Russia expands its children’s army in occupied Crimea
200 very young Sevastopol schoolchildren have been ‘sworn in’ to the Russian Defence Ministry’s ‘Youth Army’ [Yunarmia], a formation which has been likened to Hitlerjugend and other “formations in which young people became tools of totalitarian regimes in Europe”. The move is typical of Russia’s mounting militarization of society in occupied Crimea and can be viewed as a war crime, since international law categorically prohibits both conscription on occupied territory, and measures aimed at propaganda of the army. The ceremony on 19 March coincided with the launch of major military exercises in Crimea and came just a day after Russia flouted the world and illegally held its ‘presidential elections’ in Crimea.
This ‘youth army’, initiated by the Russian Defence Ministry, is the militaristic wing of the so-called ‘Russian Movement of School Students’, created by Vladimir Putin’s presidential decree on October 2015. The latter was supposed “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 in charge of Yunarmia, this militarized formation was to “be responsible for issues linked with the military-patriotic upbringing of young people”.
In his analysis shortly after Yunarmia was formed in August 2016, Roman Popkov wrote that Russian generals openly admitted that they wanted to teach kids to fight from an early age. They are certainly going for them early, since the children can be as young as 11.
All of this, even in Russia, is deeply alarming. Sergei Sukhankin from the Jamestown Foundation spoke of Moscow’s “vigorous campaign promoting the cult of the military within Russian society, particular focusing on younger generation of Russians”.
“The main agenda of the movement”, he said, “is concerned with nurturing the young generation in accordance with Russian national traditions that reject such “foreign” elements as LGBT rights, religious fanaticism, radical nationalism, various sects, and “aggressive minorities” that allegedly seek to overthrow “legitimate governments.”
Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu’s open admission that a major goal of the Yunarmia movement is to popularize military ideology and foster a special bond “between young Russians and the army” is particularly incriminating since they are now seeking to inculcate this on occupied Ukrainian territory.
There were doubts from the outset about the supposedly voluntary nature of membership of this ‘youth army’ and the same scepticism is warranted in occupied Crimea. The very fact that, according to Crimean media, around 60 schools and 30 civic and sports organizations have joined the movement suggests that children would be under pressure to take part.
There is clearly a drive on for membership in occupied Crimea. On 12 March, it was reported that the Russian Guard, a body dubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army, together with ‘Berkut’ Russian OMON police, held a ‘patriotic event’ in Dzhankoy. Over ten schoolchildren were accepted into Yunarmia, after tasks that included 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’.
The Crimean Human Rights Group and others have long warned of Russia’s militarization in Crimea, and particularly the involvement in this of children. Iryna Sedova from CHRG explains that militarization refers not only to all the military technology and military units being brought to Crimea, but also to the militarization of public life, seen in the inculcation and propaganda of a cult of war, of violence and love for the army. One of the subdivisions of this is the militarization of education when militarized programs or propaganda of army service are included in the curriculum, and when state funding is allocated for this.
Russia’s active imposition of conscription in occupied Crimea is already in grave violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. According to Article 51 of this, “The Occupying Power may not compel protected persons to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces. No pressure or propaganda which aims at securing voluntary enlistment is permitted”.
Since most of the measures aimed at militarization of public life, including the so-called ‘military-patriotic education’ introduced into Crimean schools, are aimed at promoting military conscription or joining the army, this can all be considered war crimes.
There are all kinds of war-related events in schools and even kindergartens – linked with Victory Day, with any war-linked anniversaries. The human rights group is aware of cases where military men appeared in a kindergarten, and the children were decked out in military uniform. All of this is legalizing the Russian army in the children’s eyes. They are presented as liberators, as defenders. “The older the child becomes, the more loyal his or her attitude to service in the army becomes, and they are ready to defend Russia with a rifle in their hands.”
Some of the most grotesque examples have been linked with the anniversaries of Russia’s invasion and annexation. On 18 March 2017, a choreographed performance had children dancing about with machine guns. Another showed younger children dancing around the monument to the Russian soldiers without insignia who seized control in February 2017. The children come up to the statue, and in unison say ‘thank you”.
Worth noting that Russia is also actively encouraging young children to have a positive attitude to the so-called ‘self-defence’ armed paramilitaries who worked together with Russian soldiers. It was paramilitaries who abducted solitary protester and Hero of Ukraine, Reshat Ametov, who was found soon afterwards savagely tortured to death. The paramilitaries are also known to have beaten up, abducted and tortured many Ukrainians during the first months of Russian occupation, and they are believed to have been behind many enforced disappearances or abductions. These are the individuals whom Russia wants young people to view as role models.