war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Ukrainian children brainwashed in Russia’s ‘Youth Army’ into wanting to fight against Ukraine

Halya Coynash
Russia is not necessarily succeeding, but the aim is chilling - to destroy the children's Ukrainian identity and get them to want to 'defend' those invading their country
Mariupol lads in Yunarmia uniforms, repeating Russian lies Screenshot from the video posted by Mariupol City Council
Mariupol lads in Yunarmia uniforms, repeating Russian lies Screenshot from the video posted by Mariupol City Council

Russia is known to have ‘enlisted’ over 35 thousand children and teenagers from occupied Ukraine into its ‘Youth Army’ or ‘Yunarmia’, with the real figure likely to be much higher, and on the increase.  It is almost certainly warranted to compare the Russian defence ministry’s ‘Yunarmia’ with HitlerJugend in Nazi Germany, but only with respect to Russia’s aggressive militarization and brainwashing of its own young people.  Russia is, however, doing something quite different from the Nazis in occupied Ukraine by actively seeking to convince Ukrainian children that they are ‘Russian’ and that they should want to ‘defend’ Russia against their own country.  In cities like Mariupol which the aggressor state relentlessly bombed in order to seize control, the indoctrination is especially flagrant, with children deployed to ‘thank’ the invaders who shattered their lives and to repeat Russia’s false narrative aimed at justifying its aggression against Ukraine and blaming the latter for the invader’s war crimes.

The Mariupol City Council has posted a video from the Russian state propaganda program Vesti showing some young lads in Yunarmia uniforms tending to a monument to Anatoliy Balabukha, a ‘pioneer’ from Soviet Mariupol who was killed in the liberation of Mariupol from its first, Nazi, invaders in 1943.  One of the lads, clearly reciting what he has been ‘taught’ during so-called ‘military-patriotic activities’, repeats the shocking lie that “Ukrainians fought for another country” during the Second World War. 

There is even worse, with Russia teaching children in schools and in Yunarmia to glorify war criminals, mercenaries and convicted criminals released and pardoned by Russian leader Vladimir Putin for agreeing to fight against Ukraine.  The Mariupol City Council reports that Russian fighters are often brought into schools to hold so-called ‘lessons about courage’. 

Russia began using ‘Yunarmia’ and ‘children’s camps’ to “teach children to shoot and to hate Ukraine” within months of gaining control of Mariupol, and at least two schools have been used for most two years as bases for ‘Yunarmia’ units.  The aim is not only to brainwash children into wanting and, eventually, agreeing to fight in Russia’s armed forces, but also to destroy Ukrainian identity.  It is likely that the same methods have been used in those Luhansk oblast cities, like Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, which were badly bombed by the invaders, but not totally destroyed.  The same policy and methods of implementation are seen also in those parts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts which were occupied at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  There, however, there seems to have been greater resistance from teachers who refuse to collaborate with the invaders, and from parents who do not want their children fed propaganda, rather than taught.   Russia has had since 2014 to push its narrative and distortion of history and recent events in both occupied Crimea, and in the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [D-LPR], with more mechanisms in place for expanding their activities to newly occupied cities in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The new ‘history textbooks’ that Russia has now published and will be using on occupied territory from September 2024 received international coverage because of the flagrant nature of the lies told, however few were really so new.  Children in occupied Crimea and D-LPR had long been fed a version according to which Russia had not invaded Crimea, but simply ‘helped the Crimean people to hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation’, etc. etc.

Maria Sulialina, Head of the Almenda Centre for Civil Education, recently told Suspilne Crimea that over 35 thousand children in occupied parts of Ukraine have been roped into Russia’s Yunarmia.  She acknowledged that the real figure could be much higher and, indeed, the Russian occupiers were ‘boasting’ of 29 thousand young kids enrolled in Yunarmia on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion. 

It is likely that many young people like learning to use Kalashnikov rifles and to take part in other such activities.  There are, nonetheless, strong grounds for suspecting that membership of Yunarmia is voluntary in name alone, with children and / or their parents and teachers under enormous pressure to enrol them.  The children and young people in at least 191 ‘cadet’ classes will certainly have to be members of Yunarmia.  All these Ukrainian children and, probably thousands of others, are being ‘groomed’ to become part of Russia’s armed forces and, ultimately, fight against their own country.  By the end of 2024, the occupation regime plans that 10% of children in occupied Crimea will be in Yunarmia. 

Nor is Yunarmia the only weapon that Russia is using to indoctrinate and militarize Ukrainian children.  In occupied Crimea, there are at least nine military centres like Yunarmia.  They include Krympatriotcentre; the Union of Cossack Youth of Crimea and Sevastopol and others.

Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, there has been a 50-fold increase in Russian spending on so-called ‘youth policy’, with a lot of the money spent on trying to convince Ukrainian children that they are ‘Russian’ and that they should want to ‘defend and even die for Russia’.   

Suspilne Crimea has spoken with both teachers and parents from Crimea about the propaganda Russia immediately began pushing.  A former English teacher told them that, immediately after the pseudo-referendum (on 16 March 2014), education workers began receiving ‘instructions’ on what to tell their pupils about ‘Russian’ Crimea and Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

Natalia, who is from Crimea, had clearly left Crimea earlier, but explains that, four years, their foster daughter also came to live with them.  The reason for the daughter leaving Crimea was that “in her school the child’s education was reduced to a minimum, while she was forcibly made a member of ‘Yunarmia’. The children were taught to shoot, so when she came here she didn’t even know half of the curriculum for her age as she should, but she was able to put together a machine gun perfectly.  That was a pretty telling case.”

Worth noting that, even after 10 years of huge pressure and mass propaganda, Russia has not necessarily succeeded.  Olha Skrypnyk, Head of the Crimean Human Rights Group points out that there remain a lot of people with a pro-Ukrainian position.  This was clear even back in 2018 when so many Crimeans came forward to offer help for the 24 Ukrainian seamen whom the Russians had taken prisoner after shooting at Ukrainian naval boats.  It became even more evident after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with the large number of Crimeans either arrested and sentenced to huge terms of imprisonment, like Bohdan Ziza, or facing harassment, dismissal, administrative arrest or fines for supposedly ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces’.  Such administrative arrests have been for waving the Ukrainian flag, playing the Ukrainian national anthem or singing patriotic songs.

Russia’s militarization of children and young people on occupied territory is an international crime.  It is also part of Russia’s genocidal aggression against Ukraine, with the aim very clearly to destroy all that links the children with Ukraine, and to brainwash them into not only forgetting that they are Ukraine, but to believe that Ukraine is ‘the enemy’.

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