Espreso. Global
Review

Russian Red Cross: linked to Kremlin and participates in militarization of children deported from Ukraine

2 May, 2024 Thursday
13:16

After a four-day meeting, the International Red Cross Movement decided not to suspend the membership of its Russian branch, even though media investigations have revealed numerous violations by the organization since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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The investigation, published by a group of media outlets, was partly based on Kremlin documents that show plans to finance branches of the Russian Red Cross in the occupied territory of Ukraine. Espreso has collected other disturbing episodes related to the organization, which is supposed to preserve neutrality. 

Putin’s man in the Red Cross

The VSquare’s investigation has uncovered a significant link between the Kremlin and the RRC through Pavel Savchuk, who assumed leadership of the RRC in 2021 at the age of 29. 

Photo: Pavel Savchuk/ open sources

During the summer of 2022, he was elected to IFRC’s governing board.

Savchuk's ascent within the Russian political landscape has raised eyebrows. His career trajectory notably accelerated in 2018 when, at just 24 years old, he was appointed to the central staff of the "All-Russia People's Front" (Russian: Общероссийский народный фронт, or ONF), which was recently sanctioned by the European Union. 

One of the ONF's controversial activities includes organizing the "All for Victory!" fundraising campaign, aimed at providing material and financial support to military forces in Donetsk, Luhansk, and the Russian army. This includes purchasing equipment like night vision goggles, thermal and laser sights, and bulletproof vests for units engaged in the war with Ukraine. Additionally, in collaboration with prominent propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, the ONF has actively fundraised for drones to aid reconnaissance units.

The web of Kremlin-supported initiatives expands further with the introduction of another “citizen’s movement” founded by Putin, known as the “Russian Association of Knowledge” (Российское общество Знание), which also benefits from state financial support. The organization’s chairman is Sergey Kiriyenko, first deputy head of the Putin administration, with Pavel Savchuk serving as one of its lecturers, aiming to foster “patriotism” among the youth. In online videos, Savchuk is seen engaging in extensive discussions, using a microphone adorned with the “Z” symbol, recognized as a symbol of the Russian military invasion, while a large “Z” emblem also decorates the wall behind him.

The IFRC and the ICRC acknowledged awareness of Pavel Savchuk's role in the general staff of the ONF. In response to inquiries, the ICRC stated that, to their knowledge, Pavel Savchuk had not been active in the ONF since March 2022 and was no longer a member.

Contradicting this claim, Savchuk was listed on the ONF's website as a member of its general staff until mid-February of this year. It was only after media inquiries to the RRC and the IFRC that his name was removed from the list. Additionally, Savchuk's public resume still indicates his current position with the ONF.

Financing the invasion

Starting in 2022, terrorism has been financed under the guise of the Red Cross brand.

Alongside other controversies, it has come to light from official Russian Red Cross sources that funds are being raised to support Russians mobilized for the war in Ukraine and their families.

This initiative by the Russian Red Cross is closely coordinated with the "all-Russian campaign to help families of military personnel and mobilized citizens #мывместе (We are Together)," initiated by Vladimir Putin. The association and its local branches organize fundraising campaigns that openly contradict the Red Cross's principles by supporting military efforts. They conduct these activities publicly, such as promoting initiatives on social media to send thermal sights, camouflage nets, and other equipment directly to Russian soldiers on the frontline. The primary aim of this organization appears to be ensuring that Putin's soldiers feel strong support from the Russian population while engaging in violence, looting, and killing in Ukraine. 

The Russian Red Cross channels funds into this campaign, which the organization portrays as charitable but which supports activities related to warfare, including tailoring military uniforms and ammunition, fundraising for military drones, and providing food for the military. This list of assistance to Russian soldiers in Ukraine is not exhaustive. 

The campaign even includes a program for children where they are encouraged to design chocolate wrappers for Russian fighters. The promotional materials for this program feature a picture of a fighter with a "Z" symbol against a backdrop of the Russian flag, with slogans like "победа будет za нами" (the victory will be ours), "zov" (three letters that mean "call" in Russian, while playing with the letters "Z," "O" and "V" painted on Russian military vehicles) and "мы вместе."

Despite attempts to distance itself, the Russian Red Cross justifies its actions by claiming it only transfers funds to #мывместе and does not control how these funds are used. However, the public activities and expenditure of funds are readily accessible.

The Russian Red Cross cooperates with an organization close to Putin, not only financially supporting #мывместе but also promoting their activities on its official platforms, thereby popularizing fundraising in support of those involved in the war with Ukraine, which represents a clear violation of the core Red Cross principle of neutrality.

Abuse of Ukrainian POWs in Russian captivity

Radio Liberty reported information from Medusa regarding instances of mistreatment highlighted in the international investigative project Kremlin Leaks. One case involved Orest Hrytsiuk, a Ukrainian POW held in a colony in Horlivka, Donetsk region, from October 2022 to April 2023.

