russification, and militarization were used to transform children into enemies of their own people. Russia's attempts to call deportations humanitarian missions are shattered by the proven facts of various indoctrination programs designed to force children to renounce their Ukrainian identity and accept Russian citizenship. It is not only about dispensaries or leisure facilities, but also about military-patriotic camps, where "education" goes along with mandatory "brainwashing". The main goal of these camps is the Russification of Ukrainian children through systematic re-education and forced planting of a Russian view of the past and present.
Kidnapped Ukrainian children were scattered all over the territory of Russia. Some of them were transferred to Russian families under the so-called accelerated adoption program. The Russian child abduction machine covers territories from the annexed Crimea to the eastern coast of Russia. In February 2023, the Yale School of Public Health published a report that identified 43 institutions that deal with abducted Ukrainian children throughout Russia. Yale School of Public Health identified camps even in Siberia and in the Magadan region near the Pacific Ocean - thousands of kilometers from the Ukrainian border. The system of abduction and re-education is deeply rooted at all levels of the Russian government. It is centrally coordinated, and dozens of federal and local officials are directly involved in these processes and publicly justify deportation practices.
It is challenging to estimate the exact number of Ukrainian children abducted by Russia. Mykola Kuleba, the former ombudsman for children's rights and general director of the charity fund "Save Ukraine", reported that since 2014, 1.5 million Ukrainian children have ended up in the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas. According to him, the Kremlin itself reported on "730,000 Ukrainian children registered on the territory of Russia. It is a number of children who crossed the border with Russia in just one year. We do not know who was kidnapped, who fled the war with their family, who was deported." Kateryna Rashevska, a legal expert at the Regional Center for Human Rights, reported that since February 18, 2022, the Russian Federation’s agents have taken at least 19,546 children from Ukraine to Russia.
Russian propaganda deliberately uses the sensitive topic of children's lives and safety to avoid responsibility for this violation of human rights. In particular, agitational propaganda uses a set of manipulative statements, such as: "children of Donbas are Russian children"; Ukraine and the West are killing the "children of Donbas", so they need to be "rescued" (e.g., deported to Russia), and also that a full-scale invasion [of Russia to Ukraine] is revenge for the "children of Donbas". The International Criminal Court recognized the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories to Russia as a war crime. Domestic and foreign institutions viewed Russia's intention to forcibly transfer children from one national group to another and destroy their Ukrainian identity as a step that has signs of genocide.
Read more about how agitational propaganda speculates on Ukrainians’ deportation, tries to whitewash itself from the committed crimes, and consistently denies its actions here.
During the research, Detector Media’s analysts reviewed 52,461 posts in the Ukrainian segment of Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, and X (formerly Twitter), which were provided by "Semantrum" and "LetsData" companies. By the Ukrainian segment, we mean posts of profiles, pages, groups, and channels located in Ukraine or that have indicated Ukraine as their location.
Monitoring period: April 30, 2023 — September 30, 2023.
Read more about the data collection and processing methodology here.
Social networks’ special features
Compared to other social networks, Facebook has the most significant posts by pro-Ukrainian authors. These users disseminate information about rehabilitation opportunities for children who have been under occupation or who are internally displaced. Some Facebook users defended traditional values and urged Ukrainians to have more children. Pro-Russian users quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. She blamed the international institutions for supposedly baselessly accusing Russians of abducting children from the occupied territories of Ukraine. Moreover, pro-Russian Facebook users spread fakes, such as that children in Ukraine are being raised as "Nazis" in children's camps.
Most of the messages on YouTube related to cases of Ukrainian children deported by the Russians and arguments about why the Russian leadership was involved in this. Pro-Ukrainian YouTube channels also spread such messages. Meanwhile, the pro-Russian ones mostly demonized Ukrainian children as "Nazis" and promoted Russian officials’ views.
Telegram contained the most messages accusing Ukrainians of the children’s deaths in the occupied territories of Ukraine and calls for revenge against Ukraine. Also, pro-Russian Telegram users positively evaluated recreational activities for children from the occupied territories in Crimea and Russia, their adoption policy, and denied accusations of Ukrainian children’s deportation. Pro-Ukrainian Telegram users published news about activities for children of internally displaced persons and messages about children who became victims of the Russian shelling.
X (Twitter) has the most significant number of prominent pro-Russian users. They deny the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children and accuse Ukrainian politicians and officials of contributing not only to the murders of the "children of Donbas" but also to "the sale of children to dark-market transplant specialists or pedophiles." Pro-Ukrainian X users have been republishing news from the media and denied fakes and messages from pro-Russian users.
Childhood in the temporarily occupied territories
One of the most common and, at the same time, the most emotional images, which is regularly used by Russian propaganda, is the "children of Donbas" narrative. According to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, during 2014‒2021, 152 children died, and 146 children were injured in the east of Ukraine. According to the Donetsk and Luhansk regional prosecutor's offices, 232 children died, and 337 were injured as a result of full-scale Russian armed aggression from February 24, 2022. The death of civilians, particularly children, from shelling since 2014 is truly one of the most tragic pages of the war. However, the Kremlin instrumentalized these deaths, blaming them on the Ukrainian security forces and the authorities, thereby removing any responsibility for the tragedy.
