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Is Russia Kidnapping Ukrainian Children?

State of the Union: An alleged war crime turns out to be more complicated.

One of the most serious allegations of war crimes against Russia is that it kidnapped tens of thousands of Ukrainian children during its invasion and sent them to “re-education” camps in Russia and, in some cases, gave the children to Russian families to adopt. Because the children are allegedly being Russianized with the intention of eradicating their Ukrainian cultural identity, this conduct qualifies as genocide under international law.

The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova over these child deportations. In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the “illegal kidnapping” of Ukrainian children by Russia, and the nine Republican congressmen who voted against the resolution were excoriated.


But is the charge true? Lvova-Belova says the children were evacuated from the war zone due to concerns for their safety and that children can be claimed by their Ukrainian parents or guardians in person with the proper documentation. The Kremlin also disputes the number of children removed from Ukrainian territory: Kiev says more than 19,000; Moscow says it has 600 children from Ukraine in state care.

So which side is right? A story in the Wall Street Journal this week paints a picture of a tragic situation brought about not by the wickedness of Russian authorities, but by the inherent difficulties of wartime. According to the WSJ, people who have brought money and influence to bear on this issue with the goal of rescuing Ukrainian children have discovered, upon closer examination, that the situation is more complicated than they initially thought.

In July 2023, Qatar pledged millions of dollars and diplomatic assistance to help reunite Ukrainian children with their parents and guardians. “But the wealthy Gulf state downsized initial ambitions to return thousands at once after confronting myriad logistical and political challenges,” the WSJ writes. “To date, Qatar has returned approximately 70 children in several batches, most recently when a group of 16 were reunited with their families last month. Around 29 more children are expected to be sent home soon.”

“When we started engaging with the details, it turned out that getting each child is a long process,” a Qatari official said. One challenge is paperwork. Russian authorities will not hand over a child simply on a Ukrainian claimant’s say-so. An 18-year-old girl trying to bring home her 11-year-old brother was told by his Russian foster family, “I can’t give him to you like he’s a kitten.” The two siblings were orphans; the brother’s foster parents in Ukraine did not want him back, making the question of legal guardianship tricky.

Many of these children were living in orphanages on Ukrainian territory that was seized by Russian forces, who then evacuated them. Americans trying to understand this issue need to know two things about orphanages in Ukraine. The first is that, unlike in America, children in Ukrainian orphanages often have a living parent. It is common in Ukraine for single mothers or impoverished families to send their children to orphanages hoping one day to reclaim them when their circumstances improve. This makes it difficult for Russian authorities who want to place war orphans in new homes; they don’t know which ones still have parents in Ukraine who might want them back.

The second thing is that child trafficking in Ukraine is a real problem. The U.S. State Department, the European Union, and UNICEF have all named Ukraine as a hotspot for “institution-related trafficking.” Children in orphanages have been sold to American parents by unscrupulous adoption agents or taken away on false pretenses by criminal gangs, who then use the children in any one of their various money-making enterprises. (For a fictional treatment of this issue, based on real stories, see the 2014 novel Orphanage 41 by Canadian investigative journalist Victor Malarek, an expert in human trafficking and author of the non-fiction expose The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade.)

In other words, there are good reasons why Russian authorities will not release a child simply because someone in Ukraine claims to be his rightful guardian. The desire to reunite children with their relatives must be balanced against the need to protect children from bad actors. Those concerned with the welfare of these children should put their effort into meeting the criteria the Russian authorities have set for reunification in order to bring them home as soon as possible—and leave charges of “genocide” out of it.