Geopolitics in the Babyhouse: How the Kremlin uses Adopted Orphans to advance its Foreign Policy Agendas

Image Source: RFE/RL

“I didn’t want to go, but no one asked me,” remarked a Ukrainian orphan deported to Russia after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. These tragic words represent thousands of Ukrainian children severed from their homeland. In 2022, Russian government forces began deporting more Ukrainian orphans to Russia and expedited the process for Russian parents to adopt Ukrainian children, making them de facto Russians. Russian foreign policy has weaponized adoption policies to advance the Kremlin’s political objectives.

It is believed that more than 19,500 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia while less than 400 children returned to Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian government. In addition to the testimonies of Ukrainians and deported children themselves, external researchers identified at least 43 Russian facilities that receive deported Ukrainian children. Forcible transfer of children is considered genocide, according to the 1948 Genocide Convention. Many governments loudly decried this war crime and imposed additional sanctions due to Russia’s illegal deportations. The International Criminal Court even issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova due to their involvement in abducting Ukrainian children – a huge move against a United Nations Security Council member state. Yet the Kremlin’s weaponization of intercountry adoption for political aims is nothing new.

For many years before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia employed intercountry adoption as a tool to execute broader foreign policy aims, including by holding leverage over foreign countries receiving Russian orphans, portraying an international image of a benevolent Russian state that protects orphans’ rights, and maintaining control over Russian adoptees abroad. In the summer of 2023, Russia resurrected its post-2012 narratives accusing the United States of abusing adopted Russian orphans and connected the American adoption “industry” to the exploitation of Ukrainian children. Russia’s 2023 report serves to strategically deflect responsibility for human rights abuses, mass deportations, and war crimes toward the West as it wages its war against Ukraine.

Russia’s History of Mixing Intercountry Adoption Policies and Politics

The Russian government no longer permits the adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens, largely for political reasons. From the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 through 2012, the United States received the largest number of Russian adoptees internationally. American parents adopted over 60,000 Russian children. But tragedies involving two Russian adoptees – Artyom Savelyev and Dima Yakovlev – would change the trajectory of the US-Russia intercountry adoption policy.

Political aims played a large part in the Kremlin’s delayed response to the death of Dima Yakovlev. In 2012, three years after the death of Dima Yakovlev, the United States imposed a sanctions package targeting Russian human rights abusers, known as “The Magnitsky Act.” The Magnitsky Act highlighted the case of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was detained, deprived of medical care, and died in a Russian prison after he exposed corruption and fraud within the Russian government. The Kremlin considered the Magnitsky Act as inflammatory as NATO’s interest to install an anti-ballistic missile system in Romania.

Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the Russian “Dima Yakovlev Law” as a necessary form of retaliation against the Magnitsky Act, passed only two weeks prior. The Dima Yakovlev Law banned American NGOs from operating within Russia and banned American adoptions of Russian orphans. This tit-for-tat diplomacy vividly displays the Russian weaponization of human rights symbols, like the death of Russian adoptee Dima Yakovlev, for political purposes. By elevating U.S. human rights abuses, Russia aimed to delegitimize U.S. claims of Russian human rights abuses.

The Kremlin strategically resurfaces these cases of American abuses of Russian orphans when politically expedient. Yakovlev died in 2009, yet the Russian government passed the Dima Yakovlev Law in 2012 – a strategic and retaliatory move against the American human rights sanctions package targeting Russian human rights abusers. Linking these events allowed the Kremlin to call out American “hypocrisy,” undermining American legitimacy. In essence, the Russian government questions how a country can kill orphans and also criticizes Russia’s human rights record. Moreover, by highlighting American cases of abuse and taking action against American parents presumed guilty, Russia pursues global recognition for its efforts to protect human rights worldwide. While many would consider Russia a pariah state, undoubtedly, the world’s perception of Russian human rights abuses matters to the Kremlin. American observers must notice how the Kremlin politically exploits these incidents and weaves them into broader anti-American narratives in addition to the significance of these branding campaigns for Russia’s global image.

Russia’s tit-for-tat foreign policy is part of a larger trend, where the Russian government threatens to shut off the tap of Russian adoptees to “unfriendly” countries acting unfavorably toward Russia. In 2022, Vladimir Putin signed legislation to halt intercountry adoptions between Russia and Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and all EU member states. What do they have in common? A history of “unfriendliness” via sanctions or other punitive actions against Russia. Yet, such decisions affect babyhouses, as Russian orphanages are called. Russian state-owned news agency TASS reported that the number of children adopted abroad decreased by more than 90% between 2012 and 2019. The pattern of using intercountry adoption policies as a form of leverage and as a platform to gain international legitimacy is blatant and continues to affect Russian children today.

The Kremlin’s Resurrection of the 2012 Narrative

In July 2023, the Russian government released a follow-up report about the well-being of Russian orphans adopted by U.S. parents and living in America. It resurrected Russia’s 2012 narrative. The report, published 11 years after Russia banned American adoptions, belatedly justifies the Russian government’s decision to retaliate against the U.S. Magnitsky Act human rights sanctions package. The United States is the only country the report addresses, although other countries have been banned from adopting Russian children.

