‘Tanks for Kidneys’: Accusing Ukraine of organ trafficking to weaken Western support

By: john faerseth&
December 4 2023

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
‘Tanks for Kidneys’: Accusing Ukraine of organ trafficking to weaken Western support

Source: X/RT

As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is nearing the end of its second year, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine continues apace. One such propaganda piece, the documentary "Tanks for Kidneys," was released on May 24, 2023, but continues to reach viewers. It is produced by the Russian state broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today). Some social media users appear to have been taken in by the claims, continuing to discredit well-established organizations such as Doctors without Borders – featured in the documentary – in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. 

Social media post discrediting Doctors without Borders and linking to “Tanks for Kidneys.” (Source: X/Screenshot) 

"Tanks for Kidneys" claims that organs from Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been sold on the black market since 2014 or even earlier. Additionally, it accuses the Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU), army, and various political figures of being complicit in the deliberate killing of Ukrainian citizens to extract organs for export, as well as the international Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and NATO. 

The film builds on the false premise that the 2014 Euromaidan revolution was a coup supported by Western countries, which brought criminal and far-right elements to power. It also falsely claims that the new authorities began waging a genocidal war against the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk soon after coming to power. 

Logically Facts looks into some of the major claims in the film. 

Ukrainian law does not enable organ export

The film starts by claiming that the path to exporting organs from Ukraine began when several laws and amendments were passed in 2021-22: law 5831, in which Ukrainians, including children, could become posthumous organ donors without giving consent; and law 5610, that exempts organ transplants from Value Added Taxes (VAT). The laws are said to have been championed by health minister Ulana Suprun, often referred to as “Doctor Death.” 

In fact, law 5831 only canceled the need to notarize a person’s written consent to posthumous organ donation, and only adult, able-bodied citizens can consent. Law 5610 exempts medical procedures and services related to transplant surgery from VAT to make transplants more accessible for Ukrainian citizens. It does not in any way promote the export of organs abroad. 

Ulana Suprun was the Ukrainian Minister of Health from 2016 to 2019 and nicknamed “Dr. Death” by opposition politicians who feared that the extensive health reforms she championed would lead to more deaths. As mentioned above, the laws reported in the film were passed in 2021 – 22, after her resignation.

No specific cases of Ukrainians trafficked for organs

The film then claims that human trafficking doubled in Ukraine in 2013-14 and that 2,600 people went missing between March and September 2014. It also states that reports of illegal transplants began to emerge in 2014, incorrectly claiming that this followed Ukraine’s attack on Donbas, in which Ukrainian citizens were killed.

However, the number of Ukrainian victims of human trafficking detected in Europe quadrupled in 2016, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as a result of the Donbas conflict. In early 2015, 980,000 Ukrainians were internally displaced, while 600,000 left for neighboring countries. According to the UNODC, the vast majority of trafficking victims in Eastern Europe were trafficked for forced labor (87 percent), sexual exploitation (9 percent), and other purposes (3 percent).

The OSCE Special Representative for Combating Trafficking told Logically Facts that while this form of trafficking exists, it is not aware of specific cases of trafficking of Ukrainian refugees for organ removal either in 2014 or 2022.  

The figure of 2,600 missing people appears to derive from the number of requests received by the SBU’s Inter-agency Centre for Assistance in Release of Captives, Hostages and Search of Missing from the families of civilians and soldiers between September and October 2014. 

No evidence of soldiers killed for organs in Donbas 

According to the film, wounded soldiers have been killed for organs since 2014. (Source: Screenshot)

The film goes on to claim that organs have been taken from badly wounded soldiers since the start of the Donbas conflict. Such stories have circulated since October 2014, when Russian state-owned broadcasters falsely claimed that Madina Jarbussynova, OSCE Special Representative to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, had publicly speculated that organs had been removed for sale and that the situation required a thorough investigation by international experts.

