Zelensky says Russian action in Donbas is “an obvious policy of genocide”

People gather at a tent camp at the Matveyev Kurgan border checkpoint after evacuating from Donetsk on February 19. (AP)

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been processed through a series of Russian “filtration camps” in eastern Ukraine and sent into Russia as part of a systemized program of forced removal, according to four sources familiar with the latest Western intelligence — an estimate far higher than US officials have publicly disclosed.

After being detained in camps operated by Russian intelligence officials, many Ukrainians are then forcibly relocated to economically depressed areas in Russia, in some cases thousands of miles from their homes, and often left with no means of returning, sources said.

Although some Ukrainians have voluntarily entered filtration camps to try to escape the fighting by entering Russia, many have been picked up against their will at check points and in bomb shelters. After spending an average of around three weeks at the camps — where sources and eyewitnesses say they are held in inhuman conditions, interrogated and sometimes tortured — some are sent across the border into Russia and given state documentation. 

From checkpoints in Rostov and other Russian towns, many Ukrainians are then relocated to far-flung corners across Russia, the sources said. In some cases, Ukrainians have been sent to Sakhalin Island, a distant spit in the Pacific Ocean on Russia’s far east — 10,000 miles from the Ukrainian border. If they are fortunate, sources tell CNN, Russia will provide housing in residential areas and perhaps a Russian SIM card and a small amount of money.

Others are simply dropped off with nothing and expected to survive on their own. Still other Ukrainians are stuck in filtration camps inside Russia, close to their own homes, with no way to leave, other sources added.

Taken together, western intelligence reporting described by CNN sources offers new details that go beyond scattered eyewitness accounts from the region and paints a disturbing picture of a comprehensive resettlement process.

Claims of cultural genocide: It’s all part of Russia’s effort to cement political control over occupied areas, sources say — in part by eliminating Ukrainians believed to be sympathetic to Kyiv and in part by diminishing the Ukrainian national identity through depopulation and what some human rights activists term “cultural genocide.” It’s an indiscriminate system that Russia has employed before, notably during both Chechen wars.

Intelligence officials believe all Ukrainians entering Russia are being processed through these filtration camps. Top US diplomats have already publicly condemned the practice and said these actions constitute war crimes.

“Ukrainians do not necessarily have to be thrown on a back of a truck but many are put in a situation where they don’t have a choice: You get on the bus and go to filtration and then to Russia or you die in the shelling,” said Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia associate director for Human Rights Watch. “These are forced transfers forbidden under the laws of war.”

Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s difficult to confirm precise numbers, and officially, Western estimates vary from tens of thousands to 1 million people. 

But even the more conservative estimates hint at a massive program of forced dislocation on a staggering scale. And even as US officials have publicly cited much lower numbers, the sources say that in reality, it’s clear that at least hundreds of thousands of people have been pushed through the camp system and sent to Russia.

Late last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian armed forces are “doing everything to prevent deaths among the civilian population. Since the beginning of the special military operation, more than 1.37 million people have been evacuated from the dangerous regions of the people’s republic, as well as from Ukraine to Russia.” 

Read the full story here.