"We watched you bomb children in the Donbas, and we lost our patience." Children of Donbas as a justification for Russian aggression
Russian propagandists construct their own events chronology, in which Ukraine supposedly was the first to start "terror against children." "Ukrainian atrocities" allegedly began before the start of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) in 2014 so they could serve as an excuse for the Russian invasion of Donbas. "The first children in Donbas died in March 2014, and Girkin appeared only in April," said one of the anonymous Telegram channels. Moreover, the active phase of confrontation had not yet begun in the east of Ukraine in March 2014, yet Dmytro Chernyavsky was killed at that time. He was killed during an attack on a pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk on March 13, 2014. Among the first "Ukrainian" crimes against children, Russian propaganda also includes the alleged "burning of a pregnant woman in the House of Trade Unions" — a fake that Russian and pro-Russian mass media spread after the events of May 2, 2014 in Odesa.
Russian agitational propaganda operates with its figures regarding the number of dead children, tending to hyperbolize it. "More than 300 children were killed during artillery shelling", "Tell this to the children of Donbas, more than 1,000 of them have died", "Where are your nurses for more than 2 thousand dead children in Donbas?", "2.5 thousand children have died in Donbas since 2014," — state the posts from the pro-Russian segment of social networks.
Ukraine allegedly "bombed the children of Donbas" for all eight years of ATO/OOS (Anti-Terrorist Operation/Joint Forces Operation) and continues to kill children after the start of full-scale aggression. "Two children were injured in Donbas today. It is what we know for sure. Are you interested in this?" – asked a Russian propagandist in one of the anonymous Telegram channels. Ukraine is accused of fighting within the city limits and preventing the "evacuation" of children by the Russian side. Here, Russians use an ominous image of the "Azovians", who allegedly held the civilian population of Mariupol, hostage: "They had shelled cars with civilians, shot those who wanted to evacuate to Russia to their relatives in the back. Why didn't they whine that children were being killed then?". The Ukrainian resistance in the occupied territories continues to act in the same spirit and allegedly does not hesitate to arrange "terrorist attacks" on children's playgrounds.
Among pro-Russian and Russian users of social networks, DM found two different views regarding the nationality of Donbas children. According to the first, these are Ukrainian children, so the actions of Ukraine acquire an exceptional cynicism: "It is a low fall to kill their children in Donbas" or "Khokhly (degrading naming of Ukrainian often used by Russians, Ukr - хохли) killed their children first in Donbas, and then in Mariupol!". But the opposite opinion appears more often: the children of Donbas are Russian, so Russia had to save them. "The war is going on because of the poor murdered Russian children in Donbas. Karma, one can't do anything about it. It is a cruel thing," — stated an anonymous Telegram channel.
At the same time, according to Russian propagandists, the death of Donbas children is not a tragic accident; it is a "side effect" that accompanies the war in areas of dense urban development. According to them, these are purposeful actions of the Ukrainian security forces, who received an order from the country’s top leadership. Russian agitational propaganda claims: "It is your Turchynov who gave the order to fire on Donbas and children on the children's beach." At the same time, Ukraine’s population allegedly ignored, approved of or ridiculed these deaths: "Well, you seem to be happy about the deaths of Donbas children, making sweets called "blood of Moscow babies" and do not feel any remorse. Ukrotrupoyidy" (decoding – corps’ eaters from Ukraine).
Russian manipulators often refer to President Petro Poroshenko's speech in November 2014, in which he allegedly said that Donbas children would "sit in the basements." Here is an example: "Who shouted that your children will sit in basements and push the children of Donbas to basements or graves?” or “I will never forget Poroshenko's exclamatory words that Khokhly will enjoy life, and Russian children in Donbas will sit in basements.” Petro Poroshenko spoke about the situation difference between the occupied and controlled parts of Donbas, a statement that should have been perceived in Ukraine’s favor. Russians state, "Moreover, we will win with light [electricity]! Because we have jobs, and they [Ukrainians] will not. We will have pensions, and they will not have them. We will have the support of children and pensioners, and they will not have it. Our children will go to schools and kindergartens, and their [children] will sit in basements. That's how we're going to win this war."
Russian propaganda explains the image it has created about "Ukraine's abuse of the Donbas children", which is incentivized by the "fascist", "Bandera", and "terrorist" character of Ukrainian post-Maidan statehood. According to them, terrorists who came to power in Ukraine cannot rule the country in any other way. Secondly, cruelty to children and civilians of Donbas was punished for refusing to recognize Maidan’s victory and to accept the "Bandera ideology".
· Read also: Deportation under the guise of rescue: analyzing the "Children for Putin" film.