However, according to an OSCE statement from October 30, 2014, the Russian media took Jarbussynova’s remarks out of context. When interviewed by a Ukrainian TV channel, she referred to claims from two Russian NGOs about the possible removal and sale of human organs in eastern Ukraine. She said the allegations would be investigated as soon as greater access to the region was possible. In the statement, the OSCE also made it clear that it did not possess any evidence regarding possible organ harvesting and that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine had not seen any evidence of organ trafficking in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  

Since 2018, Ukrainian law has banned the removal of organs from soldiers who have died on the frontline and civilians who have died as a result of shelling. The ban was specifically intended to prevent disinformation and hostile propaganda and was intended to strengthen the positive perception of voluntary organ donation. Organ transplants also require a large number of doctors and equipment and are difficult to perform in a combat area. In addition, organs remain viable for only a short time outside the body, which makes it unlikely that they can be transported from the combat zone – especially since Ukraine’s airspace has been closed since February 2022. 

Children taken from orphanages 

The film also suggests that numerous children from orphanages may have been killed for organs. Vitaly Kisielov, a former militia commander in the Russian-controlled “Luhansk People’s Republic,” states that according to his investigations, almost 2000 orphans were taken from children's homes in Donbas in 2014. Since then, Ukrainian authorities have failed to locate the children. “We can be sure that terrible things happened to them,” Kisielov says.  

The film continues by stating that children from an orphanage in Luhansk were sent to Odesa and never returned to the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” with “publications like Huffington Post'' reporting that church-run orphanages in Odesa were used for child trafficking. 

According to the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights, 1,223 children stayed in Donetsk and Luhansk orphanages in 2014. More than 1,000 of these were evacuated to regions of Kyiv, Zaporizhzhya, Odesa, and Kharkiv when the war began. The 2,000 figure may derive from Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) statistics, which state that 1,923 children were evacuated from combat areas.

In June 2015, HuffPost (previously known as Huffington Post) published an op-ed by Laurie Ahern from the organization Disability Rights International about child trafficking in Ukrainian orphanages and the risk of children being exploited for labor, sex, and pornography. The op-ed did not speak of trafficking abroad. A report from the same organization released at the same time did mention the possible killing of infants for organs, quoting a 2005 article from the BBC. Neither the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office nor the  European Commission managed to find any proof that the claimed killings for organs had occurred. The well-known human rights organization Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group also expressed doubt about the case. 

Since 2018, Ukrainian law has specifically banned organ transplants from orphans.

A figment of Russian propaganda 

The film also attempts to implicate Sandra Roelofs, the wife of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, in the alleged killing of wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians to extract organs after the Russian invasion. It points to a team led by the “notorious woman” Elisabeth Debru, said to have been active in Eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. Roelofs allegedly performed some of the organ extraction surgeries.

Debru is said to have received instructions from Sandra Roelofs, who was the “true organizer” of the mission and “clearly linked” to the illegal transplants market worldwide. According to the film, she has been mentioned several times in Georgian media as connected to the illegal organ trade and nicknamed “Sandra the Ripper.” 

According to an investigation by the Dutch newspaper de Telegraaf, Elisabeth Debru has been mentioned several times in pro-Kremlin media since December 2022 as a Dutch “organ thief”  plundering the bodies of soldiers and civilians in the Donbas. De Telegraaf writes that they did not find any Dutch person or doctor with this name and that she is “likely to have been invented in a Russian propaganda factory.”

“Elisabeth Debru” – or “De Brück” as she is also known –  appeared in August 2016, together with the first allegations of Sandra Roelof being involved in illegal organ trading. The Georgian outlet Exclusive News published a video accusing Roelofs of exporting human organs to the West and giving instructions to “De Brück.” It also falsely claimed that the video had been published by the State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The video featured footage later used in "Tanks for Kidneys." According to the Georgian media literacy project Mediameter, the video was initially uploaded to YouTube in September 2015 by an unknown user calling themselves Information Portal Slovo.

Exclusive News is supported by the current pro-Russian government and is known for spreading anti-Western and pro-Russian content as well as homophobic hate speech. A Russian television channel owned by the state energy company Gazprom repeated the allegations in 2019

Attempts to implicate organizations

The OSCE is also accused of being involved in the purported organ trade. The documentary quotes an article from the Italian website Politicamente Corretto from February 2022, published on the same day as the start of the invasion. According to the article, organ procurement would be “carried out by Global Rescue, an organization which specializes in this supply and has a contract with OSCE.” 

