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Stolen childhood: Russian propaganda and militarization of Crimean youth.

On December 7, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA) adopted the resolution “Problem of the militarization of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, as well as parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” initiated by Ukraine (Mfa.gov.ua, December 16, 2020). The declaration indicates that the transformation of the peninsula into a huge Russian military base “represents a threat to peace and security well beyond the Black Sea region” (Un.org, December 7, 2020). This was the third year in a row that the UNGA raised such concerns; but this time, new key elements were included in the document. Solomiya Bobrovskaya, the secretary of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) Committee on Foreign Policy and Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation, mentioned that for the first time, the UN resolution includes information regarding the militarization of Crimean youth. From her point of view, this is extremely important for Ukraine since it will attract international attention to the problem (Ru.krymr.com, December 9, 2020). Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba concurs and mentioned that “Ukraine now has a new strong argument to advance the de-occupation of Crimea” (Mfa.gov.ua, December 7, 2020).

The problem of the militarization of children and young people in Crimea is hardly a novelty. Soon after the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, in 2014, the occupying authorities adopted Edict of the Head of the Republic of Crimea No. 522-U “On Approving the Concept of Patriotic and Spiritual-Moral Education of the Population in the Republic of Crimea” (December 18, 2014). One of the main tasks of the Concept is to improve military-patriotic education and form the foundations of patriotism and Russian identity among Crimean children (Docs.cntd.ru, accessed January 5, 2021).

For almost seven years, numerous ministries, departments, public organizations and media controlled by Russia have been successfully implementing these tasks in Crimea, pursuing a purposeful and systematic policy of militarization of local youth.

This established educational system promotes combat training among Crimean children in order to prepare them for military service in the Russian Armed Forces, cultivates a hatred toward Ukraine, as well as applies all methods of misinformation and ideological military propaganda. The head of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol, Ihor Ponochovny (a Ukrainian government official), stated that Russian actions aimed at promoting military service in the Russian army among Crimean children can be qualified as a war crime under Article 8 (2) (a) (v) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Zn.ua, October 1, 2020).

More on the topic: How Russia militarizes minors in occupied Donbas

Olga Skrypnyk, who heads the Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), asserts that the problem of the militarization of Ukrainian children in Crimea has both legal and psychological aspects. Both preschool and school curricula help to influence the worldview of Crimean children, promote the values of the Russian World ( Russkiy Mir ), and propagandize in support of service in the Russian Armed Forces. Such a system undermines the Ukrainian national identity of children and deprives them of the opportunity to freely choose their identity.

Orphans and children from low-income families are particularly vulnerable.

One of the examples of propaganda work targeting this category of children is a special “Yunarmia Mentoring” program launched by the eponymous Yunarmia (“Youth Army”) military-patriotic movement in Crimea. This project also aims to promote military service among these children (Arc.construction, December 20, 2020).

According to information collected jointly by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine and the CHRG, the Russian Federation introduces and implements complex compulsory programs of military-patriotic education in all educational institutions in occupied Crimea for children from preschool age to adults. In particular, Russia has established numerous paramilitary and cadet classes in secondary schools (including cadet classes of the Russian National Guard and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation), cadet groups at kindergartens, Cossack detachments, branches of Yunarmia, as well as specialized military-patriotic camps. The CHRG has outlined that instruction within these organizations is usually conducted by regular (or former) officers of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (Zn.ua, October 1, 2020).

The number of children participating in such organizations and movements has grown every year.

In 2020, already 2,505 students in Crimea (excluding Sevastopol) were enrolled in 109 cadet classes (Krymr.com, December 5, 2020). The children participate in drills and special physical training, take classes on the history of the Motherland (Russia), learn the basics of military affairs, absorb “lessons in courage,” and visit Spetsnaz (special forces) training centers. Many students in these cadet classes are issued and wear camouflage uniforms (E-zdravnitsa.ru, September 4, 2019).

More on the topic: Indoctrination campaign for kids reveals identity crisis of Kremlin’s proxy “republics” in Donbas (2017)

Television also plays an important role in anti-Ukrainian propaganda and the militarization of children in Crimea.

TV and mass media shape the behavior of young minds, form their identity, ingrain stereotypes, as well as contribute to anti-Ukrainian sentiments and the militarization of their consciousness.

At the same time, freedom of speech in Crimea has become critically curtailed. As monitoring by the CHRG shows, Ukrainian websites, radio stations and some satellite TV channels are constantly blocked to the peninsula’s residents (Zn.ua, May 15). Propaganda and militarization are also promoted through military games. In May, Sevastopol hosted the Zarnitsa children’s military-patriotic games, organized by the Night Wolves Russian motorcycle club. About 300 schoolchildren took part (Yugsn.ru, May 19). Another way to influence the impressionable, developing minds of Crimean children is to involve the Russian Orthodox Church in the process of spreading ideological and military propaganda. For example, priests take the oath of allegiance to Russia from the cadets of Cossack classes in Crimea. For children, religion, patriotism and Russian identity are thus linked together (Zn.ua, May 15, 2020).

Russian soldiers traine Crimean children to handle weapons, central square in Kerch, summer of 2020. Photo: open source

Crimean children wear replicas of Soviet military uniforms during a performance titled “We are the heirs of victory”, Sevastopol, April 19, 2020. Photo: Krymr.org (RFE/RL)

Crimean children wear replicas of Soviet military uniforms during a performance titled “We are the heirs of victory”, Sevastopol, April 19, 2020. Photo: Krymr.org (RFE/RL)

A little girl’s military cap reads “Thank you, Grandpa!” at Victory Day celebrations in Sevastopol on May 9, 2018. Photo: Aleksandra Surhan (RFE/RL)

Russian combat instructors train Crimean children to use military weapons

Russian combat instructors train Crimean children to use military weapons

Crimean children cadets of the Cossack military school

Crimean children cadets of the Cossack military school

Crimean children cadets of the Cossack military school

Despite numerous economic and ecological problems facing the annexed peninsula (see EDM, February 26, 2020, August 12, 2020, December 8, 2020), Crimea’s occupying authorities plan to continue to focus on this aggressive propaganda and the militarization of local youth over the coming year. Some of the children who are or will soon be exposed to these policies were already born under the Russian occupation; others, due to their age, were unable to decide whether to stay in Crimea or leave it following the annexation, and now they are unable to choose their educational system or language of instruction. Crimean schools today cultivate hatred toward Ukraine and love of Russia. From its side, Ukraine will have to continue to collect evidence of this militarization of childhood and appeal to the international community to take a stronger stand against such Russian policies.

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