Russian propaganda has used the image of the murdered children of Donbas as one of the main arguments in favor of a full-scale aggression on February 24, 2022. During 2014-2021, Ukrainian forces in the ATO/OOS allegedly purposefully fired at civilian objects, as a result of which "Russian children of Donbas" were killed. According to Russians, the Kremlin waited for a long time, but after all, could not stay aloof any longer and sent troops to save the children. Such a noble goal of the so-called special military operation justifies a full-scale war. Propagandists state: "We watched you bomb Donbas children, and lost patience" or " Why were you silent when the Donbas children were killed? For Ukrainians to live peacefully, it was enough to give them [Donbas children] peace." It was emphasized that this is Vladimir Putin’s personal "achievement": "Putin took responsibility for the lives of Donbas children, which were being crushed long before 2022. Some even believe that the war is not full-scale enough and that Russia should resort to tougher measures to defeat the "killers of Donbas children." One of the propagandists is indignant: "Yes, I have complaints about the [Russian] authorities; I believe that they act too gently concerning those who continue killing children in Donbas." Ukrainian statehood, according to propagandists, should be eliminated, like ancient Carthage, which practiced child sacrifice and was destroyed by Rome: "The Ukrainian-fascist quasi-state, which has been killing children in Donbas for more than eight years, must be destroyed. It simply has no right to exist."
Russian agitprop uses the "children of Donbas" argument when reacting to the dissemination of information in the Ukrainian and Western media about the children who are dying in Ukraine due to the full-scale aggression of Russia. Propagandists do not deny that there are such victims, and there are many of them. However, they often interpret the death of children in Ukraine as retribution for the Donbas children. Very often, Russians use extremely bloodthirsty statements similar to the escapades of propagandist Anton Krasovsky. Here is an example of such tirades from pro-Russian social network users:
"What, conscious creature, the truth of life does not seem fair to you? Continue to pay with your blood and the blood of your bastards for killing the children of Donbas."
Some commentators even refer to the biblical principle of talion - an eye for an eye. "Since 2014, the children of Donbas who you killed, conscious bastards, also wanted to live. Choke on the retaliation now, and don't give up. An eye for an eye until there is a full collective understanding by you [Ukrainians]. "Ukrainians are depicted as a nation of hypocrites, who were the first to start killing children for no reason, and when they received actions in return, instead of admitting their guilt, start wondering: "What did we do wrong?".
In addition to retribution for the "death of children in Donbas", propagandists use another argument why one should not regret the death of Ukrainian children during shelling. According to them, these children are supposedly being brought up in "fascist ideology" from a very young age, being prepared to kill Russians, future soldiers in the West's proxy war against Russia. Therefore, by destroying Ukrainian children now, the Russian military is saving the future children of Donbas and Russia.
"Now feel the pain when the people of Donbas went to bed with their children and were afraid whether they would wake up or not, but you killed them and killed many children, and you teach children fascism from diapers; who the hell are you?", "They are all zombies there. Wake up, almost the whole nation is sick; they teach children from the age of 2 to cut and kill us [Russians]. These [Ukrainian] children will then go to kill my children and yours," states the pro-Russian segment of social networks.
Propagandists regularly refer to the already formed system of images, mentioning the Alley of Angels, the Horlivska Madonna, and the children's beach in Zugres. The most common is the Alley of Angels, a memorial complex established in May 2015 by the occupiers in Donetsk to honor the memory of children from the city and region who died during alleged Ukrainian shelling. The Alley of Angels has the appearance of a forged arch with a plate under it, which is engraved with the names of 66 dead children. In 2017, a sculpture of a boy covering his sister appeared above the arch. On Children's Protection Day, June 1, official mourning events are taking place near the Alley, which has a propagandistic and Ukrainophobic orientation. Disseminators of Russian propaganda offer Ukrainian opponents to visit the Alley of Angels to understand the criminality of Ukrainian authorities’ actions: "When coming to Donbas, visit the Alley of Angels! Look into the eyes of the parents of the murdered children! Then tell them about Maidan’s usefulness!" or "Are you familiar with the Alley of Angels? Only in Donetsk, 250 graves of children were buried during the special military operation. Yes, it seems different for Khokhly; for them, it's vatniki and kolorady [jingoistic followers of propaganda from the Russian government]. Russians spread the videos on social networks, in which the occupiers bring Ukrainian military prisoners to the memorial complex to show them the "consequences" of the actions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The titles of similar videos are "Ukrainian military prisoners on the Alley of Angels in Donetsk: "It is terrifying to realize how children die".
Kristina Zhuk is portrayed as "Horlivka’s Madonna", a resident of the city of Horlivka, Donetsk region, who died along with her 10-month-old daughter Kira on July 27, 2014, during the first massive artillery shelling of the city. According to the press center of the Anti-Terrorist Operation, the shelling was carried out by pro-Russian militants, led by field commander Igor Bezler (Bes), to discredit the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The image of the "Horlivka’s Madonna" was then adopted by Russian propaganda. Every year, Russians post publications in the Russian mass media calling the Ukrainian side "guilty" of this war crime and be brought to justice.
