Russia is effectively deploying children in the interests of its aggression against Ukraine in Donbas, and this is not only about military games or competitions. Through systematic militarization and indoctrination, children at preschool and school level are being taught that they should love and defend Russian proxy Donbas "republics" and that Ukraine is essentially the enemy.
The danger this poses cannot be overstated, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reports. Six years is a long time for children, many of whom will simply not remember a time before the "republics" emerged. This means that the anti-Ukrainian narrative will go unchallenged.
Although Moscow continues to deny its pivotal role in the conflict in Donbas and its control over the self-proclaimed "Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics" [DPR/LPR], the methods of indoctrination and the "military-patriotic" activities are essentially identical to those used in occupied Crimea and in Russia itself.
According to Vera Yastrebova, Head of the Eastern Human Rights Groups, Russia is spending millions of dollars on various projects aimed at inculcating the "Russian World" ideology and raising a generation of Ukrainians who essentially hate Ukraine. She warns that when Ukraine regains control over Donbas, its residents will have become a pro-Russian electorate. This, and the resulting destabilization of Ukraine, are very clearly, Moscow's strategic objective.
Rights watchdogs have long warned of the danger all of this presents. Vostok SOS points out that under the guise of "military-patriotic education", children and youths are being fed anti-Ukrainian propaganda, offering a distorted view of reality in which Russia is a great friend of heroic "republics" fighting a "civil war" against Kyiv.
Pavlo Lysiansky, Representative in Donbas for Ukraine's Human Rights Ombudsperson, also predicts that for the first 15 years after Donbas returns to Ukrainian government control, there is likely to be a pro-Russian population there still influenced by Russian propaganda. He suggests that Ukraine should consider taking the example of post-War Germany which invested money and efforts in the political education of its population so that the horrors of Nazism were never repeated.
Psychologist Valentin Kim warns that children are extremely susceptible to influences and that there will certainly be huge issues with integrating kids who have undergone such ideological indoctrination. He points out that they have been growing up in an unrecognized territory, viewing the world beyond as hostile. They are likely to be better prepared for ideological debate than kids raised in government-controlled Ukraine, where children simply learn to live in an open world, without any fixed ideology as such. He believes that the vast majority would not be ready to hold discussions on geopolitics or the war in Donbas, and therefore, confronted by peers brought up in occupied Donbas, are likely to lose arguments.
Changing ideology is a difficult and lengthy process, but it can and must be tailored systematically, with the proper socio-pedagogical infrastructure. One important point is that children should not be left to communicate only with peers from the same background. Lumped together as "Donbas kids", they will inevitably view themselves as different, which will only strengthen their ideological separatism. The good side of things is that, unlike adults, kids are much more flexible and able to change their attitudes.
The downside, KHPG believes, is that the government in Ukraine does not seem to have understood the looming threat. In parts of government-controlled Donbas, there are certain areas where Ukrainian television broadcasts fail to reach, while Russian propaganda channels remain the only source of news for the locals.
"It is not without cause that human rights groups are warning that this is an issue of national security," the report concludes. "The warnings should be heeded."