Locating and returning children in the middle of war costs thousands of dollars, so Save Ukraine organizes and funds trips for women like Stetsenko.
“I was shaking at every border crossing,” he said. Going to kyiv was intimidating, Stetsenko said. But leaving the country for the first time with his new Ukrainian passport was terrifying.
With the guidance of Save Ukraine, he traveled to Poland, then Belarus, and then boarded a flight to Moscow, his second time flying. He took the train to southwestern Russia, which is where Russian TV picked up the story about him.
Lvova-Belova shared the NTV report on Nikita and Stetsenko’s meeting on Telegram. Her official page on the instant messaging service is full of videos of children that she, she says, Russia has “saved”.
“It’s hard to watch this meeting without tears,” Lvova-Belova captioned Nikita’s story.
«Russia has always helped and continues to help families be together,» he said in a statement to NBC News, echoing President Putin.
«Children are sacred,» he said last week in a meeting with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. “We took them out of the conflict zone, saving their lives and health. That was what happened.»
“We have never been against children joining their families, if of course their relatives come,” Putin added. «There have never been obstacles to this, there aren’t, and of course there never will be.»
Mykola Kuleba, CEO of Save Ukraine, said this is an outright lie: the Russian government has not voluntarily returned any Ukrainian children, he said.
“They are not returning them, we are recovering them,” he added.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for both Lvova-Belova and Putin, charging them with «illegal deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children,» which is a war crime. Their actions, the order continued, «demonstrate an intent to permanently remove these children from their own country.»
And since March, Kuleba says, it has become more difficult to return the Ukrainian children. The Ukrainian government says at least 370 children have been returned so far, all without Russian help.
“The Russians now understand that each case is valued by the ICC,” Kuleba said. «Each case is evidence of a war crime.»