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It was used in Russia's propaganda videos – tells about threats and texts

It was used in Russia's propaganda videos – tells about threats and texts

In the fall of 2022, fighting swept through southern Ukraine. Russia took control of the strategically important city of Kherson and its orphanage.

Denis Kostev was 16 years old when he was asked to pack his things from the orphanage where he lived. He and the other children were told they had to leave town.

A few months later, Kostev's face appeared on television and in videos published by Russian authorities. A steady stream of pro-Russian videos is being shared widely online.

“When your life is threatened, you will do anything to keep yourself safe,” he says now Reuters.

Watch the video: Ukraine: “Cockroach” will be used on the front line

One in 4000

Denis Kostev, now 18, is one of 4,000 orphans and children without caregivers who, according to Ukraine, were illegally transferred to Russian-controlled areas after Ukraine's February 2022 invasion.

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Russia, on the other hand, says it did not do anything illegal and only transferred the children to protect them from the war.

The International Criminal Court issued two arrest warrants for Maria Lvova Belova, Russia's Ombudsman for Children, and Russian President Vladimir Putin last year on charges of war crimes over the deportation of hundreds of children from Ukraine.

Russia condemned the arrest orders, calling them “unfair and unacceptable.”

Collaborative and supportive

Denis Kostev left Russia a little less than a month ago and now resides in Poland. He has no plans to return to Ukraine any time soon. There, he feared the videos had created an image of him as a Russian collaborator and propagandist.

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Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities claim that many orphans transferred to Russian-controlled territory were the subject of a coordinated program to get them to accept the Kremlin's ideology.

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Russia denies this.

The fate of the 18-year-old is one of more than 50 orphan stories followed and investigated by Reuters.

Kostev's story cannot be independently verified, but several other people have described similar experiences in which they were deterred or prevented from returning to Ukraine, and threatened with retaliation if they did not do what they were told.

Denis Kostev hopes his papers are in order so he can reach his grandmother and half-brother in Germany. Photography: Reuters/Alexandra Schmigel

– They threatened me

After several months in camps in Russian-controlled Crimea, Kostev ended up in Henichesk, a city in the Russian-occupied Kherson region. There, Kostev says, they were housed in cold, damp dormitories in a school.

Kostev complained about the circumstances that shocked him. Shortly thereafter, Henitsysk police showed up.

They threatened me and said: We will take you to the forest and beat you. “No one will look for you, you are an orphan,” says Kostev.

In March 2023, about a month after their arrival in Henichesk, two men carrying weapons and showing identification indicating they were from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) allegedly showed up at the school.

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He says the men expelled Kostev from school and wanted to get to know him. After that, the FSB men gave Kostev 500 rubles (58 kroons).

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In the following weeks, they contacted Kostev to request information. They were searching for possible locations of Ukrainian weapons in Kherson and the names of others at the school who might be in contact with Ukrainian security services.

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Kostev claims that he did not provide any specific details.

Praise for the Russian army

Kostev continues to say that the school administration ordered him to participate in video interviews.

In one interview, filmed by Russia's state-owned television channel RT and published in February 2023, Kostev praised the Russian army and carried a Russian flag around his shoulders.

He now claims that reporters gave him a pre-written script and asked him to repeat it on camera.

But in his interview with Reuters, Kostev presents several arguments that Russia uses to justify the war.

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He believes that Ukraine is prolonging the war by rejecting peace negotiations, and that Ukrainian forces blew up a dam on the Dnipro River in June 2023.

Ukraine described the controversial views as lies.

Kostev denies being brainwashed. It is believed that he arrived at his opinions on his own.

“I am part of Russia and Ukraine,” he says.