On August 14, 2014, the city of Zugres, Donetsk region, was under fire. Mortar shells hit the city's children's beach. Three children were reported dead. Over time, Russian propaganda changed this same mortar shelling to a "Ukrainian plane" with cluster bombs. In November 2020, Russian agitational propaganda repeated these same accusations on the air of the pro-Russian TV channel "Nash", which closed after the introduction of NSDC (National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine) sanctions in February 2022. Disseminators of Russian propaganda regularly appeal to the tragedy on the beach in Zugres. Do you know what a children's beach in Zugres is? Do you know what the state you protect did to it?" "Who sowed the beach where the children rested with butterflies?" [anti-personnel mines PFM-1 Petal]. "Oh, madam, who announced the anti-terrorist operation and sent the first troops to Donbas? Who killed the children on the Zugres beach? First, try to understand the issue, and don't post nonsense."
At the same time, Russians started spreading new fakes about Ukraine's crimes against the "children of Donbas" on social networks. For example, during the monitoring period, propagandists disseminated news about alleged exposures of lethal experiments on children in Lysychansk before its occupation by Russian troops. These crimes, according to the agitational propaganda, took place at the foreigners’ initiative: "In the maternity hospital and the Lysychansk Children's Hospital, Ukrainian doctors, together with their foreign colleagues, performed experiments on children, in particular newborns... Western colleagues of Ukrainian doctors sponsored inhumane experiments. They renovated the hospital and brought new equipment there" (excerpt from an anonymous Telegram channel).
Most often, the spreaders of Russian propaganda rarely talk about specific cases of dead children. Instead, they use general phrases, baseless figures and accusations, and rhetorical questions. But the Russian propaganda machine is working on the creation of new "Horlivka’s Madonna" and "Zugres Beach". Russian news resources regularly publish stories about yet another "crime by the Armed Forces" against children. For example, the mother of 5 children, Svitlana, from the village of Staromayorske, Donetsk region, was released by the Ukrainian military in July of this year. During the shelling of the village, the father of the family allegedly covered his two children, who were at home at the time, and "he was torn to pieces." The children received multiple shrapnel wounds, and Svitlana lost her leg. In the plot’s finale, the propaganda narrative about the shelling of the Donbas children is combined with the discrediting of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. "Enemy’s counteroffensive continues; Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers are crippling and killing civilians, mothers, and children. There are no other results of this counteroffensive."
"Ukraine is indifferent to children's issues"
Among the reports about the use of "Donbas children", we also recorded messages that described the boys and girls as being "privileged" by Russia. Such publications discussed how Russia takes care of them and that in Russia, these children seem to have adequate conditions for life: "As long as the "children of Donbas" go to school, their lives are practically not threatened, while the "children of Kyiv" sit in bomb shelters" — stated someone on an anonymous Telegram channel. Propagandists delineate the mythical categories of children in Kyiv and Donbas, showing that the Ukrainian leadership seems incapable of taking care of children's safety, while Russia does it effectively. By doing so, Moscow models its utopian reality and no longer mentions the children oppressed by Ukrainian shelling and emphasizes the perfection of its equipment and the professionalism of the occupying army, which supposedly "gives peace to the children of Russia’s new regions."
Russian agitational propaganda also spreads the message of how well the "children of Donbas" are living now. According to them, these children supposedly rest in health camps and "live their lives as best as possible". Among such activities, propagandists single out the "daily help of the Russian Guard, where children accompany soldiers on combat missions" or mention a trip of "children from [Russia’s] "new regions" to the State Duma" — so that they get to know Russia as close as possible.
Russian propaganda systematically uses the division into "own and other" and "enemies and not quite" — Ukrainian children did not escape this rhetoric either. The above-mentioned "children of Donbas and Kyiv" are expanded to the concept of "alien children for Ukraine". According to the authors' conclusions, these are people under the age of 18 who live in Ukraine, particularly in the temporarily occupied territories, and about whom Ukraine "does not want to know." In this context, propagandists explained in their publications that Ukraine does not care about the fate of children and that no one, except Putin, will save them. It all boils down to the fact that "children who are foreign to Ukraine" become "their own for Russia".
According to the agitational propaganda’s version, Ukrainians not only abandoned "other people's children" but are mocking them. Propagandists speculate on this topic when it is a "convenient" information drive. One such topic for Russia was the detonation of the Crimean Bridge on October 8, 2022. The head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Vasyl Malyuk, spoke about the details of the first special operation on the Crimean Bridge when it was blown up using a truck with explosives. According to the Russians, five people were killed in the attack. Propaganda resources reported that Ukrainians allegedly killed a couple who had a daughter. According to them, Ukrainians are happy that they had orphaned a girl: "Young "Azovians" reacted to the murder of a couple on the Crimean Bridge and suggested that the orphaned child find Ukrainian parents." Russian propaganda presented this as the height of Ukrainian cynicism, who "do not know how to sympathize" and only "enjoy grief [of others]".
On the whole, using such rhetoric cultivates in the disinformation consumers a distorted understanding of "what insidious country and against what people Russia is fighting" — the so-called "Nazis" who hate children. At the same time, Russia, which pays tribute to these children and opens "many monuments to the children who died at the hands of the Armed Forces", describes itself as a state sensitive to the children’s issues and has absolutely no intention of committing genocide. Sometimes, such messages are also targeted at the domestic Russian audience. In particular, Russian propagandists use it to mobilize its forces and stand up for the protection of "abandoned" or "other" or "foreign" children, but those who have become "native of Russia".
