Weeks before Russia’s military leaders announced a retreat from the Ukrainian regional capital of Kherson, they began forcibly taking the Ukrainian residents of the region deeper into occupied Russian territory and shipping some of them off to the Russian interior. These forced deportations are part of a larger program that has taken at least hundreds of thousands of people, and it is one that Russia had reportedly been planning since before it even invaded Ukraine.
“It is kidnapping, pure and simple,” first lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska recently told a crowd in London, describing how Russia has spread those who have been plucked from their homes in Ukraine all across Russia, where their fates remain uncertain. Ukraine has surprised the world with its victories on the battlefield, but there are no easy answers to how it can bring its people home when and if the shooting finally stops.
Tearful videos of liberated Ukrainians greeting the troops freeing them from Russian occupation have become commonplace in the aftermath of major wins, but Ukrainian forces will not be rolling into the detention camps where Ukrainians are being held deep within Siberia. Perhaps the only way to bring these people home is through victories on the battlefield that force Russia to return them home to Ukraine willingly as a concession in ending the conflict. This is something Ukraine’s partners in Washington and Europe can help with, most urgently by sending long-range weapons, tanks, and fighters so that Ukraine can both continue its success on the battlefield and hold off talk of a premature negotiated peace that risks surrendering all those under occupation and internment in Russia to permanent separation from their homes and families.
Since the start of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainians have been pushed through filtration camps in occupied territory where they have been subjected to torture and interrogations. Some have been released, but many have been loaded onto transport bound for various regions of Russia. When Mariupol was being decimated by Russian forces laying siege to the city, civilians attempting to evacuate were pushed instead into Russia. A new report from Amnesty International details the impossible choices Ukrainians under fire were given, with one Mariupol evacuee retelling that upon asking Russian soldiers about the possibility of evacuating instead to Ukrainian-held territory, “The answer came straight away, the soldier interrupted and said, ‘If you don’t go to the DNR [Russian-occupied Donetsk] or the Russian Federation, you will stay here forever.’”
By all accounts, Russia’s deportation program was premeditated. The Russian government reportedly planned to bring Ukrainians into Russia even before the February invasion, setting up camps hundreds of miles from the border with Ukraine and developing compensation formulas to incentivize its regions to hold more people. Now a makeshift network of camps, dormitories, converted hotels, and sanitariums, all designed to house people taken from Ukraine, stretch across Russia. Dozens of these centers have been identified by journalists and observers. Additionally, Russia’s adoption laws were loosened to encourage Russian families to adopt Ukrainian children separated from their parents or orphaned by Russia’s war. Ukraine’s first lady says this has resulted in more than one thousand Ukrainian children already being adopted by Russians.
The scope of this massive forced population transfer is difficult to measure as even the Ukrainian government struggles to identify all those taken in the fog of war. The overall number of Ukrainians taken into Russia ranges from the hundreds of thousands to the millions, including at least 11,000 children whom the Ukrainian government has identified by name, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. On December 4, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman reported that up to 2.8 million Ukrainians had been forced to leave or forcibly deported into Russia, and shared a hotline for those trapped in Russia to contact. Many are being pressured into adopting Russian citizenship and signing contracts to remain working in Russia for years. Networks of Russian volunteers are helping some to escape, but many of the compounds are veritable prisons with guards who limit the ability of these people to move freely. The children separated from their families and adopted by Russians will be raised as Russian, with a new and radical education designed to erase their identity as Ukrainians, another iteration of Russia’s cultural genocide designed to erase Ukrainians as a people.
Too many stories of the nightmares Ukrainians are experiencing because of Russia’s deportation program have emerged. One father from Mariupol was separated from his children in a filtration camp, then tortured for weeks before he returned to find that his children had been shipped to a camp near Moscow and were set to be adopted by a Russian family. In a rare miracle, he managed to make his way from the war zone in Ukraine to the camp on Moscow’s outskirts and convince the guards to let him reclaim his kids before Russian volunteers were able to get the reunited family to safety in Latvia. But this incredible story is the exception rather than the rule. At the mercy of the Russian state and lost in the system, with new families raising them as Russians, many of these children may never find their way home to Ukraine.
The Kremlin is unlikely to free the people it has taken out of goodwill. Indeed, given Russia’s exodus of young men fleeing mobilization, it may be incentivized to keep as many kidnapped Ukrainians as it can to bolster its workforce. Moreover, Ukraine does not intend to invade Russia, only to liberate its own territory. The most likely way Ukraine can ensure the return of its people is through undisputed victory on the battlefield, forcing Russia to return them at the negotiating table—perhaps through prisoner exchanges and in return for sanctions relief.
As it gains momentum on the heels of the retaking of Kherson, Ukraine’s victory isn’t impossible to imagine. But running short on supplies and running out of cards to play in this war, Russia is sourcing munitions and kamikaze drones from Iran and North Korea, in part to hold off Ukrainian forces on the front and especially to target civilian infrastructure. Russia’s strikes have knocked out 40 percent of Ukraine’s power plants with the goal of freezing Ukrainian civilians this winter to sap their will to fight.
This desperate plan, however, is unlikely to succeed, and victories like the liberation of Kherson will only strengthen Ukraine’s resolve. When winter comes, the frozen ground and leafless trees may even aid Ukraine’s advances on its under-equipped Russian counterparts.
Thanks to Western support, Ukraine has shown it can continue to notch big wins over Russia and keep liberating more territory. These victories will keep piling the pressure on Putin. Should Ukraine succeed in its stated goal of liberating all of its territory and regaining its original 1991 borders, it will have an immensely strong hand at the bargaining table with Russia when discussing how to bring this conflict to a close. Speaking recently to the Group of 20 in Bali, Zelenskiy included the return of all prisoners of war and all forcibly deported Ukrainians as a condition for ending the conflict.
Relief from crushing sanctions and a return to the international community will be at the top of Russia’s list when navigating its way out of this war. Ukraine will rightfully be seeking significant reparations and accountability for Russia’s crimes. That negotiating table, with an unquestionably strong Ukrainian hand, may be the best place to liberate those Ukrainians who have been kidnapped and taken to Russia.
Russia’s crimes against Ukraine have been immense and continue to be documented, with more emerging by the day as Ukrainian forces liberate their land and unearth new horrors. Russia’s new deportation program is another in a long line of terrible forced population transfers committed by the Kremlin, and it will go down as one of the worst crimes against humanity since the Second World War.
Even if Ukraine is able to coerce Russia into returning those it has taken, Moscow’s campaign to eradicate the national identity of its captives and turn them into Russians means that many will be lost in the system and may never come home. The best way to free as many as possible of the hundreds of thousands kidnapped by Russia is through Ukraine’s absolute victory—and making that victory swifter and sooner is something the United States and its allies have a say in.