The report addresses American abuses of the “fundamental inalienable rights of the child” and “mass violations of the legitimate interests of minors.” It calls out various U.S. government organs responsible for avoiding such violations, like the Department of State, Congress, and the judicial system, as well as private organizations like the Family Research Council, citing pronounced failures and deficiencies such as the U.S. refusal to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report goes so far as to call American adoptions “neo-colonial,” harkening to the Soviet Union’s Cold War rhetoric to earn the support of non-aligned states by portraying the West as colonial and racist. Made in great detail, other accusations against American parents include violation of children’s rights, illegal adoptions by same-sex couples, failures of the U.S. judicial system to cooperate with the Russian judicial system, and the U.S. Department of State’s “cover-up” of instances of abuse.

Strategic Timing and Messaging: Russia’s “Humanitarian” Intervention in Ukraine

Why would the Kremlin release this report in 2023 when its political capital is focused on Ukraine? The Kremlin combined the two issues: the delinquent U.S. adoption system and its “sham” concern about Russia’s mass deportation of Ukrainian orphans. The Kremlin’s summer report highlights that Ukraine “replaced Russia in the American market of adoption services.” The report argues that the U.S. has turned to post-Soviet “markets,” like Ukraine, to adopt orphans following Russia’s adoption ban effective in January 2013. The language used to describe U.S. adoptions is acerbic at worst and skeptical at best. But more concerning is Russia’s quick accusation that Ukrainian orphans were moved to Western Ukraine for “their subsequent transfer abroad” – implying the United States played a role in the movement and disappearance of thousands of Ukrainian children. Russia has been deflecting accusations that it is responsible for the disappearance of “as many as 65,000” children to the U.S.

The report’s release is strategically timed for the Kremlin, especially as investigations into Russian war crimes continue. It connects two politically sensitive topics into one message for the international community: 1) undermining U.S. credibility in upholding its citizens’ human rights and 2) displaying Russian “altruism” to adopt Ukrainian orphans during wartime. Russia argues that its human rights record cannot be criticized when Western countries hypocritically violate human rightsthrough “humanitarian” policies.

It is a PR campaign dedicated to bolstering the Russian image domestically and abroad – suggesting that Ukrainian children should be “rescued” by the savior Russian state. This message is widely broadcast across local Russian media channels and on the international stage. The narrative is padded with local press conferences where Russian parents welcome their new Ukrainian children into their homes while, in many cases, Ukrainian families search desperately for their abducted children, sometimes located as far as 2,500 miles away from Ukraine.

Further, the report shifts blame to the West, particularly to the United States, for the whereabouts of missing Ukrainian orphans – entirely denying responsibility even though international organizations, external media outlets, and research institutions have credibly established Russia’s overwhelming responsibility. Russia also deploys the narrative of “sovereignty,” that Western countries should not meddle in other countries’ domestic affairs, all while Russia blatantly violates Ukraine’s sovereignty by waging war. Through this narrative, Russia hopes to box out Western involvement in humanitarian crises and international legal abuses, including deporting an invaded country’s population onto the invader’s territory.

But wouldn’t countries see through Russia’s act? Of course, Ukrainian allies do. It seems absurd to believe that a country actively waging war against a non-aggressor while committing war crimes would be perceived as a benevolent occupant. Russia’s target audience is small – but present. Other authoritarian countries have followed the Russian model of using adoption as an international bargaining chip against the United States. Russia uses global crises to build its reputation among unaligned or Russian-leaning states. Russians “adopting” Ukrainian orphans is no exception and a part of this campaign to win and maintain international allies while soothing domestic concerns simultaneously.

This report and Russia’s deportation campaign demonstrate the importance of international messaging for the Kremlin. Russia is still seeking to win friends and gain influence, all while throwing the modern world order into turmoil by invading a sovereign state. The Kremlin uses normative, Western human rights frameworks to justify its actions and legitimize Russian decision-making and actions – or at least to make it harder for the U.S. and allies to criticize the Russian human rights record without being called hypocrites. The Russian government concluded its report by writing, “despite the attempts of the United States to present itself as the ultimate champion of children’s rights, Washington has nothing to brag about to that effect,” which neatly summarizes Russia’s political aims to undermine Western credibility on human rights issues.

Defeating the Narrative

The West should undermine Russia’s twin narratives of non-responsibility and humanitarian intervention through countries’ various domestic international platforms, from press releases to Tweets to statements at the United Nations. Ukrainian allies should follow the United Kingdom’s lead by relentlessly chastising Russia and drawing international attention to Russia’s ongoing deportation campaign through various outlets. Allies must meet Russia’s humanitarian ruse with the full force of international law and a strong coalition ready to impose tougher penalties on Russia for continuing war crimes against Ukrainian children.

Further, governments should study Russia’s playbook – now clearly known. Many have speculated which country is “next” on Russia’s list after Ukraine. When thinking through these probabilities, governments, NGOs, and private research institutions should consider how Russia could copy and paste this deportation strategy against other post-Soviet states, such as Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, or Georgia, especially when the concept of protecting Russians “abroad” is so pronounced within Russia’s 2023 foreign policy concept. Russia cannot be permitted to continue its war crimes against Ukrainian orphans, to promulgate its image as a defender of orphans’ human rights while committing war crimes against them, or to strategically infuse geopolitics into babyhouses at the expense of orphans’ wellbeing.

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