Russian ‘Filtration’ System Deports, Erases Ukrainians
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has slowed to a deadly slog, Russia is rapidly reshaping the territories it controls into its own image. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called out Russia’s “systematic ‘filtration’ operations and forced deportations” in a July 13 press statement.
“Estimates from a variety of sources, including the Russian government, indicate that Russian authorities have interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia — often to isolated regions in the Far East,” said Blinken. Russian actions which pass under the name of “filtration” include “separating families, confiscating Ukrainian passports, and issuing Russian passports in an apparent effort to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine.”
Demographic makeup plays a more important role in eastern European politics than in American politics. While the American identity has always centered primarily around certain commonly held ideas and principles, national identities often rely much more heavily on ethnicity. More importantly, expansionistic leaders have historically attempted to justify their territorial ambitions in eastern Europe on the basis of demographics, such as Adolf Hitler claiming the Sudetenland in 1938.
Before Putin’s invasion, the only Ukrainian region with a Russian ethnic majority was the Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014. However, in Ukraine’s easternmost oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk, ethnic Russians comprise a substantial minority (approximately 40%), and Russian-speakers comprise a majority. Since 2014, Russia has sponsored separatist fighters in Donetsk and Luhansk and has recognized the regions as independent from Ukraine. Their efforts to “change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine” may be aimed at effecting a Russian majority in these regions, to justify official annexation.
Blinken warned that the “filtration” campaign bore sinister similarities to other filtration operations. “Moscow’s actions appear pre-meditated and draw immediate historical comparisons to Russian ‘filtration’ operations in Chechnya and other areas,” he said. In the 1990s, Russia brutally suppressed a separatist movement in the far-southern region of Chechnya; there, “filtration camps” were used for grotesque torture and killing of civilians. While it’s unclear if their filtration system for Ukrainians is quite as evil as that for Chechens, it certainly doesn’t seem pleasant. Blinken continued, “eyewitnesses and survivors of ‘filtration’ operations, detentions, and forced deportations report frequent threats, harassment, and incidents of torture by Russian security forces.”
However brutal it may be, the Russian filtration system for Ukrainians seems calculated to erase, or at least dilute, Ukrainian identity. “Reports also indicate Russian authorities are deliberately separating Ukrainian children from their parents and abducting others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia,” explained Blinken. “During this process, Russian authorities also reportedly capture and store biometric and personal data, subject civilians to invasive searches and interrogations and coerce Ukrainian citizens into signing agreements to stay in Russia, hindering their ability to freely return home.”
For some Ukrainian civilians, Russia’s filtration system is fatal. “Evidence is mounting that Russian authorities are also reportedly detaining or disappearing thousands of Ukrainian civilians who do not pass ‘filtration,’” warned Blinken. “Those detained or ‘filtered out’ include Ukrainians deemed threatening because of their potential affiliation with the Ukrainian army, territorial defense forces, media, government, and civil society groups. … There are reports that some individuals targeted for ‘filtration’ have been summarily executed, consistent with evidence of Russian atrocities committed in Bucha, Mariupol, and other locations in Ukraine.”
After Putin failed to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in the spring, Russia has focused its war aims on solidifying control in the east and south. By now, some Ukrainian regions have been under solid Russian control for months. In others, like Luhansk, Russia has almost completely driven Ukrainian forces from the region. There is no accountability, nor restraint, and hardly any public awareness of Russian activities in these regions.
Blinken warned Putin that his forces would “not be able to engage in these systematic abuses with impunity,” but that America would support Ukrainian and international efforts to “collect, document, and preserve evidence of atrocities.” He demanded that Russia allow independent observers into its filtration camps, arguing that “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.”
According to U.N. data, 9.1 million people have crossed the border from Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24 — approximately 20% of the country’s total population. The largest single recipient of border crossings is Russia, to which 1.6 million Ukrainians have gone. However, given the reports filtering out from the camps, it’s unclear how many of the border crossings were voluntary. Given the Russian military’s penchant for bombing civilian targets, even behind their own lines, some Ukrainians could have voluntarily chosen to flee to Russia’s unmerciful arms as the safest of two terrible alternatives.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has now dragged on for nearly five months, and it can be difficult to keep it on our radar amid a near stalemate, uncertain reporting, and the distraction of domestic crises. But Russia’s atrocities are too brazen to overlook. We may not be able to stare fixedly at the conflict, but we should still take stock from time to time — and shudder. These tragedies must not be ignored or forgotten.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.