Relocation of children from Ukraine: evacuation vs deportation
After the start of Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine in 2022, the occupiers began mass deportations of Ukrainian children from the temporarily occupied territories. The children are held in special camps where they undergo "re-education" and, in fact — ideological processing to instill hatred towards Ukraine and loyalty to the Putin regime. Russian families adopt some of them. According to the PACE resolution and the conclusion of the OSCE Expert Mission, the deportation of children is considered a war crime and an element of genocide against Ukrainians.
During discussions about the relocation of children, Russian agitational propaganda uses mirroring tactics, trying to impose its crimes on the West and Ukraine. Allegedly, Ukrainian children are illegally separated from their parents in Ukraine and Europe. It is precisely in Ukraine and the West that they are treated inhumanely. Such propagandists' mirroring tactic only proves their vulnerability to the accusations of the International Criminal Court, whose authority is recognized by many non-Western countries, including some of Moscow's formal allies. Due to this, Russia allocated significant informational resources into whitewashing its image or at least blurring its responsibility in the issues related to the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children. The Ukrainian segment of social networks is dominated by concern about the crimes of Russians against children. In contrast, the Russian segment is full of the hyperbolization of such concern with accusations towards Ukraine and the West.
· Read also: "The exchanges of prisoners are not massive because they will force the Russians to admit that these children are abducted", stated the Head of Children's Aid Organizations on deportation.
The pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian segments of social networks are symmetrical in the conspiratorial xenophobic interpretations. For example, some mostly pro-Russian users accuse Europe of solving demographic problems by assimilating Ukrainian children and compensating for the influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East with Ukrainian refugees who are more similar ethnically to Europeans [Caucasian white]. At the same time, the Ukrainian segment accuses Russia of wanting to compensate for the influx of foreign migrants to Russia from Central Asia with Ukrainian children who are ethnically more similar to Russians. In such discussions, Ukrainian children are reduced to a valuable demographic asset for which all involved parties are fighting.
Agitational propaganda's reaction to the Hague Tribunal
On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court in Hague (known as the "Hague Tribunal") issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Children's Ombudsman Maria Lvova-Belova, who is involved in mass deportations of Ukrainian children. Lvova-Belova even "adopted" a boy from Mariupol and turned his upbringing into an opportunity to promote Russian propaganda. In particular, Lvova-Belova said that a boy from Mariupol runs after other children with the words, "I will eat a moskalyk [Russian person, derogative jargon name for Russians]". According to her, it is due to Mariupol children’s "Bandera upbringing" before the Russian occupation.
Pro-Russian users of social networks justify the abduction of children in every possible way and claim that the Russians are not actually deporting children but only "saving them from war." At the same time, they deliberately "forget" that Russia unleashed the war from which it is necessary to save children:
"Russia does not abduct but saves children from the regions where Ukrainian militants conduct shelling and terror. Children, with the consent of their parents and accompanied by adults, are relocated from the frontline regions and, when it becomes safer, are returned. In addition, children also regularly go on vacations to all-Russian camps and sanatoriums of their parents' choice with [Russia’s] budget funds to rest and recover from the attacks of Zelenskyy's terrorists."
Such messages contain elements of the propaganda tactic known as "love bombing".
Ukraine’s SBU abducts children saved from the Nazis from Russia"
Ukraine is trying with all its might to help the children deported by the Russian occupiers to return home. Authorities use various methods for this, including the mediation of various charitable organizations and foundations. One is "Save Ukraine", headed by the former Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for children's rights, Mykola Kuleba. The organization managed to help rescue almost 200 Ukrainian children from the occupiers.
Pro-Russian users of social networks are trying to discredit both the practice of returning children from Russia to Ukraine and the "Save Ukraine" fund itself. The fund is accused of having ties with the SBU and using children for Ukrainian propaganda: "It is true, the "volunteers" also set a condition — after returning, the children had to give a lying interview about how bad their life was in Russia."
The pro-Russian information space often spreads the story about the detention of a woman in Moscow, who is allegedly connected to the charitable foundation "Save Ukraine" and the SBU and who tried to relocate Ukrainian orphans deported to Russia back to Ukraine.
"Deportation of Ukrainian children helps Russia solve demographic issues"
In the analyzed array of data, DM recorded a relatively small number of posts by pro-Ukrainian users regarding the deportation of Ukrainian children by Russia. These are mainly statements of Ukrainian officials and state bodies regarding occupiers’ war crimes, their investigations, and the punishment of guilty persons. Thus, the Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for children's rights, Darya Herasymchuk, disclosed the details of Ukrainian children’s deportation to Russia: "Russians want to replenish their nation using our children. They conduct so-called forced "medical examinations" in the occupied territories, ostensibly to "take care" of children, but in reality, it is nothing more than the selection of those children who do not have health issues. These children are then kidnapped and taken to the Russian Federation. Very often, they are punished for refusing to speak Russian."
Pro-Ukrainian social media users received the most attention from the pro-Russian singer of Ukrainian origin, Ani Lorak: "Ani Lorak admitted that she financially supports the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. The traitor revealed that she will donate part of the money earned from the concert to the Russian foundation, which deals with "refugee orphans" from the Zaporizhzhia region and Donbas." According to the pro-Ukrainian users of social networks, Ani Lorak is an accomplice in Russian crimes.
