Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, who has been accused by the International Criminal Court of the war crime of forcibly deporting Ukrainian children from areas of the country occupied by Russian forces, on Tuesday rejected that characterization of her actions as “a farce” and instead sought to portray her work as a humanitarian project.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, the commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, has used her authority to transfer to Russia what Ukraine says are as many as 16,000 children. Some of the children have described a wrenching process of coercion, deception and force, with many placed in homes to become Russian citizens and subjected to re-education.
In a highly symbolic step, the International Criminal Court last month accused Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, of war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest, citing his responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children. It also issued a warrant for the arrest of Ms. Lvova-Belova, the public face of the Kremlin-sponsored program.
Speaking at a news conference in Moscow organized by Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday, Ms. Lvova-Belova sought to portray the commission’s actions as humanitarian assistance that the Russian authorities in war-torn regions of Ukraine had sought, to rescue the children from the fighting.
Referring to the accusations against her, she said, “For now this all looks like a farce.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council, in Geneva, passed a resolution later on Tuesday demanding that Russia provide access to and information about Ukrainian children who had been forcibly transferred to Russia and other territories under its control. The text cited the movement of “children, including those from institutional care.”
Ms. Lvova-Belova is reviled in Ukraine, where she is labeled a war criminal. But at home she is portrayed as the archetype of women revered in Mr. Putin’s Russia: a mother to 10 children, half of whom are adopted; and a priest’s wife whose focus is on children’s care.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, on Tuesday called the arrest warrants and Western news media coverage of Ms. Lvova-Belova’s work “hypocrisy” and said that such coverage continued a pattern of “yearslong harassment.”
Russia does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and Ms. Lvova-Belova said that Moscow had not received any documents from the court concerning the accusations.
On Tuesday, Ms. Lvova-Belova claimed that about five million people had come to Russia from the Donbas region of Ukraine since February 2022, of whom about 730,000 were children. She said that while most of the children had come with their families, “about 2,000” orphans and other children who had been abandoned and were living in institutions were brought to Russia.
Kyiv contends that many of these children were in institutions because their parents could not provide for them, but that their parents were alive and would have later taken the children back.
Ms. Lvova-Belova insisted that the children’s transfer to Russia was legal and appropriate, because the heads of institutions in the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions were considered the children’s legal guardians and therefore empowered to give consent to their move.
“These children know who has been shooting at them for the last eight years,” Ms. Lvova-Belova said, referring to Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region who have battled against pro-Russian forces there since 2014.
“Now we are protecting them,” she said.
“If I were to turn these children over to Ukraine, that’s when you should put me before a court,” she added.
Ms. Lvova-Belova has also been criticized for organizing a network of children’s summer camps, where families there were promised a two-week summer vacation in Russia for their children as a break from the hostilities. When Ukraine reclaimed the areas in September, many of the children had not been able to leave the camps and were still stranded there.
Ms. Lvova-Belova insisted on Tuesday that all children who attended the camps had been “sent with parental consent.” She said that about 2,000 Ukrainian children had been sent to what she called “rehabilitation” camps to get a break from regions experiencing violence, and that of those 18 were still waiting to return to their parents. They have been unable to reunite because of their parents’ proximity to the front line or inability to come and pick them up, she said.
“We did not force anyone,” she said.