The International Criminal Court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Putin for the abduction of Ukrainian children is groundbreaking—the issue has not nearly gotten sufficient public attention. Beyond its relevance for human rights and criminal prosecution, the unlawful removal of Ukrainian children also lays bare Russia’s intention to erase Ukrainians’ identity and eradicate Ukrainian statehood. Any peace settlement will continue to be a non-starter unless it can guarantee accountability for the abductions and the return of all Ukrainian children. As long as the violence against children remains unaddressed, there is little prospect for sustainable peace.
Russia has targeted children since the very beginning of the war. According to estimates by Yale researchers and the Ukrainian government, between 6,000 and 14,000 Ukrainian children have been forcibly relocated to Russia since February 2022. Harrowing stories of these abductions are easy to find—albeit only for those fortunate enough to have been rescued. One of them is twelve-year-old Oleksandr, who narrowly escaped forced adoption after having been separated from his parents by Russian soldiers, thanks to his grandmother’s rescue mission through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Russia. Thousands of other children have not been as lucky.
At the same time, the amount of violence against children in Ukraine is astonishing. Infamously, in March 2022, a Russian airstrike on a theater in Mariupol that had “children” written in big red letters on its roof killed around 600 civilians. Nearly one in ten hospitals in Ukraine has been damaged by the Russians, often hitting maternity wards and children’s hospitals. More than 2,500 schools have been damaged or destroyed. Many kids are among the victims of grave sexual violence and executions in the occupied areas, and are deliberately targeted in atrocities like in Bucha.
Children do not suffer by accident, nor are they simply collateral damage—this is a calculated and methodological scheme. Children symbolize and universally represent the future of a society—in terms of ethnicity, culture, and identity. As such, the abduction, maiming, and slaughtering of children frequently occurs in wars and genocides around the world. The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide explicitly lists the forcible replacement and targeting of children as a genocidal tactic—and for good reason.
What, at first glance, may seem to be strictly a human rights issue in fact shows that Russia is pursuing a grand strategy for the Russification of Ukraine through whatever means it deems necessary, down to genocidal tactics. This effort can be traced as far back as the Soviet Union and the Russian empire. The historical continuity of such a strategy highlights Russia’s commitment to denying the existence of Ukrainians.
The documented patterns of violence against Ukrainian children and systematic nature of the abductions underscore our analysis of strategic intent. Although Russian law prohibits foreign adoption, Putin signed a decree in May 2022 that streamlines the “adoption” process of Ukrainian children; there is even a financial incentive of up to $1,000 for Russians who take in and impose Russian citizenship on a Ukrainian child. In the meantime, Russia holds abducted children in camps, where they are subjected to political re-education—and there is no end in sight.
This all raises an important question: how can Russia be a trustworthy negotiation partner? Independent of all other valid arguments, Russia’s strategy vis-a-vis Ukrainian children demonstrates that there is more to the issue than just land disputes. The violence against children must be part of any future security analyses, ensuring the full scope of Russia’s actions against Ukraine is captured. In the end, it is Ukraine’s decision when to negotiate—but currently, a workable compromise seems highly unlikely. The Ukrainian government cannot let Russia erase Ukraine, even “just a little bit.”
For a peace settlement to be feasible, the children’s issue must be incorporated at the forefront of negotiations. Criminal accountability and the swift return of all Ukrainian children should be set as prerequisites for returning to the negotiation table. Without properly addressing Russia’s abduction of children, the chances of a sustainable peace agreement are likely to be diminished by the partial success of Russia’s genocidal tactics and ensuing opposition from the Ukrainian people and civil society.
Sofie Lilli Stoffel is a McCloy fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. She works on foreign and security policy and specializes in children in conflict.
Vladyslav Wallace is a Belfer Young Leader Student Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Fellow at the U.S. Department of State. He works on U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy and specializes in matters related to Eurasia such as human rights and democracy.