"Ukrainian children in Europe are enslaved by pedophiles and dissected for organs"
Due to the systematic shelling by the Russian occupiers of the residential quarters of settlements in the frontline zones, the government of Ukraine decided on the forced evacuation of children and their families from some hazardous areas of Luhansk, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson Oblasts. Any coercive action is considered controversial and causes public debate, but this decision of the government protects the fundamental rights of children. At the same time, children can be evacuated only accompanied by at least one of their parents or guardians, and physical violence is not applied to any of them. Yet, pro-Russian social media users have been spreading a lot of false news that children are allegedly being forcibly taken away.
One of the messages posted by pro-Russian users of social networks is that Ukraine allegedly wants to deprive those parents of their parental rights who refuse to be forcibly evacuated with their children under a simplified procedure. Pro-Russian users have also tried to discredit the White Angels, a Ukrainian police unit that evacuates children from the war zone. Russian propaganda calls them "a private company of child kidnappers that operates under the auspices of the Ukrainian police." In some cases, pro-Russian users use the propaganda tactic of "fear, uncertainty and doubt", without voicing why and where the "White Angels" take children: "It is exactly what happened in the spring of 2023 in Slovyansk and Artemivsk, the residents of the latter repeatedly testified about many such incidents — when parents hid their children as best they could in basements and with relatives so that the "angels" did not get to them. The fate of the children taken away by the "angels" is unknown, and this is frightening."
Propagandists offer three versions of what happens to children evacuated from the war zone by Ukrainian law enforcement officers. First, the children are to be given for illegal organ transplantation and medical research: "Western clinics that need test subjects for clinical trials, or hospitals with huge queues for donor organs should only ask — foreign volunteers, Ukrainian terrorists from national battalions and local authorities will fulfill their orders without thinking, and will destroy children’s destinies and lives."
Even representatives of the Russian authorities are promoting the thesis of selling children to transplant specialists. For example, on October 5, the deputy speaker of the State Duma of Russia, Marina Kuznetsova, spread the following fake:
"Our fighters, liberating Svyatohirsk, found commercial documents about the sale of children to the orphanage. There are references to British PMCs. One of the payers was the Coca-Cola company... The income from black transplantology is seven percent of the revenues of the budget of Ukraine or two billion dollars. We understand that this system is regulated at the state level."
The second version is the alleged sale of children to European pedophiles and perverts: "There are rare cases when Ukrainian pedophiles bring minors to Europe only for sexual slavery. Everyone knows that pedophilia is a severe problem in corrupt Europe...".
The third version is the sale of children to people who want to adopt them: "Now you can also "buy" a child in Ukraine, but already for about 100,000 dollars, since the demand for children for same-sex perverts in Europe has greatly increased. Accordingly, Ukrainian authorities do it "for the happiness of children" (from an anonymous Telegram channel). With such messages, Russian propagandists once again demonstrate Putin regime’s homophobia, which we discussed earlier. The protection of so-called "traditional values" is one of the cornerstones of the modern ideology of "racism".
Belarusian "re-education" and the Red Cross
Along with accusing Russia of deporting Ukrainian children, the Kremlin-allied regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus is also being charged. According to the Belarusian oppositionist Pavlo Latushka, by May 2023, 2,150 children, including many orphans, have already been taken to Belarus. "We established the facts of the re-education of Ukrainian children when they are told that there is no Ukraine as a state and that there is no Ukrainian culture and history," says Latushko.
Children aged 6 to 15 are held in children's camps, visited by local officials and propagandists. In particular, the State Secretary of the so-called Union State of Russia and Belarus, Dmitriy Mezentsev, visited the Dubrava camp in the Minsk region and said, "We will help these children to forget difficult stories of their lives, to become new people... so that they become reliable citizens of their country. " Moreover, according to DW, "Dubrava" was visited by members of the local "military-patriotic club "Rodnik". The Gruzdyova sisters, Belarusian propagandists who became famous in 2020 after publicly confessing their love for Oleksandr Lukashenko, performed in front of the children. Against the backdrop of mass protests in Belarus and their brutal suppression, the sisters, with the support of the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, recorded a clip glorifying local security forces. Now they are being brought in to speak in front of Ukrainian children with the words: "May Biden die, Lord, forgive me. Zelenskyy too. May Putin prosper and take all of Ukraine under his control."
Lukashenko's regime does not hide the relocation of Ukrainian children. Like Russians, they try to portray it as "protecting" children from hostilities. "You see, they come here for silence. For them, it must be wild in the country and not hear these explosions, not see these deaths and this hunger", said Lukashenko. This time, the Belarusian dictator did not specify who exactly brought death and hunger to Ukraine, although in general, his position is known and coincides with the Kremlin’s position. Lukashenko also confirmed that the deportation of Ukrainian children is taking place according to the agreement with Putin and will continue to happen. In addition, the dictator did not refrain from repeating the most disgusting theses of Russian propaganda, which not all, even Russian propagandists, dare to voice — about the alleged export of children from Ukraine to the West to be sold for organs: "Children are being exported from Ukraine. Then they dismember and extract their organs. Now deal with this."
