The Russian government is operating a systematic network of at least 40 child custody centers for thousands of Ukrainian children, a potential war crime, according to a new report by Yale University researchers in collaboration with the US State Department in a program to hold Russia accountable.
The report, “Russia’s Systematic Program for the Re-education and Adoption of Ukrainian Children,” describes a system of detention facilities stretching from the Black Sea coast to Siberia.
“This is not a rogue camp, this is not a rogue mayor or governor,” says Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab. “It’s a huge logistical feat that doesn’t happen by accident.”
Raymond’s team of researchers is tackling one of the most explosive issues of the war. Ukrainian officials say Russia has evacuated thousands of Ukrainian children without parental consent.
Russian officials don’t deny that Ukrainian children are now in Russia, but insist the camps are part of a vast humanitarian project for abandoned and war-traumatized orphans and have been surprisingly public with social media messages targeting a Russian audience. . Russia, however, does not recognize how many children there are in Russia or where they are being hosted.
“All of this strikes us as a carefully orchestrated performance,” says Caitlin Howarth, director of operations at the Yale Lab.
“The Russian government needs to legitimize its activities, which make all of this seem normal,” he says, “because you simply can’t move so many children to so many places without their movements being noticed.”
The children are kept in camps throughout the Russian expanse
The Yale team says it has verified at least 6,000 Ukrainian children detained by the Russian government, though researchers believe there are thousands more. The report identifies 43 fields. “Eleven of the fields are located more than 500 miles from Ukraine’s border with Russia, including two fields in Siberia and one in the Russian Far East,” according to the report.
The Ukrainian children transported to Russia range in age from teenagers to toddlers, Raymond says.
“In some cases there are adoptions, other summer camp programs where the kids were supposed to go home and never did,” she says, “and in some cases it’s re-education camps.”
Yale’s report is the most comprehensive look at the program yet, Raymond says. “Show scale, show chain of command, show logistical complexity,” he adds.
The report also documents a start date for transporting Ukrainian children to Russia, days before the full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022.
“These first child transports in early February 2022 included a group of 500 allegedly ‘evacuated’ orphans from Russia’s Donetsk Oblast. The reason given publicly at the time was the alleged threat of an offensive by the military Ukrainians,” according to the report. Some of those Ukrainian children were later adopted by Russian families.
The researchers obtained the evidence through open sourcing
The Ukrainian government and senior UN human rights officials have consistently raised the alarm about these activities since the early days of the war.
The alarm was raised in May 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a new decree that made it quick and easy to adopt Ukrainian children, which was almost impossible before the war. Additionally, Russian officials have announced they will extend government support to Russian families adopting Ukrainian children; the biggest financial incentive is the adoption of handicapped children.
Yale researchers began investigating missing Ukrainian children when the first Russian social media posts appeared last year. The messaging began around the time of Putin’s adoption announcement, says one of the Yale researchers. He asked not to be named to protect his job security from hackers.
“I think the first places we saw it were on Telegram and then on VK,” she says. Telegram is a popular Russian messaging service. VK is the Russian version of Facebook.
“It quickly became clear that there was a huge amount of publicly available information,” he says.
Yale’s Humanitarian Research Laboratory is defining the future of war crimes investigations by combining open source research techniques with high-resolution satellite imagery to provide real-time analysis of alleged war crimes.
There are about 20 researchers scouring Russian social media posts, news stories, government announcements, and messenger services, looking for patterns and connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.
As a partner of the US State Department’s Crisis Observatory, the Yale lab has access to unclassified satellite imagery from the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. For this investigation, it is a key to map fields, said the researcher.
“You can see people. You can see cars. You can see certain types of businesses,” he said. “There is a great deal of material related to patriotic education that they undergo while in the camps,” she added. The lessons are designed, she says, to instill loyalty to Russia and promote Moscow’s version of the war.
“What we’re seeing,” he says, “is the government of Russia and Russian leaders training and indoctrinating a generation of Ukrainian children.”
What Russia calls a humanitarian project is identified by Yale researchers as a possible war crime
Russia has not publicly released a list of evacuated and detained Ukrainian children. The number of children adopted by Russian families since February 24, 2022 is also unknown. However, Russian officials insist that only orphans are allowed to adopt, although evidence compiled by the Yale team shows otherwise.
Yale’s report verified that 37 Ukrainian children had been returned to their families, says Nathaniel Raymond. The thousands who remain in Russia may constitute a war crime, he says.
“It is basically the custody and control without consent of thousands of Ukrainian children. It is not only against the law, but also against common decency,” he says.
The report, released on Tuesday by the US State Department, shows that the program is controlled top-down by the Russian government, Raymond said.
“This operation is centrally coordinated by the Russian federal government and involves all levels of government,” according to the report. Yale’s program identified several dozen federal, regional and local figures “directly engaged in and politically justifying the program.”
War crimes evidence that can lead to trial is elusive
Gathering evidence of alleged war crimes has always been difficult. That part hasn’t changed.
But now, open-source investigators have a trove of potential sources of material from field witnesses photographing war damage, mapping mass graves, recording interviews with refugees and posting the findings online. In addition, high-resolution satellite imagery makes it easier than ever to identify deliberately damaged hospitals, targeted grain silos or local children’s summer camps.
The Yale team is made up of junior Internet investigators who work to verify the data they unearth and document the steps necessary to meet stringent standards and protocols for the process.
Raymond describes the lab’s role as a “cop shop” – a “cyber cop shop”, careful to detail a chain of custody for produced evidence. To understand the role of the laboratory, he points to the television program Law and order.
“We’re the Jerry Orbach, the police side,” he says, “Our job is to gather the evidence, the digital evidence and then how that does or doesn’t play with the law.”
Also, for the first time, war crimes investigators can gather evidence in real time while war crimes are still ongoing, Raymond says.
“We are demonstrating that we can collect perishable evidence and make it usable in ways that were previously impossible. In the past this scale of operations was only available to governments,” he says.
It’s the future of war crimes investigations now taking place at Yale Lab, Raymond says, as civil society uses the same tools as governments, “at scale and rapidly.”