Hrytsiuk described encounters during meal times where individuals claiming to represent the Red Cross made derogatory remarks about Ukrainian prisoners. He recounted, "They give you very little time to eat, and I hated myself for the way I ate... We were forced to eat very quickly, and very hot food. Everything was flying in all directions. And these two men in civilian clothes were walking between the tables, and one of them said: 'Oh, how well they eat, like pigs, Ukrainian pigs. Well, eat, eat, Russia loves and cares about you.'"

Additionally, Hrytsiuk mentioned forced participation in singing Soviet military songs, stating, "The man who called us pigs in the dining room took out his phone, filmed the marching prisoners of war, came up to them, shouted something in their ear and shook his fist above their heads, slapped them on the back and shoulders so that they swayed. He would direct the camera at himself and demonstrate a gesture of victory, just enjoying himself, it was a performance for him... These two had complete carte blanche to walk around the dining room, stay on the parade ground, order songs... they felt comfortable there, high."

Despite Hrytsiuk's testimony, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) refuted claims of their involvement, asserting that individuals identified as Red Cross representatives were not affiliated with them.

When asked about the individuals who claimed to be Red Cross representatives, spoke Russian, and insulted Ukrainian prisoners, Achille Després, the ICRC representative in Ukraine, stated he "does not know who these people are" and "has no reason to believe that the Russian Red Cross was involved."

Facilitating deportation and militarization of kids

The Russian Red Cross (RRC) works with Ukrainians who have ended up in Russia during the war. According to a Russian human rights activist knowledgeable about the organization's activities, RRC employees often house Ukrainian refugees in the same facilities as "participants in the special military operation" (individuals officially considered "veterans" receive psychological support and other services from the organization).

Reports from Verstka indicate that humanitarian aid provided to refugees includes items such as mugs depicting Putin and the letter "Z." Additionally, RRC employees have been reported to behave rudely towards Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, sometimes refusing them assistance.

Moreover, recent evidence reveals that the RRC entered an official partnership with an organization under Western sanctions for "re-educating" children deported from occupied areas of Ukraine by Russia. Additionally, the RRC has ongoing engagements with Russia's patriotic military camps, where children as young as 8 are trained in handling Kalashnikov rifles and close-combat activities.

In January 2024, Pavel Savchuk, chairman of the Russian Red Cross, signed a cooperation agreement with Artek, a children's camp located in the annexed Crimean peninsula. Both the RRC and Artek's websites showcase photos of Savchuk and Artek director Konstantin Fedorenko signing this agreement, described as an initiative to "strengthen cooperation in the education of young people" and "develop the potential of future leaders and responsible citizens."

Artek, owned by the Russian government, is known for controversial practices. It has been accused of detaining children deported from occupied areas of Ukraine. Fedorenko, the Artek director seen with Savchuk during the signing, has been sanctioned by the EU, UK, and US for his role in abducting Ukrainian children and organizing Russian military and patriotic camps for them.

According to the US State Department, Artek receives Ukrainian children who are then subjected to extensive "patriotic re-education programs" and prevented from returning to their families.

The Yale School of Public Health's Humanitarian Research Lab has identified Artek as one of the camps preventing Ukrainian children from returning home during the conflict. Parents struggle to obtain information about their children's status or whereabouts after their return is suspended.

Artek collaborates with Russian authorities and government organizations like the Youth Army (Yunarmia), the attorney general's office, the Special Investigative Committee, the Prison Authority, and the Black Sea Fleet College.

The ultra-patriotic Youth Army movement, supported by the Russian Ministry of Defense and funded through a secret section of the budget designated for the "information war," organizes courses with Artek, including the "Future Commanders" program. This program involves handling military equipment, driving trucks, and studying firearms, all aimed at instilling patriotism and love for Russia among participants.

The IFRC stated that it will consider these findings as part of ongoing claims and investigations, providing an update in its most recent response.

However, Ukraine was outraged by the IFRC's reaction to media reports that the RRC cooperated with the Artek camp in the temporarily occupied Crimea, and that the camp's director was sanctioned for his involvement in the deportation of Ukrainian children.

"The federation's conclusions now say only that 'the partnership of the RRC with the Artek camp requires a serious review. These words look pathetic: when there are facts, action is needed, not consideration of the situation from different sides," Ukrainian Ombudsman Lubinets wrote. He also notes that the IFRC inspection showed that some people from the RRC made political statements that did not comply with the organization's principles. As for the head of the RRC, who signed the agreement with the Artek camp, it is said that he is no longer involved in political organizations in Russia. The Ombudsman adds that "leaving the organization is one thing, but can a person who has been promoting war change his views?"

