Jul 28, 2022 - Podcasts

Inside Russia's "filtration" process for Ukrainians

Russian authorities have been forcing a system of interrogation, detention, and deportation on Ukrainian citizens who live in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. More than five months into Russia’s war on Ukraine, it’s estimated that one million people or more have gone through this so-called “filtration” process.

  • Plus: home sales are cooling at last.
  • And: the U.S. offers a prisoner swap to bring Brittney Griner home.

Guests: Ukrainian Taras Ulyanchenko and Oleksandra Drik, head of the Center for Civil Liberties.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Emily Peck, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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EMILY: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, July 28th.

I’m Emily Peck, in for Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: home sales are cooling at last. Plus, the U.S. offers a prisoner swap to bring Brittney Griner home.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: inside Russia's "filtration" process for Ukrainians.

EMILY: Russian authorities have been forcing a system of interrogation, detention, and deportation on Ukrainian citizens who live in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. More than five months into Russia’s war on Ukraine, it’s estimated that one million people or more have gone through this so-called “filtration” process. Axios Today’s Niala Boodhoo has been reporting on this, and she spoke to one man who’s been through it twice. She has his story, and the big picture.

TARAS ULYANCHENKO: Russia treats Ukrainians not like humans but like I don’t even know what. For them people are not important at all it seems.

NIALA: When the war began, 21-year-old Ukrainian Taras Ulyanchenko was a student in his final year at Mariupol State University, studying political science.

TARAS: This one and a half months were really a hell on earth. Because the Russian army has razed my home city to the ground.

NIALA: Tara’s father was killed by a Russian sniper during the war and he’d lost his mother a few years before. That left Taras to care for his elderly grandmother, and as the fighting intensified in Mariupol, they ended up in a shelter in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. That’s when Taras was first taken through the filtration process, he was fingerprinted, and interrogated.

TARAS: Its main focus is men, especially young men such as myself, and young women. This filtration is obligatory for everyone, but it concentrates on people like us.

NIALA: Later, he and his grandmother ended up at a checkpoint at the Russian border. This time the filtration process was much more intense.

TARAS: I was taken there together with another man, who had a wife and a child. And in this room already was a person, who was a former member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And when I was there at first I was told to take my clothes off so that they can check for tattoos. At the same time they [the interrogator] hit him [the former Ukrainian soldier] in the leg with a bat. The person in charge of interrogation was in civilian clothes and had a baseball bat.

NIALA: Taras says the Russians interrogating him were trying to find out if he had connections to the Ukrainian armed forces.

TARAS: There were questions such as, first “What do you think about the Russian government?”, second “What do you think about the so-called Russian special operation in Ukraine?” The third question was “What do you think about the Ukrainian government?”. And the fourth one was “What do you think about the national battalions in Ukraine?”.

“To be honest, I gave such answers so that I could make it through this filtration”.

NIALA: Taras was let go after answering the questions and proving he was a student and was reunited with his grandmother. They eventually made it out to Germany and away from the conflict.

But others are not so fortunate. Human rights groups suspect many people the Russians believe are working with the Ukrainian army or nationalist militias are taken to Russian detention camps in Eastern Ukraine or Siberia or worse.

OLEKSANDRA: “There are numerous cases when people, the survivors would say that they heard some discussions between Russian soldiers that would say that those who did not pass the filtration were killed on the spot.”

Oleksandra Drik, with the Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, has been documenting stories like Taras’. She introduced us, and did that translation for our interview with him.

OLEKSANDRA DRIK: “This is something unimaginable in the 21st century. People are being treated like animals.”

Here’s what the filtration process looks like right now by the numbers: U.S. State Department estimates between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians have been through filtration. That includes more than a quarter of a million children who were taken from their parents and are thought to have been adopted into Russian families. And Oleksandra Drik says that since July, the Center has itself recorded 12,000 cases of Ukranians who have gone through filtration.

OLEKSANDRA: “This is something that can only be compared to Nazis treating people during the Second World War. And you would never imagine something like this happening now in Europe.”

NIALA: Russian officials meanwhile say people associated with the Ukrainian armed forces are terrorists and that its forced deportations are humanitarian evacuations. We reached out to the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. for comment, but haven’t heard back.

For now, both Taras and Oleksandra say none of this will end until the war does.

EMILY: To read more on filtration in Ukraine, Niala also wrote about this for Axios.com and the World newsletter. We’ll post links to those later today.

And special thanks to Dave Lawler, Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath, and Alex Sugiura for their help on this story.

EMILY: One quick politics headline for you this morning: Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia made a surprising reversal yesterday, announcing his support for a deficit reduction package that addresses climate change and prescription drug reform. Manchin has been blocking key pieces of Biden’s agenda, and just weeks ago he’d effectively killed the prospects of a deal including climate provisions. The move now gives new momentum to Democrats. There’s lots more on this at Axios.com.

EMILY: In a moment: an update I’ll give you an update on the housing market.

EMILY: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Axios market correspondent Emily Peck in for Niala Boodhoo.

The housing slowdown we've been watching for is finally here. Home sales are cooling around the country, and some of the pandemic-era's hottest "Zoomtowns" — sort of sleepy areas where remote workers moved over the past two years — they’re already seeing price drops.

Mortgage applications are at their lowest level of activity since February 2000 and in June pending home sales were down more than 8%.

And the idea of a real estate downturn might seem scary, especially if you lived through the last one. But with home prices at record highs the market is desperate for a chill.

But this is just what the Federal Reserve wanted to happen after raising interest rates several times this year – just yesterday Fed Chair Jerome Powell announced a third hike.

JEROME POWELL: Today the FOMC raised its policy interest rate by three quarters of a percentage point and anticipates that ongoing increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will be app.

EMILY: But people still really want homes. The U.S. is suffering from a long-term housing shortage. And while the housing market is cooling down, overall prices are still high and mortgage rates have been going up, too, thanks to those rate hikes. Bottom line: it may be awhile before prices come down to earth.

And in other economic news, new GDP numbers are expected out this morning which could either end or intensify the debate over whether the US is in a recession. We’ll be following the story and bringing you that coverage tomorrow.

ANTONY BLINKEN: In the coming days I expect to speak with Russian foreign minister Lavrov. For the first time, since the war began, I plan to raise an issue. That's a top priority for us. The release of Americans, Paul Whelan and Britney Griner. Who've been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home.

EMILY: That’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking yesterday. The U.S. has offered a prisoner swap to bring WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan home from Russia. In exchange the U.S. would release Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout [[boot]], who is serving a 25-year prison sentence. The decision was made after months of internal debate and mounting public pressure to release Griner.

Griner was arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport in February, after Russian authorities said they found a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage. She testified at her trial yesterday that her rights were not read to her when she was arrested and that she was forced to sign documents she did not understand. She has pleaded guilty and faces up to 10 years in prison. Experts have said her best chance for release is a prisoner swap such as this one proposed by the Biden Administration.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! Remember you can reach our team at podcasts at axios.com or by texting Niala and the team at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Emily Peck in for Niala Boodhoo, thanks for listening, stay safe and I’ll be back here with you tomorrow morning.

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