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1500 Crimean children recruited into Russian occupiers’ ‘youth army’ in Crimea

Halya Coynash

A week after the anniversary of the first ever mass shooting of students in occupied Crimea that left 21 people dead, Russia has recruited 1500 children and young people from Sevastopol to its ‘youth army’ or Yunarmia.  Small children were decked out in military gear and will later be taught how to use rifles similar to that used on 17 October 2018 in Kerch.

There has been a dangerous trend towards militarization of childhood and glorification of war in Russia since Vladimir Putin first became President, with this even more alarmingly pushed in occupied Crimea since Russia’s invasion and annexation in early 2014.  In flagrant breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other international law, Russia is conscripting young Crimeans into its army, and is coupling this with intensive military propaganda among children from a very early age. 

During a ceremony on Cape Khustalny in Sevastopol on 25 October, children from around 9 upwards were dressed in the military uniforms of different Russian forces. On instruction from Russian military men, the children gave ‘the oath of a Youth Army member and a solemn promise of a member of the ‘Russian movement of schoolchildren’.  On this occasion, they appear to have merely observed members of the Black Fleet performing with rifles, however Yunarmia were allocated their own premises in February this year at which they will be taught how to use weapons.  Earlier ‘swearing in’ ceremonies have shown children given tasks that include shooting and putting together an assault rifle.  All such events are accompanied by tests on Russian history and a focus on developing ‘patriotism’, with this clearly presented as being linked with so-called ‘Russian values’. 

Russia is not only in breach of international law through its use of conscription and criminal charges against those who refuse to do military service in the occupiers’ army.  As the Crimean Human Rights Group has pointed out on many occasions, Russia’s activities are developing a cult of war and tolerance for violence among young children.   The whole idea of such military activities, the oaths, etc. also push the idea that allegiance is to Russia, and is clearly aimed at weakening children’s links with Ukraine.

Yunarmia, a militaristic wing of the Russian Movement of Schoolchildren, was initiated by Russia’s Defence Ministry in January 2016, without any public discussion.  The Defence Ministry described it as having emerged “at the initiative” of Shoigu and as being “supported by  Putin.   In fact, the term ‘supported’ glosses over the likely major role played by the Kremlin.  It seems probable that this ‘army’ was always planned as part of the ‘Russian Movement of School Students’, created by presidential decree on October 2015. That ‘movement’ was, Putin said, intended “to enhance state policy on bringing up the growing generation and facilitate their personal development on the basis of the system of values inherent to Russian society”.  According to Nikolai Pankov, Deputy Defence Minister and the person seemingly in charge of the Youth Army, the Youth Army was supposed to be “responsible for issues linked with the military-patriotic upbringing of young people”. 

While formally a part of the Movement of Schoolchildren, Yunarmia is clearly run by the Russian Defence Ministry.  In his analysis of the new formation, Roman Popkov wrote that Russian generals openly admitted that they wanted to teach kids to fight from an early age. Sergey Shoygu, Putin’s Defence Minister has spoken of a  major goal of the Yunarmia movement being to popularize military ideology and foster a special bond “between young Russians and the army”. 

There have been doubts from the outset about membership of Yunarmia being genuinely voluntary, and it seems likely that children who do not wish to take part, or their parents, would be put under massive pressure. A document dated 29 January 2019 and widely circulated on social media leaves little doubt that any officers who did not get their children involved in this ‘army’ would face problems.  This ‘telegram’, signed by Alexander Manakov, acting deputy commander on military-patriotic work of the Eastern Military District, asks that the absence of the children of officers from the ranks of Yunarmia “be viewed as a lack of understanding by the military officers of the foundations of state policy regarding the patriotic upbringing of citizens”.


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