From the Ukrainian side, the role of the Belarusian branch of the Red Cross in the case of the deportation of Ukrainian children caused particular indignation. Its head, Dmitriy Shevtsov, during a trip to the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, was "indignant" that Belarus was accused of kidnapping children who were going "for rehabilitation". It is worth noting that Shevtsov was spotted in Ukraine wearing a camouflage uniform with the letter "Z" on the chevron. However, the statute of the Red Cross requires members of the organization to remain neutral. In general, Shevtsov often acts as a propagandist, calling "to hint the West about the readiness to use nuclear weapons". The Ukrainian Red Cross published an official statement regarding its colleagues’ actions in the organization: "The actions mentioned above confirm the conscious position of the Belarusian Red Cross regarding the support of the policy of child abduction and the legalization of Russia's aggression against Ukraine." Moreover, the Ukrainian Red Cross called to condemn the participation of Belarusians in the deportation of Ukrainian children and to consider the issue of excluding the Belarusian branch from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Belarusians themselves tried to draw attention to the Belarusian Red Cross in 2021 when they reported on the close cooperation between the organization and the Lukashenko regime. However, appeals on social networks under the hashtag #TyrannyPoisonsRedCross did not yield results.
Russia has been using the style of military-patriotic education to brainwash its citizens since childhood. Children who enter paramilitary, youth, creative, and public organizations are expected to leave these places as bearers of the imperial mentality. There, they are taught how to hold weapons properly, sing songs about Putin, and hate Ukrainians.
The Soviet traditions of ideological control over society through the relevant structures (yellows, pioneers, Komsomol) have not disappeared in modern Russia but have taken on new forms. As an example, these are military-patriotic clubs with a bias towards historical reconstruction ("Russian" (Русский), "Russian Vytyazi" (Русские витязи), "Russian Shield" (Русский щит)).
In such clubs, children undergo military training and are told about "glorious Russian history" and "victories of Russian weapons", spreading manipulative statements among young Russians. History, military training, art, and sports are elements of the formation of a distorted vision of the world in Russian children.
One of the leading Russian state bodies responsible for working with children is Yunarmia (Юнармія), which reports to the Ministry of Defense of Russia. It is a social movement created in 2016, designed to increase the number of military-patriotic clubs and coordinate their work. In essence, Putin’s Youth is very similar to the Hitler Youth created in the Third Reich during the Nazi era. "Yunarmia" is under sanctions of Ukraine, the EU, the USA, Canada, and Switzerland.
However, pro-Russian social media users present Russian approaches to raising children as correct. In their posts, Ukrainians are accused of being ideologically biased when raising children.
"Ukraine has prepared children for war since childhood"
Since 2014, the Russian occupiers have been organizing for Ukrainian children from the temporarily occupied territories military-patriotic camps to discuss how to "love Russia" correctly. However, not only the local occupying power has played an active role in this, but also the Russian Orthodox Church: "Collaborators set up an Orthodox children's camp in Crimea. They are trying to instill marasmatic strict education everywhere - now they have reached the relaxation and resting part."
In the TOT (temporarily occupied territories), the Russian occupiers held the campaign "Vacations with Rosgvardiya". There, Ukrainian children were told about the "heroism of Russian soldiers who are fighting against Ukrainian Nazis" under the guise of entertaining games or communication with the military. Russian propaganda contrasts its military-patriotic upbringing with Ukrainian. Russian agitational propaganda emphasized that "Ukraine has prepared children for war since childhood".
When the Russians shelled the drama theater in Chernihiv on August 19, 2023, 6-year-old Sofiyka was among the victims of this airstrike. The Russians wrote that nothing good would grow out of this child: "Because it was not really a child that died, but only an imitation of a person, a completely zombified and hate-programmed being. A normal person will never come out of such a spoiled child."
Many Russians mention the "Azov" regiment and the corresponding work with Ukrainian youth: "They try to seem reasonable and smart, but, well... with a little swastika, but who cares", propagandists note. Here we see that "Azov" is allegedly preparing Ukrainian Nazis, who will then hate Russians. The demonization of Azov by Russian agitational propaganda has been going on since 2014.
During the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, Kremlin propaganda emphasized Ukrainian patriotic education. The Russians seek to discredit Ukrainian efforts to educate patriots and instead offer their "bright and good" methods.
For example, Russia has suggested that "children need to have military toys back to be raised as future defenders of the Motherland". Such actions are part of the militarization of childhood; when children are taught to wear military uniforms early, they are told about the "Great Patriotic War", "glorious grandfathers", etc.
Here, it is worth reminding that during the USSR, Moscow used the propaganda thesis that the USA "destroyed our society from the inside through jeans, chewing gum, and rock music". Now, we can also see in modern Russia that it is supposed to educate one's children so that other countries do not do it: "If we do not educate our youth, others will do it for us", according to Russians.
Reportedly, according to the Center of National Resistance, the Russian occupiers continue the militarization of Ukrainian children by opening cadet classes in the TOTs from September 1, 2023. "Rosgvardiya" will oversee the process.