 

Breaching the rules by working in occupied territories

The Russian Red Cross often chooses to stay silent about its activities in the occupied territories. At times, it conceals its operations in these areas by working through other organizations like the "Donetsk Red Cross" or the "Red Cross Society in the Luhansk People's Republic."

According to documents obtained by VSquare, the Kremlin envisioned the Russian Red Cross (RRC) to replace the International Red Cross operations in the occupied territories of Ukraine. In August 2023, the Donetsk Red Cross branch was officially registered in the Russian state business registry. Interestingly, it is chaired by a Russian citizen who had been presented as an employee of the RRC in Russian state media just a month earlier.

In June 2023, the Russian news agency TASS initially reported that the RRC had delivered the first humanitarian aid shipment to the so-called Donetsk People's Republic. Shortly after, TASS altered the phrasing, stating that the aid delivery was organized by the "Donetsk Red Cross" instead of the RRC.

Simultaneously, TASS released a video featuring Ekaterina Suhachova, introduced as a representative of the Donetsk Red Cross, celebrating the arrival of humanitarian aid from the RRC. The video's title, "The Donetsk Red Cross organization replaces the runaway Committee!", suggests that the ICRC was fleeing the region instead of fulfilling its duties.

However, according to the statutes of the Red Cross movement, only the ICRC is authorized to operate in military conflict zones. This principle has been fundamental throughout the history of the movement. One of the ICRC's crucial tasks is to visit prisoners of war, document their conditions, and ensure humane treatment.

A Red Cross chapter from an occupying state like Russia would only be permitted to operate in occupied territories if authorized by the Ukrainian Red Cross, which has not granted such permission.

According to sources who previously worked for the ICRC, the RRC initially adhered to the movement's principles and refrained from entering occupied territories during the first two months of the invasion. However, in 2023, this changed, and the RRC began operating in these areas. One source mentioned RRC volunteers conducting a humanitarian mission in Mariupol as early as the summer of 2023.

Ariane Bauer, the director of the ICRC's regional operations directorate for Europe and Central Asia, emphasized that there are no employees of the Russian Red Cross in the occupied territories. Bauer clarified that the Donetsk Red Cross comprises local individuals who have united to conduct humanitarian activities and is not part of the RRC.

Similarly, the Luhansk Red Cross, registered in September 2018 by a Russian citizen named Tatyana Sliva, cooperates closely with the authorities of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LNR). Despite not being part of a recognized national Red Cross or Red Crescent society, the ICRC has continued to collaborate with them on humanitarian issues since 2014.

ICRC Public Affairs Advisor Nadia Dibsy confirmed this collaboration, emphasizing ongoing efforts to assist people affected by the war between Russia and Ukraine.

“So far, the IFRC review process found that the Russian Red Cross does not have a presence in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia,” the organization’s report stated.

Ukraine responded, stating “The federation's website states that the RCC has no presence in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions. However, it does not say a word about the RRC operating in Crimea.  

It is known that the RRC stole the property of the National Red Cross Society of Ukraine in Crimea. Criminal proceedings have been opened over this fact, and we demand condemnation of the actions of the RRC. They are criminals!”

 

Ukraine has accused the International Federation of the Red Cross of "turning into a lawyer for Russian criminals” 

Ukraine, represented by its Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, urged the International Federation of the Red Cross to conduct a transparent investigation into the activities of the Russian Red Cross, citing alleged violations of the organization's principles, particularly the principle of neutrality.

On April 26, the official website of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies published an article about the accusations against the Russian Red Cross.

According to Lubinets, "the federation's statement looks like an attempt to save the name and reputation of the Russian Red Cross, and only shows the powerlessness and obsolescence of the system."

The Red Cross — an entity historically revered as one of the most trustworthy and impartial in the world. The organization long regarded as a beacon of humanitarianism is now entangled in a complex web of political ambiguity, where the impartiality it claims to uphold is compromised.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought to light disturbing revelations. Exploiting the guise of neutrality, the Red Cross is complicit in concealing the harsh realities of Russian aggression against Ukrainians, effectively lending its esteemed brand to endorse and, both directly and indirectly, support acts of terror.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) oversees 191 national societies. Collaborating closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which operates in conflict zones like Ukraine, it provides humanitarian aid and ensures access to prisoners of war on both sides. These global bodies rely on funding from governments and donors, often partnering with local chapters. National Red Cross movements coordinate with governments on crisis response, all ostensibly adhering to core principles of "neutrality, impartiality, and independence."

Or do they? 

Many of the Russian Red Cross's (RRC) activities appear to contradict these principles. The global Red Cross movement now faces mounting pressure to address the intertwined relationship between the RRC and the Kremlin's war and propaganda machine.


 
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