By Polina Nikolskaya and Mari Saito

WARSAW (Reuters) – A teenage orphan who became the poster boy for Moscow’s deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia said he was ordered by officials to make pro-Russian arguments for television cameras and was threatened with a beating when he spoke out complained about the conditions.

18-year-old Denys Kostev is one of 4,000 orphans and children without parental care who Kiev says were unlawfully taken to Russian-controlled territory following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia says it did nothing wrong and only moved the children to protect them from war.

Reuters investigated the fate of Kostev and more than 50 other orphaned Ukrainians abducted from the Ukrainian city of Kherson. Kostev emerged as a regular participant in a series of pro-Russian videos that were filmed and widely shared on the Internet.

The teenager, who left Russia last month and now lives in Poland, said he has no plans to return to Ukraine, where some consider him a collaborator and propagandist. He told Reuters that he took part in the videos because he felt intimidated and “alone.”

“If your life is threatened, you will do everything you can to protect yourself,” he said.

The Kremlin and Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, did not respond to requests for comment.

The International Criminal Court last year issued arrest warrants against Lvova-Belova and Russian President Vladimir Putin on war crimes charges over the forcible deportation of hundreds of children from Ukraine. Russia called the arrest warrants “outrageous and unacceptable.”

Kiev says many Ukrainian orphans taken to Russian-controlled territory were subjected to an orchestrated program to get them to accept Kremlin ideology. Moscow denies this.

Reuters could not independently verify Kostev’s account that he was pressured by officials loyal to Moscow.

However, three teenage orphans who lived with him in Russian-occupied territory told Reuters similar experiences of being discouraged or prevented from returning to Ukraine and threatened with reprisals for stepping out of line.

“Nobody will look for you”

Kostev spent his childhood in foster families and children’s homes in the Kherson region after his mother was imprisoned and later died.

In the fall of 2022, when Kherson was under Russian occupation, Kostev and five other teenagers living in an orphanage there were told by the local administration that they had to leave the city.

After several months in camps in Russian-controlled Crimea, the young people ended up in Henichesk, a city in Russian-occupied territory in the Kherson region. They were housed in cold, damp dormitories at Henichesk Vocational School No. 27, Kostev said.

Kostev was shocked by the conditions and complained to a contact close to the authorities deployed by Russia in Crimea. Shortly afterwards, he said, the Henichesk police showed up and reprimanded him for the complaint.

“They (the police) threatened me and said: We will take you to the forest and just beat you up,” he said. “No one will look for you, you are an orphan,” Kostev said, sharing his memory of her words.

The region’s police chief in Moscow did not respond to a request for comment. Olena Anikeeva, the school’s director, was unavailable, a person in her office said.

In March 2023, about a month after arriving in Henichesk, Kostev said he received a call from a city government official who told him to meet someone outside the university.

There he found two men carrying weapons and wearing badges indicating they were from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The men expelled Kostev from the college and wanted to get to know him, he said. The FSB men then gave Kostev 500 rubles ($5.5).

In the following weeks, the men contacted Kostev and asked for information, including the possible locations of Ukrainian weapons in Kherson and the names of students at his college who were in contact with the Ukrainian security services. He never gave any specific details, said Kostev.

The FSB did not respond to a request for comment.

Kostev said he was also instructed by school administration to participate in video interviews. In an image filmed by Russian state-controlled television channel RT and released in February 2023, Kostev praises the Russian army and wears a Russian flag around his shoulders.

He said the television journalists gave him a script before the interview and asked him to repeat it on camera.

RT did not respond to requests for comment.

“EMPTY PROMISES”

Kostev’s grandmother and half-brother live in Germany. Last May, a friend of theirs, Olha Hurulia, tried to travel to Henichesk to retrieve Kostev with the help of Save Ukraine, a nonprofit organization that works to repatriate Ukrainian children taken to Russian-occupied territories.

According to Save Ukraine, Hurulia was detained in Moscow for three days and deported. Kostev said FSB agents showed him a video of the detained woman. Contacted by Reuters, Hurulia declined to comment on her trip to Russia.

The FSB men, Kostev said, had instructed him to tell his half-brother over the phone that he had no intention of leaving Henichesk.

“They told me to tell him that I wasn’t going anywhere, that I didn’t want to,” Kostev said, adding that he complied.

Contacted by Reuters, Kostev’s grandmother, Svitlana Panchenko, confirmed his account and said he was pressured to say he did not want to go.

In the summer of 2023, Kostev left Henichesk and moved to Russia because he felt unsafe due to the FSB’s interest in him and Ukrainian shelling of the city, he said. He also added that he had started a romantic relationship with a girl from Moscow and wanted to be close to her.

But at the end of the year he was in touch with his half-brother again and started talking about a trip to Germany: “I missed my family a lot,” he said.

Kostev said he was also fed up with the “empty promises” of officials in Lvova-Belova’s office, who offered him places at prestigious universities and other incentives but, he said, failed to keep them. Reuters could not independently confirm this.

Kostev left Russia in February. Russian officials did not attempt to stop him on the journey. He said he had previously discarded his old SIM cards to avoid electronic surveillance by Russian authorities and crossed the Belarusian border, where there are few checks.

When he tried to enter Germany, Kostev was rejected because he did not have the correct travel documents.

He now lives in Warsaw and is waiting for paperwork so he can enter Germany. Olha Yerokhina, a Save Ukraine spokeswoman who helped him prepare his travel documents, confirmed his account of the trip.

The Polish border guard and the German Federal Ministry of the Interior did not comment on individual cases.

Yerokhina said Kostev showed the impact of the pro-Russian narratives he had been exposed to while still repeating some of the Kremlin’s talking points about the war.

In his interview with Reuters, Kostev said that Kiev was prolonging the war by rejecting peace talks and that Ukrainian troops blew up a dam on the Dnipro River in June 2023, causing massive flooding – both points that Kiev says are lies.

Kostev denied being brainwashed. He said he came to his own views. He also thanked the friendly Russians who, he said, helped him.

“I belong to both Russia and Ukraine,” he said.

Now he wants to stay out of politics and get on with his life, he said: “I’m just tired… I want to sit in one place and live in peace.”

(Additional reporting by Anton Zverev, Maria Tsvetkova and Kacper Pempel; Editing by Christian Lowe and Daniel Flynn)

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