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Are Russian troops using sexual violence as a weapon? Here’s what we know.

They’ve done so in Ukraine in the past. Five factors make it likely this time as well.

- March 23, 2022

Over the last month, Russian forces have assaulted the people of Ukraine. In addition to news of attacks on civilians and families displaced, there are now initial reports that Russian forces have committed sexual violence.

This month, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba claimed that Russian soldiers had committed “numerous” rapes against Ukrainian women. Last week, Ukrainian MPs charged that Russian forces were targeting women and girls specifically and that elderly women had been raped.

No hard evidence for these allegations has yet come to light. But evidence from recent conflicts along with certain aspects of the current invasion suggest cause for great concern.

Russian armed forces have recently perpetrated sexual violence in other conflicts

First, Russia has a recent history of committing sexual violence in war. According to the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict data set, sexual violence by Russian forces has been reported in three of seven years of conflict since 2014 in eastern Ukraine.

Most of the sexual violence took place while Russians held women and men in detention. Just in the past two years, Russian-led forces have been reported to have committed rape, sexual torture, forced prostitution and sexual mutilation against detained individuals in Ukraine.

The State Department’s 2020 Country Report for Human Rights Practices in Ukraine notes, for example, that Russian-led forces reportedly carried out “beatings and electric shock in the genital area, rape, threats of rape, forced nudity, and threats of rape against family members” in 2020 as a “method of torture and mistreatment to punish, humiliate, or extract confessions” from detainees.

This is also nothing new for Russia. The Russian military is reported to have committed rape in Chechnya every year for seven consecutive years at the turn of the century, against people both in and outside detention.

For example, Amnesty International reported cases of gang rape by Russian forces of pregnant Chechen women in 2002 following military raids on their homes. The State Department wrote in a 2004 report that Russian forces had raped numerous detainees in Chechnya, including Chechen boys as young as 13.

How do you reduce sexual and gender violence in conflict? Consider these five key issues.

The Russian military’s lack of unity is a red flag

Second, Russian forces’ apparent lack of internal unity is concerning. Research suggests that low levels of internal cohesion within armed groups — meaning that they lack social bonds with one another — correlate with wartime sexual violence. When members of the military don’t trust and care for each other, they are more likely to rape. This is because when fighters rape together, it can strengthen loyalty and cohesion within armed groups.

There are strong signs that the Russian army suffers from low morale and a lack of unity. Early reports from Ukraine indicated that many soldiers were not motivated to fight. Many seem confused about the purpose of their mission in Ukraine. Videos on social media show hungry soldiers asking for food and looting Ukrainian stores. Gross inequalities within the military also undermines solidarity.

Researchers find that forced recruitment, especially by press ganging when men are taken with or without notice and forced into the military, may also cause cohesion to fray. The Russian military is conscription-based, so all service is mandatory. But reports suggest Russia is now relying on desperate measures. Men have even been snatched from their cars or the streets in broad daylight.

Sexualized and dehumanizing language has preceded mass rape elsewhere

Third, dehumanizing and sexualized language may also portend conflict-related sexual violence. Such language has been a precursor of mass rape in other situations, such as the sexualized dehumanization of Tutsi women that preceded the genocide in Rwanda.

One example is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crude remark to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last February, referring to an old joke about marital rape. When discussing the implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreements between Ukraine and Russia aimed at stopping the war in eastern Ukraine, Putin said, “like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty.” Experts have traced the Kremlin’s gendered and sexualized rhetoric toward Ukraine and described Putin’s abusive behavior as “characteristic of rape culture.”

Putin has also denied the existence of Ukraine as a country and denied the existence of Ukrainian culture, while bizarrely claiming that the country has been taken over by Nazis (ignoring the fact that Ukraine has a Jewish president).

WHO workers are accused of sexual exploitation and abuse. That hurts everything the UN does.

Syrian soldiers joining Russian forces in Ukraine is bad news

Fourth, Putin’s recruitment of Syrian soldiers to fight in Ukraine raises alarms. Syrian forces are reported to have committed systematic rape and sexual torture against civilian populations and detainees every year from 2013 to 2017 in the Syrian civil war. They might bring that practice with them to Ukraine.

Research suggests that recruiting foreign fighters may increase the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence, at least by rebel groups. This is in part because they may threaten the armed group’s internal social cohesion.

Check out all TMC’s analysis of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Population matters

Lastly, population size consistently correlates with state repression and human rights abuse, including wartime rape.

When war takes place in countries with larger populations, the people are more likely to endure government-perpetrated rape and other human rights violations than the people in smaller countries. Ukraine, with 44 million people, is a larger-than-average nation.

What to be prepared for in Ukraine

With all these factors in play, initial reports of sexual violence in Ukraine are alarming. In particular, Russia’s recent history of conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine and the lack of cohesion within the Russian armed forces are among the most worrying signs.

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Esther Hallsdóttir is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a research assistant to the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict data project. Previously, she was a project manager at UNICEF Iceland and served as Iceland’s Youth Delegate for Human Rights to the United Nations.