Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Is Not ‘Protecting’ Ukraine’s Children of War

A children's toy near an apartment building destroyed during Russia's large-scale war against Ukraine. The city of Borodyanka, Kyiv region, April 6, 2022. (Genya Savilov/AFP)
A children's toy near an apartment building destroyed during Russia's large-scale war against Ukraine. The city of Borodyanka, Kyiv region, April 6, 2022. (Genya Savilov/AFP)
Vassily Nebenzia

Vassily Nebenzia

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations

“The Russian Armed Forces are making every effort to protect children during the course of their special military operation in Ukraine.”


On May 12, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, denied his country has carried out attacks against children in Ukraine, calling such accusations “absurd.”

Nebenzia’s statements came during a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the grave effects on children from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Security Council members discussed high-tech methods to help Ukrainian children continue their education while also protecting them as their schools came under fire of artillery and airstrikes.

Omar Abdi, deputy executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said the war in Ukraine is “a child protection and child rights crisis.”

Nebenzia sought to turn the tables.

He claimed Kyiv has been indoctrinating and discriminating against children in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region for years. He accused Ukrainian forces of targeting schools and causing 190,000 children to flee to Russia, which, he said, is caring for and educating them.

“The Russian Armed Forces are making every effort to protect children during the course of their special military operation in Ukraine,” Nebenzia said.

That is false.

International child protection groups and media reports have documented Russian attacks on schools and children. Ukraine counts at least 220 children killed in the war and says Russian strikes have destroyed 130 educational facilities and damaged more than 1,500.

With the continued fighting, there is no definitive account of how many children have been orphaned or displaced. Still, there’s little doubt that millions have been put in harm’s way.

The U.N. said last week that more than 6 million people have left Ukraine, with most fleeing to Poland (3.2 million) followed by Romania, Russia and other border countries.

UNICEF said in its latest estimate that 8 million people are displaced from homes inside Ukraine, and that half of the displaced households reported at least one child. According to UNICEF’s report, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said 238 children had been killed and 347 injured between February 24, when the war began, and May 9.

“With more than 8 million people currently internally displaced throughout Ukraine and 5.9 million people seeking refuge in neighboring countries and beyond, the total number of people forced to flee their homes due to the war is now close to 14 million,” UNICEF said.

In all, UNICEF said, some 3 million children inside Ukraine need some kind of assistance.

Dislocation has put the health of these children at risk just as the World Health Organization accused Russia of bombarding scores of hospitals and health care facilities across Ukraine.

UNICEF said it “has already observed a reduction in vaccination coverage for routine and childhood immunizations, including measles and polio. This could quickly lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, especially in overcrowded areas where people are sheltering from the violence.”

Teachers in Ukraine are working to provide stability for displaced children as well as emergency support like evacuation and humanitarian aid, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported.

After the Ukrainian military drove occupying Russian forces of the town of Borodyanka on April 1, returning residents found their local school pillaged, with slogans like “Russia, our beloved country,” written on the walls.

On May 8, UNICEF’s executive director, Catherine Russell, denounced an attack on a school in Bilohorivka in eastern Ukraine. Locals were sheltering in the facility’s bunker, she said.

“We do not yet know how many children might have been killed or injured in the reported bombing, but we fear this attack has just added to the hundreds of children who have already lost their lives in this war,” Russell said.

Reuters reported that as many as 60 people may have died in that strike. A few weeks later, on March 20, Ukraine authorities said Russia bombed an art school in Mariupol where an estimated 400 people – women, children, the elderly – were sheltering.

Nebenzia, the U.N. official, stated that 190,000 Ukrainian children had been transported to Russia. The state-owned news agency TASS reported in April that the country’s education ministry was making arrangements for Russian families to receive Ukrainian orphans.

Lilia Gumerova, education committee chair in Russia’s senate, said last month she was appalled that Ukrainian children brought from the “liberated territories in Ukraine” did not speak Russian. She promised they would attend summer school to learn Russian and “liberate their tongues.”

Ukrainian authorities maintain that Ukrainian children are being forcibly deported to Russia in violation of international law.

On May 13, Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman, Lyudmyla Denisova, accused Russia of taking more than 210,000 Ukrainian children and trying to make them Russian citizens, Reuters reported. The news agency said it “could not independently verify the figure given by Denisova or her allegations, for which she did not provide supporting evidence.”

At a news briefing the same day, Daria Herasymchuk, adviser to Ukraine’s president on children’s rights, also accused Russia of forcefully deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.

Herasymchuk said cited a count of 2,500 kidnapped children but said it could be higher. She added that the government had received 1,112 messages about missing children.

Freedom Fund organization, a nonprofit that fights slavery and exploitation, cited Russian Defense Ministry claims that 951,000 Ukrainians were deported to Russia, including 174,689 children. Freedom Fund said an exact count of unaccompanied children is unknown.

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia intends to put unaccompanied Ukrainian children up for adoption into Russian families.

“Russian invaders say they are orphans, but all orphans, including orphanages, were evacuated from Mariupol and centralized on February 24-25 during the first two days of the war,” Ukraine rights watchdog Denisova said on Facebook.

“Article 21 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that adoption in another country may be considered only as an alternative means of caring for a child if the child cannot be placed in foster care or to a family that could provide for her or him upbringing or adoption in the country of origin.”

Russian soldiers are accused of sexual violence against minors.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a sister U.S. news agency to Voice of America and, reported on the alleged rape and pregnancy of a 14-year-old girl from Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv.

During the May 12 Security Council meeting, U.K. ambassador Barbara Woodward said there were credible claims that Russian soldiers used sexual violence against children.

“As others have said, mass displacement has left children exposed to human trafficking and sexual exploitation,” Woodward said.

Ombudswoman Denisova said her office had during the first two weeks of April received 400 reports of rape by Russian troops.