According to the German fact-checker Correktiv, Global Rescue is a company involved in safe travel and risk management, including in the medical field. It has nothing to do with organ donations. It was not active in Ukraine in 2014, and its later presence there ended in 2020, before the current invasion. 

The film also claims that the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and the OSCE gave ammunition and body armor to Ukrainians before the LPR army “freed” the cities of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Rubezhne. These cities were taken by Russians between March and June of 2022, during the first months of the invasion. However, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) was an unarmed civilian mission. Its main tasks were observing and reporting impartially and objectively on the security situation in Ukraine and facilitating dialogue among the parties. It ended its operations on 31 March 2022.

Germany did not send mobile crematoria

"Tanks for Kidneys" also quotes the Policamente Corretto article to claim that German defense minister Christine Lambrecht promised to send mobile crematoria to Ukraine before the invasion, purportedly to assist in hiding evidence of illegal organ removal. This is said to have thrown Ukrainian border guards into panic and led to mass desertions. 

However, according to Correctiv, Lambrecht only said that Germany would send field hospitals (but not weapons) to Ukraine. There is no evidence that she mentioned mobile crematoria.

Balkan connections 

The RT documentary falsely accuses the organization Doctors Without Borders of having been involved in organ harvesting in Kosovo in the 2000s before moving on to Ukraine. (Source: Screenshot)

The film also implicates Doctors Without Borders in the claimed organ trade. To accomplish this, almost 10 minutes are devoted to the Kosovo conflict in 1998-99. 

Serbian lawyer Goran Petronjevic, who is interviewed, states that Serb POWs were taken to a house in Albania where their organs were removed, transported abroad, and sold. He claims that Doctors Without Borders and its founder, Bernard Kouchner, were involved in the illegal organ trade and that Kouchner and Doctors without Borders “are always present where war is raging, and young, healthy bodies are plentiful. Hiding under the guise of humanitarian missions, they engage in the deadly crime of human trafficking.”

According to Petronjevic, both the former chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte and MEP Dick Marty have accused Doctors without Borders and Bernard Kouchner of being involved in the alleged organ trafficking, and accused NATO and EU representatives in Kosovo of interfering with the investigation of crimes committed by Kosovo Albanians.

Claims about the abduction of Serbs for organ removal first appeared in 2008 when Carla Del Ponte published her memoirs. This provoked an investigation led by Dick Marty, who published a report in 2010 that implicated several high-ranking KLA members in crimes including abductions, murder, torture, and organ trafficking, although to a much lesser scale than Del Ponte. 

Neither Del Ponte’s book nor Marty’s report implicated Bernard Kouchner or Doctors without Borders in organ trading. While Del Ponte did write that it was impossible to investigate NATO because “the NATO and its member states would not cooperate with us,” she was referring to a possible investigation of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro. 

An EU task force found enough evidence to indict KLA leaders of war crimes but no evidence of widespread organ harvesting, although it did say it had happened in a few cases.

Recycling old claims to undermine support

"Tanks for Kidneys" contains little new information and can be seen as a kind of bricolage recycling older false or unverified claims and “connecting the dots” to build a case. Several previously known pro-Kremlin voices are interviewed and intercut with ominous images of war, doctors with scalpels, and helpless children in hospitals to appeal to the emotions of viewers.  

Claims about Ukrainian organ trafficking have been around since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution and the beginning of the Russian war in Eastern Ukraine. They have resurfaced over the last year in Russian state media, social media, and American right-wing discourse.

The claims are part of a larger narrative casting Ukraine as a corrupt and criminal state to create distrust and undercut support for Ukraine among foreign audiences.
It is no surprise that they are resurfacing at a time when Russia has been denied the easy victory they hoped for and when several voices in the West are speaking out against prolonging involvement in a war that is likely to go on for another year. 

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before