Russian media reported last August that 3.4 million Ukrainians, of whom 555,000 were children, were in Russia as a result of the war.
In Russia’s two-stage invasion of Ukraine — the first in 2014 in the Donbas regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and the Crimean Peninsula, and then in 2022 to today throughout the eastern portion of the nation — the Russian military and occupation authorities have visited death, dislocation, and deportation on Ukrainian civilians.
The nature of these depravations varies widely and cannot be fully understood without also viewing Russia’s objectives through the lens of the invasion’s architect, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin views Ukraine as an illegitimate state and Ukrainians as an integral part of Russia. For this reason, he sees the Ukrainian nationality, language, and faith traditions as needing to be stamped out, with Ukrainians being reeducated into Russians.
This effort takes on additional urgency in light of Russia’s demographic decline. As Russians flee conscription, young Russian men in the military can’t start families, and worsened economic conditions depress births. Thousands won’t return to start families at all.
Turning to Russia’s conduct of its war on Ukraine and the harm visited on civilians, there are four things to consider: reports of Russian soldiers executing civilians, the operation of so-called “filtration camps,” the deportation of Ukrainian civilians, and the deportation of Ukrainian children.
Russia attempted to blitz Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. The Russians sent their best troops in a mad dash for Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Columns of Russian armor bypassed towns while air assault forces seized Antonov Airport in Hostomel, only 20 miles from the center of Kyiv.
Putin expected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government to collapse — as did President Joe Biden, who offered Zelensky and his family an air evacuation out of Kyiv to which Zelensky responded on Feb. 25, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
As Russian soldiers arrived in Bucha, a mile south of Hostomel, Russian soldiers began looking for specific people, identified in advance of the invasion by Russian intelligence. The Russians were acting on the infamous “kill lists” — a compilation of important people, from Zelensky and his family, to local elected officials, journalists, veterans, and other leaders.
With Russia expecting a quick victory, they were merely following Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince: “If you take control of a state, you should make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once.”
In this, the employment of “kill lists” followed a path worn by Stalin, not only against his fellow Soviets but also against the Poles when some 22,000 Polish military officers, many of them reservists of high social standing, were massacred in the Katyn Forest in April and May 1940.
The reason for the massacre then and in Ukraine is simple: It was a decapitation of the leadership that might resist rule from Moscow. It’s also a war crime.
The Russian soldiers fighting both north of Kyiv and across Ukraine since the invasion weren’t just looking for VIPs on a list, they were also rounding up civilians suspected of helping the Ukrainian military effort.
Here things get complicated. It is commonly understood that the law of armed conflict, even with U.S. armed forces, provides that people directly participating in hostilities are legitimate targets. With Ukrainian patriotism far stronger than invading Russian forces were led to believe from Putin, there was no shortage of Ukrainian civilians willing to take direct part in opposing Russia’s illegal invasion. Sometimes this took the form of shooting at Russian soldiers, but more frequently it manifested itself as civilians serving as artillery spotters and intelligence assets via cell phones.
In this case, soldiers are expected to eliminate an immediate threat using force, regardless of whether the threat is in uniform or civilian clothing, in an armored vehicle, or in a car speeding toward a checkpoint. But when civilians are caught aiding the enemy with information, it is expected that those civilians will be detained. Usually this means interrogation followed by confinement.
Yet in the chaotic first six weeks of Russia’s 2022 invasion, when the Russian leadership still believed it could drive the Ukrainian government from power, Russian forces executed more than 600 civilians, including at least 28 boys and girls.
These war crimes were suspected due to the widespread sharing of information made possible by cell phones and later confirmed when the initial Russian offensive collapsed, allowing Ukrainian and international forensics experts access to the shallow graves and other sites containing the remains of executed civilians — many with their hands still taped behind their backs.
Reports from the fierce battleground of Bucha, less than 20 miles from Kyiv, were that Russian soldiers seized civilian cell phones, and if there was evidence of aiding the Ukrainian military — for instance, photos of Russian military vehicles — the cell phone’s owner would be detained, questioned, often under torture, and then summarily executed.
Yet the Russian forces operating in this area had a supply line back to their rear areas in Belarus. Thus, proper practice would be to gather civilians suspected of aiding the enemy and send them back to a secure area for detention.
But, with victory imminent, why bother? Might makes right, after all. The Russians even had a word for it: “zachistka” or cleansing.
Today, the Russians use “filtration camps” to determine the status of civilians who come under their control. This, at least in form, tracks with international norms — and is certainly better than a bullet to the back of the head.
But it isn’t just civilians deemed too loyal to Ukraine that have been “filtered” out to Russia. Russian media reported last August that 3.4 million Ukrainians, of whom 555,000 were children, were in Russia as a result of the war. Large numbers of these, even those not actively helping the Ukrainian war effort, weren’t given a choice and, in some cases, were tortured or abused. As in Stalin’s day, many have been sent to economically distressed villages in Siberia.
These deported Ukrainians must work. They are also carefully monitored by the Russian Orthodox church which, at the direction of the Moscow patriarchate, works to have “spiritual conversations” in the furtherance of “Russifying” the Ukrainian exiles.
Ukrainian children, most of whom do not speak Russian, need urgent “retraining,” per the Russian Council of Federations. These 555,000 Ukrainian children, if kidnapped and forcibly assimilated into Russia, coincidentally just manage to cover Russia’s population decline since the disastrous war Putin launched on his neighbor.
And that’s loot more valuable than its weight in stolen washing machines, but a crime far more heinous.