Russian tanks and Ukrainian orphans in Moscow’s unabated offensive
A plane has brought 16 Ukrainian orphans home after they were taken by force across the border into Russia. Despite that abduction, Russian tanks and now the shooting down of a plane carrying 49 soldiers, the west is still ineffectually threatening yet again of ‘additional costs’ if Russia ‘fails to de-escalate’
A plane has brought 16 Ukrainian orphans home from Russia after their bus was seized by Kremlin-backed militants and taken by force across the border into Russia. Their abduction was one of two incidents on June 12 which marked a serious escalation in Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine. A US State Department spokesperson has now confirmed Ukraine’s reports on Thursday that “three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 ‘Grad’ multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles” crossed the border into Ukraine near Snizhne. This was an act of aggression and clearly requires response now. So too does the obvious connivance of Russian border guards with terrorists. No other term serves to describe the behaviour of the militants from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic who stopped a bus taking children from a Snizhne orphanage to safety in the Dnipropetrovsk region, and took them, together with two accompanying adults, into Russia.
It seems worryingly likely that the militants and Russian media were hoping for a good heart-rending story about Russia as noble defender of children in danger from the Ukrainian military. They did not get it. Nine of the 25 children in the bus broke free of their ‘defenders’ at the border. The others were effectively abducted. Even if, as one of the constantly changing claims from the Russian media says, the accompanying adults supported the abductors’ behaviour, the children were taken by force and illegally into another country. Getting even one child across the Russian border without full documents and the consent of the child’s guardian would be difficult. In this case, 16 children were taken to the Rostov oblast in Russia on the basis of photocopied birth certificates only.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry issued a protest over this extraordinary violation of a bilateral agreement from 1997, and international obligations to protect children’s rights. Its Russian counterpart reported a telephone conversation between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukraine’s, Andriy Deshchytsa. Lavrov, we are told, “stressed the importance of creating the proper conditions for the safe exodus of refugees from this region to the Russian Federation. In the given context, the need was noted to show particular attention and concern for children living in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.”
This is not diplomatic speak; it is lies. The children were not refugees and it is difficult to imagine adults appreciating the ‘attention and concern’ demonstrated by the armed militants who seized the bus, let alone small children.
This difficulty may be the reason that the Russian media has been mostly silent on the subject. On Thursday, RIA Novosti denied the reports altogether. It cited an unnamed source in the police in claiming that the bus with children had not been seized by militants, that the latter had not let them go on to Dnipropetrovsk and they had returned to Snizhne. This line was repeated by at least two newspapers.
By Friday denial had become impossible. Ukraine’s Justice Ministry approached the European Court of Human Rights which applied Rule 39, obliging the Russian government to provide an explanation for the children’s illegal transportation across the border by June 17. Human Rights Ombudsperson Valeria Lutkovska made at least two formal appeals to Russia’s Prosecutor General calling for measures to secure the children’s safety and release.
Most Russian media opted to avoid mention of the abduction. RIA Novosti, having circulated false information once, decided to give it a second go. Its headline reads: “The DPR authorities: Kyiv wants to turn children into hostages”. and the text begins: “The prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai has stated that the Kyiv authorities want to use children as hostages in the confrontation with the supporters of independence in the south-east of Ukraine."
"On Friday a bus with orphans, travelling from the city of Snizhne in the Donetsk oblast to the Dnipropetrovsk oblast was stopped by insurgents at a checkpoint. As a result 16 children and two adults were brought to the Russian-Ukrainian border and then to the ;Donetsk’ camp in the Rostov oblast.”
It then plunges on assuming, probably rightly, that most readers will be lulled by the DPR rhetoric and phrase ‘as a result’, and not try to find sense in the above. Ukraine’s Ambassador in Rostov is quoted as maintaining that the children were taken away illegally, but ends with Russia’s Children’s Ombudsperson Pavel Astakhov saying that yes “they were brought to the Rostov region, but this did not happen by force. At the present time the children have already been sent to Dnipropetrovsk.”
The children are safely back in Ukraine and will be taken to a children’s camp in Kryvy Rih as soon as possible.
This should not be the end of the story, and any attempt by the Russian government to brush off the action as carried out by ‘separatists’ will not wash. The so-called Donetsk People’s Republic is receiving direct assistance from Moscow, and the abduction was made possible by Russian border guards ignoring both domestic and international legislation.
That same disregard was shown when Russian tanks and men were allowed across the border into Ukraine.
Over recent months the Kremlin has consistently denied military involvement or support for the militants in Ukraine. The USA and EU have no less repeatedly stated that military intervention in mainland Ukraine will lead to a third, most painful, package of sanctions.
The New York Times reports US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf as calling it inadmissible that tanks and heavy equipment were brought in from Russia. Then, bafflingly, she stated only that “a failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.”
Russia has not just failed to de-escalate the situation. It is actively escalating it. Ongoing failure to react to this with anything more than additional threats of response only heightens Moscow’s belief that it can act with impunity and undermines western credibility. Ukraine is in the firing line, but much more is in the balance.