top of page

Russia is turning Ukrainian teenagers into soldiers.

By Ivana Kottasová, Olga Voitovych and Svitlana Vlasova

Teenagers attend a ceremony at a military-patriotic educational camp in Russia's southern Rostov region on June 9, 2023.

AFP/Getty Images

Russian forces deported Bohdan Yermokhin from the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol in the spring of 2022, flew him to Moscow on a government plane and placed him into a foster family. He was sent to a patriotic camp near the capital where flag-waving staff praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and tried to teach him nationalistic songs.

The Ukrainian teenager was given a Russian passport and sent to a Russian school. And then, in the fall of 2023, not long before his 18th birthday, he received a summons from a Russian military recruitment office.

Yermokhin, who’s now back in Ukraine and recovering from his ordeal in Kyiv, told CNN he believed this was the last step in Russia’s attempt to bully him into submission – a bid to sign him up as a soldier to fight against his own people.

“(I was told that) Ukraine was losing, that children were used for organ donations there, and that I would be sent to war right away. I told them that if I was sent to the war, at least I would fight for my own country, not for them,” he said.

Yermokhin was part of a group of children known as the “Mariupol 31,” who were taken to Russia. Ukrainian authorities estimate that 20,000 children have been forcibly transported to Russia since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022. More than 2,100 children remain missing, according to

official statistics, but the government says the real number could be much higher.

Bohdan Yermokhin, 18, in central Kyiv.

Ivana Kottasova/CNN

Last March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin and the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, for their alleged role in abducting and deporting Ukrainian children. Russia has publicly acknowledged the transfer of Ukrainian children without guardians, despite some having guardians or parents.

Ukraine’s human rights commissioner Dmytro Lubinets said his office was convinced that Russia’s efforts to turn Ukrainian teenagers deported to Russia – or living in occupied areas of the east – into soldiers were part of a wider drive by Putin to erase the Ukrainian identity. It is also an opportunity for Moscow to replenish its forces on the front lines.

“It’s not theoretical,” he said. “We now have examples of forcible mobilization of Ukrainian people. All Ukrainian teenagers held in Russia, when they turn 18, they are put on a (recruitment) list of Russian military,” told CNN.

(I was told that) Ukraine was losing, that children were used for organ donations there, and that I would be sent to war right away. I told them that if I was sent to the war, at least I would fight for my own country, not for them.”
Bohdan Yermokhin

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, it is illegal under the Geneva Conventions for an occupying power to compel or pressure the local population to serve in its armed forces. Human Rights Watch has said Russia is committing a war crime by doing so.

But Lubinets told CNN that Ukrainian authorities have seen Russian officials do just that in occupied areas, compelling Ukrainians to serve. The conscription efforts start with the opening of regional offices for various Russian government departments, including health and social services.

“Then comes education. All schools must use new books where the message is that Ukraine and the Ukrainian nation never existed and that Ukrainian children have always been Russian children,” Lubinets told CNN.

“The next step is forcing everyone to take Russian passports. If you don’t, you can’t access any services, you can’t get medical care in hospitals, for example… and the next step is mobilization. All men in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine are put in a special recruitment database for the Russian military.”

Yermokhin said he went through the entire process described by Lubinets — although he said the Russians didn’t seem very consistent at times.

“I was always told that I was from Russia and that I was born in Russia, that there is no Ukraine, and that it simply did not exist, that Mariupol was Russia. But in my Russian passport, my place of birth was listed as ‘Ukraine, the city of Mariupol,’” he said, smirking.

Lvova-Belova herself confirmed that Yermokhin received a Russian passport and military summons. In a statement posted on her Telegram channel in November she said that the summons was not unusual, because “all citizens of Russia receive” it. She said that since Yermokhin was still a student, he would be able to defer his military service until after finishing his education.

‘We are losing these children’

Many of the children deported to Russia came from socially vulnerable Ukrainian families. Some had been orphaned or were placed in foster homes when their birth parents became unable to care for them.

It’s these children that Mykola Kuleba is most worried about. He heads Save Ukraine, a Kyiv-based non-governmental organization that specializes in bringing deported children back to Ukraine.

“We are losing these children. Many of them will never come back because they are growing up with this poison, with this horrible propaganda, they are very vulnerable to it,” he said.

Yermokhin said he saw this firsthand. He spent years living with foster families and in group homes after losing his parents as a small child and was in a boarding school in Mariupol when Russian troops took over the city in May 2022.

“Many of us were abandoned by our guardians, abandoned by foster parents during the war… and then the Russians come in and they act in this hypocritical way, offering warmth and pretending that they care, and these children see this and think, well, this is better than it was there (in Ukraine),” Yermokhin said.

How one Ukrainian teen was deported to Russia before being summoned to fight

Bohdan Yermokhin is one of the nearly 20,000 children Ukraine says have been deported to Russia. He was taken from Mariupol to Moscow in the spring of 2022. He was given a Russian passport and placed into a foster family. Shortly before his 18th birthday, he received a summons from the Russian military.

Bohdan’s journey

1 Mariupol Occupied Ukraine

Bohdan was among a group of children known as the "Mariupol 31," who were taken from the city by Russian troops, according to Ukrainian authorities.

2 Donetsk Occupied Ukraine

He was first taken to Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been controlled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014.

3 Moscow Russia

Bohdan was then transported by plane to Moscow,

where he was placed in a foster family.

He said this happened to Filip, his best friend from Mariupol, who was reportedly adopted by Lvova-Belova.

