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How the Kremlin is weaponising children for its propaganda

Russia uses emotional pictures of children to legitimise its war on Ukraine, and targets children themselves with disinformation.

By Isabeau van Halm

On 11 May Lyosha Pavlichenko was still an anonymous Russian eight-year-old. Within a few days, however, he would be lauded as a national hero and a symbol of patriotism after he was filmed running toward Russian tanks passing his house in the Belgorod region. Through a propaganda campaign started by the state-owned TV station Zvezda and the Russian Ministry of Defence, the story of Lyosha greeting the Russian soldiers turned him into the poster boy for nationalism.

By the end of May Lyosha had become a member of the Russian “Youth Army”, a military youth group established by the Ministry of Defence, at a celebration that featured the Olympic gymnast Nikita Nagornyy. His face was even printed on a chocolate bar.

Lyosha’s case is the first discussed in a new report by the Centre for Information Resilience, a non-profit that exposes human rights violations. The CIR’s report explores how Russia is using Russian and Ukrainian children to deflect responsibility for the invasion, romanticise the war and indoctrinate children in occupied areas.

The author of the report, Belén Carrasco Rodríguez, started looking into cases of children being used for propaganda when she was gathering evidence for other investigations related to the war in Ukraine. “I noticed an increasing amount of propaganda material that purely targeted children. I wondered: is there a pattern?” says Rodríguez. “I soon realised that Russian propaganda is not only targeting children but also strategically using them to spread their narratives and to legitimise the war.”

Other than using specific children as propaganda tools, like in the case of Lyosha, Russia uses a technique called cognitive hacking, using images of children to trigger emotional responses from the audience. An example of this is images of Russians providing aid to Ukrainian children.

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“Seeing a young victim of the war being aided by Russian troops triggers overpowering emotional responses,” explains Rodríguez. “With such images, you don’t immediately perceive the Russians as the occupiers and as those responsible for the suffering. Instead, you see a child in need that is receiving help, and it can generate feelings of gratitude.”

More harmful is propaganda that directly targets children. In occupied areas, Ukrainian children are being "Russified", the report claims. Thousands of Ukrainian children have gone missing since the beginning of the invasion and been taken to Russia. In Mariupol and Kherson, occupying forces have introduced "ABC of Donbas" and "ABC of Kherson" textbooks in classrooms, containing details about “Russia, our Motherland”.

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In Mariupol, badly damaged by bombing during the two-month siege, the occupiers also instructed teachers and others working with children to make videos of students singing the Russian anthem on Russia Day, according to Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor. “Video recordings will be widely distributed to confirm the ‘joy of the arrival of Russia’,” he wrote on Telegram. “In case of refusal to comply, teachers are threatened with arrest and exclusion from the lists for receiving humanitarian aid for them and their families.”

Using children for propaganda is not new. In the time of the Soviet Union there was propaganda specifically aimed at the younger generation: posters urging children to behave, textbooks to indoctrinate children with communist values, and youth groups such as the Young Pioneers and Komsomol. In modern Russia patriotic education and military celebrations featuring children have been a trend for years. “Children have been very visible in the nationalist celebrations, such as Victory Day, for a while now," says Joanna Szostek, lecturer in political communication at the University of Glasgow. "That has obviously increased in the context of the war.” There is, however, one major difference between Soviet and current propaganda. “Soviet television was kind of dull," says Szostek. “Now, everything is very deliberately sensationalised and emotional.”

The images are particularly effective, according to Rodríguez, because the children are seen as innocent and vulnerable, which easily triggers the strong emotions that propagandists are looking for.

So far Russia hasn’t been very effective at influencing foreign audiences. However, as the war advances, the Kremlin’s information strategies are becoming more sophisticated. Rodríguez fears those strategies, combined with growing "Ukraine fatigue" felt in the West, could lead to Russian propaganda being spread further outside its borders. “I can see that on the one hand, the media are starting to focus less on covering Ukraine and more on other issues in the world,” she explains. “At the same time, Russia continues to push their anti-Ukrainian narratives. They are using fake accounts mimicking researchers and fact-checkers to spread deep fakes and other fake content. As other media aim their focus elsewhere, it’s getting more difficult for remaining researchers to verify this content.”

For Szostek, it is important to look at the values conveyed in propaganda, instead of focusing only on disinformation and the distortion of facts. “The values that are promoted in Russian propaganda, to me, are a crucial element in the toxicity of it,” Szostek explains.

“I think we need to educate people not just on how to check facts, but also how to check their emotional reaction. To make them aware of the dangers of nationalism, and reinforce the values that democracies stand on, like tolerance and respect for human life. The kind of values that the Russian state continues to throw out of the window.”

[See also: Russian actions, not diplomacy, will shape Africa’s fortunes]