Editor’s Note: Kristina Hook is assistant professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Oleksandra Gaidai is a postdoctoral fellow at American University’s History Department and a history lecturer at Ukraine’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
As Russian forces fled a Ukrainian advance in occupied Kherson late last year, their behavior became synonymous with industrial-scale theft.
The troops seized Ukrainian businesses, looted priceless art and even loaded toilets onto their tanks.
In a surreal twist, footage appeared of one hulking soldier crowded into a child-sized amusement park train, driving it away in the midst of a Russian convoy.
Sadly, bizarre images like this aren’t unique to Russia’s 2022 invasion.
Writing in 1914, historian Marian Dubiecki recounted Moscow’s deportation of Polish children following the 18th century Kościuszko Uprising. He noted that Russian officers “did not hesitate to take loot for themselves even from children’s toys.”
Over the course of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, eerily similar historical parallels have often emerged. Few though, are more devastating than the mass trafficking of children.
Russia’s ‘terribly consistent’ crimes against children
In the summer of 2022, a disturbing mural appeared in occupied Mariupol depicting a Russian soldier holding a small, bewildered Ukrainian child draped in a Russian flag. The Russian soldier stands triumphantly on the bloody remains of a Ukrainian man, presumably the child’s father.
Yet again, it seems Moscow is using stolen children to punish opposition to their violent control.
Over the course of the war, at least 20,000 minors have been forcibly transferred from their families in Ukraine to Russia or Russian-occupied territories, according to Ukrainian officials.
These callous crimes against children have resulted in the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants for Russia’s so-called “Children’s Rights” Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova and President Vladimir Putin – only the third-serving president in history to be issued one.
While the forced deportations have stunned global observers, from a historical perspective Russia’s policy against Ukrainian civilians is terribly logical and consistent.
Moscow has regularly used mass trafficking of citizens, including minors, over two centuries: to punish resisters, weaken community ties that could threaten the state and solve their own demographic problems.
Russia’s pronounced demographic crisis has been well-known for years, and fears abound that children are viewed by the Kremlin as another resource to loot.
Russia’s workforce challenges are profound, with many thousands of military casualties and out-migration. With scores of deported Ukrainian children and adults sent to camps in Russia’s poorest regions, patterns of Soviet forcible worker resettlement campaigns raise concerns of willful, coordinated labor trafficking.
Poland’s stolen children
The durability of this strategy also provides fresh insight into the staunch support of Ukraine’s neighbors who suffered under similar policies. Poland, for example, has frequently pushed the Western military alliance to provide more, better and faster weapons to Ukraine.
Less commonly known is how the waves of hauntingly familiar mass deportations of Polish children shape the nation’s staunch support of Ukraine.
Historians describe one such 1794 deportation, after an uprising against the Russian Empire, as subjecting “the children’s world… to terrible devastation.”
The artist Piotr Michaelczewski (1807-1886) later captured another Moscow-directed mass deportation in his haunting painting, “Abduction of Polish Children in Warsaw by Muscovites in 1831.”
Who would have imagined that centuries later, International Criminal Court President Piotr Hofmański – himself of Polish nationality – would read aloud arrest warrants echoing these very crimes against Ukraine’s children.
A brutal strategy of ‘re-education’
Beyond intimidating parents, Moscow authorities have consistently operated for centuries from the belief that children can be “re-educated” to forget their families, deny their communities and forsake their identity for ideological loyalty to the state.
In one 1864 testimony, an elderly man recounted that his only childhood memories were Polish songs, slowly realizing for the first time his childhood deportation to distant regions in Russia. Such children were completely immersed in Russian society, losing their native language, culture and memories.
More recently, testimonies of rescued Ukrainian children recount extensive ideological coercion, often violent, while in Russian custody.
One young teenager described his group of captive children were forced to acknowledge a statue with the inscription “Putin is king” and sing the Russian national anthem to “earn” basic necessities like food and the opportunity to shower. Other forms of physical and sexual abuse add terrible urgency to rescuing each child.
Russian perpetrators now demonstrate radicalization dynamics well-known to genocide scholars, and their dehumanizing ire has turned toward Ukrainian children.
One state TV pundit openly speculated about drowning or burning Ukrainian children. (He was suspended from RT for the comments. Though a Russian investigative committee later found no crime had been committed by the TV host).
Elsewhere, another Russian legislator joked about sending missiles to Ukrainian children as their Christmas gift.
In rescued children’s testimonies, a frightening level of anger by their Russian captors emerges, with special beatings reserved for kids who speak Ukrainian, wear colors associated with their national identity or deny the superiority of Russian identity.
Children are falsely told that their families have abandoned them and that they are “children of Russia” forever.
The small number of children rescued, roughly 328, has involved the tireless work of contacts across Ukraine and Russia. But all-too-many cases rely upon individual circumstances, luck and the incredible courage of the children themselves.
These obstacles must not deter a global pressure campaign.
How to stop the perpetrators
Beyond the current ICC arrest warrants, more trafficking perpetrators must be publicly indicted and sanctioned. Wider networks involved in this mass kidnapping scheme must be targeted, including Russian administrators of adoption services, ideological re-education, transport and logistics.
Presently, the Ukrainian government, NGOs, and private citizens work hard to bring Ukraine’s children home, with even journalists carrying out one daring rescue of two teenage girls.
Yet resource constraints exist. Wider financial and technical anti-trafficking support from the more than 150 UN Genocide signatory countries, as well as UN agencies inside Russia like UNHCR and UNICEF, are needed. Secure communications for deported Ukrainians (and those who help them) are a practical first step.
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Finally, legal support for the families of trafficked children, as well as continued military aid to secure Ukrainian civilian safety and prevent future deportations, must remain global priorities.
Every day brings fresh evidence of Russia’s weaponization of imperial tactics to terrorize Ukrainian civilians.
But through such steps, the centuries-old cycle of Moscow’s mass kidnappings of children can finally be broken.