© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A pedestrian walks past a plaque displaying the “Z” symbol in support of Russian armed forces involved in that country’s military campaign in Ukraine, in the settlement of Chernomorskoye, Crimea, on February 11, 2023. Sign on the plaque r
By Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia has held at least 6,000 Ukrainian children – possibly many more – in places in Crimea and Russian-controlled Russia for the primary purpose of political re-education, according to a US-backed report released on Tuesday.
The report said Yale University researchers had identified at least 43 camps and other facilities holding Ukrainian children that were part of a “large-scale systemic network” operated by Moscow since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The children included those with parents or clear family custody, those considered orphans by Russia, others in the custody of Ukrainian state institutions before the invasion and those whose custody was unclear or uncertain because of the war, it said.
“The primary purpose of the camps we identified appears to be political re-education,” Nathaniel Raymond, one of the researchers, told a news briefing.
Some children were moved through the system and adopted by Russian families, or moved to foster homes in Russia, the report said.
The youngest child identified in the Russian program was just four months old, and some camps provided military training to children as young as 14, Raymond said, adding that researchers found no evidence that the children were later engaged in combat.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, responding to reports that Russia is forcibly holding children, said Russia is accepting children who were forced to flee Ukraine.
“We do everything to keep minors in families, and in case of absence or death of parents and relatives – to transfer orphaned children under guardianship,” the embassy announced on the Telegram messaging platform.
He also repeated Russia’s allegations that Ukraine, using Western weapons, attacks civilian infrastructure.
Moscow has denied that it has deliberately targeted civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine and has rejected previous claims that it forcibly relocated Ukrainians.
The report is the latest produced by Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Laboratory as part of a State Department-backed project examining human rights abuses and war crimes allegedly committed by Russia.
“What is documented in this report is a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” an agreement that protects civilians in war, Raymond said.
He said it could also be evidence that Russia committed genocide during its war in Ukraine, as the transfer of children to change, modify or remove national identity can constitute an element of the crime of genocide.
Ukrainian prosecutors said they were investigating allegations of forced deportation of children as part of efforts to build a genocide indictment against Russia.
“This network stretches from one end of Russia to the other,” Raymond said, adding that researchers believe the number of facilities where Ukrainian children were held exceeds 43.
The camp system and the adoption of Ukrainian children taken from their homeland by Russian families “appear to be authorized and coordinated at the highest levels of the Russian government,” the report said, from President Vladimir Putin to local officials.
State Department spokesman Ned Price indicated that action could be taken against 12 people the report said were not yet under US sanctions.
“We are always looking at individuals who could be responsible for war crimes, for crimes inside Ukraine,” he said.
“Just because we haven’t sanctioned an individual to date doesn’t say anything about future actions we might take.”