“His foster parents abandoned him in Mariupol during the war and he hadn’t seen any warmth since his (birth) mother died. Now he has it… but I want him to know that we are waiting for him here.”

“Out of the four of us mates from Mariupol, three are now here (in Ukraine) and we are waiting for him,” he added.

The office of Lvova-Belova did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. However, in a statement posted to her Telegram channel in November 2022, Lvova-Belova recalled adopting a teenage boy called Filip from Mariupol.

“If you look at history, Russians have done this (before), they also took children out of Chechnya and now these children (now adults) are fighting for them,” Yermohkin said, referring to Russia’s wars to reclaim the breakaway republic of Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Kuleba said there is no doubt that the deportations are part of a wider strategy. “It’s a Russian strategy to turn Ukrainian children into Russian children and militarize them. They are kidnapping children, and they are erasing their identity, because they want to destroy the Ukrainian nation,” he said.

Singing the Russian anthem, wearing Russian uniform

Sixteen-year-old Artem’s experience is eerily similar to that of Yermokhin. He too feels like he was being groomed to become a Russian soldier.

He was one of 13 children taken by Russian soldiers from a school in the Kharkiv region in 2022. “We had no choice whether to go or not. We were told we were being evacuated, boys, girls, and small children,” he said.

CNN spoke to Artem at a Kyiv center for children who have been returned from Russian captivity. His social worker was present during the interview but did not interfere in the conversation. Save Ukraine, which runs the center, asked CNN not to release Artem’s last name due to his age.

“The Russian soldiers asked us whether we were (supporting) Ukraine or Russia. And we did not answer anything. The younger children were crying, and we tried to calm them down. We were scared ourselves, but we had to comfort the small children,” he added.

Artem said the group was taken to several locations within occupied areas of Ukraine before being brought to the city of Luhansk, where they started school.

“All the lessons were in Russian, and we were always told that Ukrainians were killing Russians,” he said.

“It was clear they wanted us to turn against Ukraine, but we made a pact (with the other children from his school) that we would not give into the attempts to turn us into Russians and we did not speak Russian,” he said, adding that the smaller children in the group were more at risk of being influenced by the propaganda and were often kept away from the older Ukrainian kids.

“We went to classes every day and were told to sing the Russian anthem. We tried to stand back and pretended to sing, but we did not sing,” he added.

The worst part, Artem said, was the uniform.

When I saw myself in the uniform in photos and videos on the Internet, I thought for myself that I was a traitor and that I betrayed Ukraine, I swapped Ukraine for Russia… even though I knew I was forced to do it.”

He said he and the other older children from the cohort were made to wear a uniform that was very similar to the Russian military uniform and had the letter Z — a symbol of support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — on its sleeve.

“It was made of rough material, similar in color to the uniforms of the Russian military. We were given it and told that when there were holidays, we had to wear it,” he said. “I really thought that this was it and that they gave me the uniform because I might be sent to the Russian army. It was scary.”

Artem said it was impossible to refuse — the teachers threatened the children with severe punishment if they failed to wear the uniform. Yet even then, he felt horrible about putting it on – especially when he found out he was used by Russia for propaganda machine in nationalistic videos.

In one video, Artem is seen with a group of children receiving boxes of tangerines from uniformed members of the National Guard. The children are prompted by their teacher to say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” and give a thumbs up.

CNN has seen several images of Artem wearing uniform-like clothing at the boarding school in the occupied city of Luhansk. He is shown wearing a camouflage top and trousers with a black armband that prominently features a white letter Z in two photographs, one of which shows him sitting in a classroom during a lesson.

In another, he is in what appears to be a full replica of a Russian military uniform during what the school described as a celebration of the Russian national holiday known as “Defender of the Fatherland Day.” All the photographs were published by the school and are still publicly accessible.

“When I saw myself in the uniform in photos and videos on the Internet, I thought for myself that I was a traitor and that I betrayed Ukraine, I swapped Ukraine for Russia… even though I knew I was forced to do it,” he said.

Ultimately, both Artem and Yermokhin are among the lucky ones – they have managed to return to Ukraine.

Artem said he got hold of a cell phone and was able to reach his mother, who had spent six months not knowing what had happened to him. She was able to locate him and get him back home with the help of Save Ukraine.

Yermokhin tried to escape Russia twice, once through Belarus and once through occupied Crimea, but was caught and returned to Moscow on both occasions.

The Ukrainian authorities and his lawyer had been trying to get him out of Russia for some time before he received his Russian military summons, but those attempts were unsuccessful. He was only allowed by Russia to return to Ukraine upon his 18th birthday.

They tried to break me… Thinking of it all now, I am shocked that I got through it.”

Ukrainian authorities do not reveal the details of negotiations that lead to the return of Ukrainian children. They said a number of international organizations and third countries, including Qatar, were involved in Yermokhin’s repatriation.

Thousands of Ukrainian children remain in Russia and, according to Save Ukraine, some of them have been enrolled in military and naval academies across the country. The charity says it has been able to return 251 children to Ukraine so far and is helping them to readjust.

Every Monday for more than a year, Yermokhin recalled, he was expected to sing the Russian anthem during a flag-raising ceremony at his school. He tried to avoid it but, when forced to attend, found a way to avoid listening to the anthem and the nationalistic lecture that followed.

“There is such a thing as headphones,” he said. “You put them on and sit there, and no one sees what you’re doing.”

Looking back at his experience, Yermokhin said he might not have realized at the time how much pressure he was under. “They tried to break me,” he said. “Thinking of it all now, I am shocked that I got through it.”

© 2024 Cable News Network.


Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
bottom of page