Denis Pushylin, the head of the occupation administration in the Donetsk region’s territories occupied by Russia, says that it is challenging to change Ukrainian children after "propaganda quickly", but it is possible: "What was instilled in children all these eight years cannot be corrected even in a year. Ukrainian propaganda is a very proven technology. The children had not seen other history textbooks; they had nothing to compare them. That's why mistrust of us was very high."
According to the propaganda Telegram channels, deported Ukrainian children to Russia are beginning to be "re-educated": "patriotic feelings are instilled", "meetings are arranged with the Russian military", and "they are taught to weave camouflage nets for the Russian army".
The Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security sees the threat of the emergence of new janissaries (yeniçeri, in Turkish “new army”). In the Ottoman Empire, this term denoted Christian children who were taken by the Turks to be raised as loyal soldiers. It is confirmed by the fact that Ukrainian teenagers from TOT are taken to military training in Russia.
Not only Russian youth organizations, military-patriotic clubs, or the military are involved in the process of "re-education" of Ukrainian children, but so is the Investigative Committee of Russia: "Children of Donbas are accepted en masse without exams to cadet corps under the control of the Investigative Committee, where they are trained to serve in the local departments".
Russia promotes the cult of war and violence among children to further conduct armed aggression against other states, in particular, Ukraine. To effectively counter the militarization of Ukrainian children deported to Russia by the Russian occupiers, more sanctions should be introduced against the leadership of the organizations behind it, such as the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, the Russian Guard, the Investigative Committee, etc.
The issue of children became one of the central ones in this war. It is because the International Criminal Court in Hague issued an arrest warrant for the Russian dictator Putin precisely in connection with the illegal deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. The topic of children and their suffering is susceptible for the world. For example, in the first months of the full-scale invasion, many Western media showed footage of the attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol. Since 2014, Russia has been systematically creating an image of the "children of Donbas" who are allegedly being killed by Ukraine. Agitational propaganda speculates on the children's topic, inventing fakes in line with the "crucified boy" and "Azov soldiers-punishers of innocent children", demonizing Ukrainian children's camps of patriotic orientation and assuring that the young generation of Ukraine, "underage Bandera residents", should be destroyed. To provoke Ukrainian-phobic sentiments, Russian agitational propaganda manipulates the topic of "Alley of Angels", a memorial that honors the memory of children who died during hostilities.
When Russia takes children away, it is reminiscent of the repressive practices of the past empires. Similar was the case in the Ottoman Empire - Devshirme was a system where young Christian boys were taken from their families, converted to Islam, and trained for various tasks, including military service. They were called "janissaries". This practice was controversial and had significant social and political consequences. However, the Ottoman Empire then, like Russia today, saw this practice as a way to "integrate" different religious communities into the empire. The Russian Empire used the same methods in Galicia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it pursued a policy known as "repression against the Uniates" in Galicia, which involved suppressing the Uniate Church in favor of the Russian Orthodox Church. As part of this policy, many children from Galician families were removed and sent to Russia, where they were often raised in Russian Orthodox institutions. This violent practice was aimed at undermining the influence of the Uniate Church and popularizing Russian cultural and religious norms in the region.
Both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian users of social networks agree that protecting children and creating conditions for safe growth and learning is the adult's responsibility. Pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian users of social networks equally pay attention to the need for children to be safe and rehabilitated after being in a war zone, and those responsible for depriving them of the joys of childhood should be punished. The positions of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian users of social networks differ the most in terms of the mechanisms of how those involved in crimes against children should be punished. The Ukrainian state seeks responsibility for those guilty of crimes through the mechanisms of international law, like opening and investigating criminal cases. Meanwhile, in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine and Russia, the propagandists invest resources in the justification of military actions and develop something similar to a pseudo-religious cult of children who died or were injured as a result of hostilities. The central dogma of this pseudo-cult is to blame Ukraine, the USA, and NATO for all the children’s deaths and other crimes that occurred on the territory of Ukraine, which the Russians shelled, temporarily occupied or tried to occupy.
The development of this pseudo-cult in Russia and the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine is supported by Russian propagandists and mass media, which mix real and fictional stories. In 2014, at the request of propagandists, the "crucified boy" became the personification of the pseudo-cult. An "eyewitness" told the propagandists about him, who was later shown in several more propaganda videos and so appeared "Horlivka’s Madonna", which used a real story but was twisted by propagandists. Even pseudo-cults use "saints and miracle workers" who saved children from shelling and relocated them to Russia. There are also several hundred or, according to the version of Russian propagandists, thousands of "child martyrs" who are shown in the Russian media space as a justification for any actions that the Russians take. Such cults also have "sanctuaries", such as the "Alley of Angels" in Donetsk and monuments to dead children, which the occupiers and collaborators have set up and visit now.
Pro-Russian messages that appeal to archetypal images may have more impact on those who regularly consume them. However, in the long run, prosecuting crimes against humanity and war crimes and convicting the propagandists is a more effective method of preventing war crimes from happening again than the propaganda’s repetition.
Image collage credits: Detector Media