As is often the case in war, among those hardest hit – especially in an invasion – are the children. And while nuclear families tend to look out for their own, those who suffer the most are the orphans.
Ukrainian orphans were no exception to this when Russia invaded in February 2022, but what was most disconcerting to those of us familiar with Russia’s history were its intentions for these children. The alarm quickly led to a small army of non-governmental organization (NGO) volunteers rushing to Ukraine to stymy Moscow’s attempt to deport as many of the orphans as possible.
A recent Russian propaganda video attempted to hide the fate these children are suffering. It cloaked the deportations under the facade of removing Ukrainian orphans from the war zone to safety inside Russia – there to be adopted.
The Yale Human Rights Lab published a report that gives a far darker side of this deportation initiative. It indicates that more than 6,000 Ukrainian children have been sent to 43 different reeducation camps in Russia with one purpose only: brainwashing. The Russian camps seek to erase from the orphans’ young minds all thoughts of Ukrainian independence and nationalism, replacing them with a pro-Russian mindset.
Any hope older Ukrainian children trapped there may have of escaping and returning to their homeland will be dashed once they learn these camps are spread all across Russia, with two located in Siberia and another 25 percent situated more than 500 miles from Ukraine’s border.
Russian forces tend to arrive at Ukrainian orphanages unexpectedly to corral children before they can be hidden by their Ukrainian caretakers. In one such incident, CNN reported how hospital workers reportedly deceptively foiled the Russians. They had prepared medical records in advance for many of the children, falsely showing they were suffering from a range of serious maladies. Accordingly, these fictitious “unhealthy” children were allegedly left behind by their would-be abductors.
The Russians historically have resorted to a deportation policy when occupying neighboring countries unfavorably disposed toward them in an effort to undermine future hostilities. Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Operation Pribol, implemented in 1949 after occupying the Baltic states, deported women and children to Russia. The intent was to limit the breeding of a future generation of anti-Soviet fighters and to redirect children’s loyalties towards Russia, although many deportees died in labor camps. By the time Operation Pribol ended, two percent of the entire population of the three Baltic states had been deported.
Russia’s deportation policy in the Baltic states was complemented by a policy bolstering its influence there through marriage, teaching the Russian language, and building Russian communities which later were used to justify any subsequent occupation by Moscow under the pretense of protecting them. This is the same justification Putin gave for a “special military operation” into Ukraine and the later annexation of four Ukrainian regions last year: to protect Russians from “genocide.” In the Baltic states, this strategy by Moscow resulted in 25.2 percent of Latvians and 24.8 percent of Estonians now being of Russian descent.
As more than one percent of Ukraine’s underaged population consists of orphans, housed across the country in over 700 facilities, NGOs like Aerial Recovery Group (ARG) acted quickly after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine to explore what could be done to keep the children safe. My son, James, a Navy veteran who had earned the Bronze Star for defusing over 150 explosive devices in Iraq, was a member of the first ARG group to go in to coordinate a child recovery plan with the government.
While the Ukrainians welcomed ARG, Kyiv laid down some ground rules. These included not taking the children outside the country and ensuring they were accompanied at all times by a native caretaker. The first concern was based on the lack of citizenship documentation for the children and the presence of international child sex trafficking rings operating just outside Ukraine’s border, hovering like vultures to snatch unwary victims.
Despite their limited resources, ARG volunteers did an amazing job of transporting several hundred orphans out of harm’s way. They spent numerous sleepless nights doing so, operating under the radar while traversing some very dangerous territory, never knowing if Russian forces would be encountered. So impressive was the ARG operation, I and another former Marine, David Decker, with whom I had gone through basic training more than half a century earlier, volunteered to assist at the border in April of 2022.
While the much younger ARG volunteers referred to us as “Grandpa 1” and “Grandpa 2” (affectionately, we think), we all shared a common perception. It was one of admiration for these orphans who faced adversity with tremendous courage. We could not help but reflect on the stark contrast they represented to the whining woke snowflakes back in the U.S., regularly complaining about things that were so inconsequential compared to the daily life-threatening experiences and unknown future these orphans faced.
Fortunately, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has not been fooled by Russia’s propaganda, issuing an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and his Commissioner for Children’s Rights based on “the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children” to Russia. The warrant’s actual impact as far as the U.S. and Russia are concerned is uncertain as neither country signed the Rome Statute, which created the ICC.
For Grandpa 1 and Grandpa 2, our experiences with Ukrainian orphans reinforced the fact we have been blessed in reaching the sunset years of our lives in good health. Nonetheless, we often pause to reflect upon the ultimate fate thousands of young Ukrainian orphans – only in the sunrise years of their lives – are facing.
Putin knows his military has become an international embarrassment. An invasion that was to take a matter of weeks, if not days, is now in its second year. In fighting a war of attrition, Russia, with its much larger population, gives Putin a major advantage. However, the fact that he has deported thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia for brainwashing and continues to do so suggests he, like Stalin, is embracing a long-term solution in Ukraine as well. In doing so, he robs that country of a generation of its children.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama, and the first Gulf war. He is the author of Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields, Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty and Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking. He is a senior analyst for Ravenna Associates, a corporate strategic communications company, who frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.