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At least 900,000 Ukrainians ‘forcibly deported’ to Russia, U.S. says

A farm struck by a Russian missile in eastern Ukraine, seen on July 13. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has deported 900,000 to 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens from Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine in a systemic “filtration” operation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday, in a loud condemnation of Moscow and affirmation of claims that Ukrainian officials have levied for weeks.

Many of those “forcibly deported,” including 260,000 children, some separated from their families, have wound up in isolated regions in Russia’s far east, Blinken said.

“Reports indicate” that Russian forces have taken thousands of children from orphanages in Ukraine and placed them up for adoption in Russia, according to the statement.

Why Russia may be taking Ukrainian children

Reporting by The Washington Post in March showed that Ukrainian civilians were already being deported. Some were taken to Taganrog, a Russian port city on the Sea of Azov. From there, they would be sent by train to cities and towns across Russia. In March, satellite images and videos verified by The Post showed that Russian-backed forces were beginning to build a camp in Bezymenne, in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine.

In late June, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that 1.2 million Ukrainians had been forcibly deported to Russia, including 240,000 children. Two thousand of the children were orphans. The head of the Russian National Defense Control Center, Mikhail Mizintsev, said 2,359,000 Ukrainian “refugees” had moved into Russia, including 371,925 children.

Last week, Courtney Austrian, the deputy chief of the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a speech that 18 “filtration camps” had been identified along both sides of the Ukraine-Russian border. With the help of proxy groups, Russian officials had set up camps in schools, sports centers and cultural institutions in Russian-occupied territories.

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Blinken’s statement cites witness accounts of Russian authorities transporting tens of thousands of people to detention facilities in Donetsk, a Russian-controlled region in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow “reportedly” stored biometric and personal data of civilians and subjected them to invasive searches, according to the statement, which notes that some Ukrainians have been coerced into signing agreements to stay in Russia.

“The unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and is a war crime,” Blinken said, drawing parallels to past Russian filtration operations in Chechnya and elsewhere.

Robert Goldman, a war crimes and human rights expert at American University, said that forced deportations on the scale Blinken describes could amount to genocidal intent.

“It just adds to the sad litany of systematic violations of the most basic prohibitions that we have in the law for things that we did not think that we would see again, since World War II, but they’re happening,” he said.

Residents of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have warned that history is repeating itself.

From 1941 to 1952, a total of half-a-million people from the Baltic states were deported to Russia. The objective of the expulsions was principally political, aimed at purging the region of anti-Soviet forces. Among the first group of people were the men of the Baltic elite, including educators, writers, lawyers and other professionals, along with their families. Later, during “Operation Priboi,” women and children were deported and sent to farms to work. Many died along the way.

Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.