By Staff Writer Sydney Smith
Content Warning: sexual violence
On March 9, 2022, Russian soldier Mikhail Romanov barged into the home of a mother in the Kyiv region of Ukraine where brutally he took the life of her husband, forcibly undressed her, and gang raped her with a pistol to her head. The raping took place over three separate occasions while her child bore witness. This horrific story is just one account of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) that has been documented thus far in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A report from the OHCHR identifies 108 allegations of CRSV against women, girls, men and boys from February 24 to May 15, 2022 in eleven Ukrainian cities and in a detention facility in the Russian Federation. Although rape and gang rape are the highest reported allegations, at seventy-eight, CRSV takes on many forms and this report alone includes seven attempted rapes, fifteen forced public strippings, and eight other accounts of sexual torture, sexual touching, and threats of sexual violence. Additionally, violence is often accompanied by the killing of family members, the forcing of relatives to witness the violence (often used as a fear tactic by perpetrators), and the looting of homes. Victims were most often women and girls, but accounts of men and boys have also been reported. Unfortunately, the true number of incidents is hidden under a veil of active hostilities, the breakdown of services and reporting opportunities, mass displacement, and fear, shame, and stigma.
Sexual violence in some conflicts is utilized strategically by the state as a “weapon of war” (e.g., Yugoslavia and Rwanda) while in others it is relatively rare, meaning it is not used strategically by the state but is not necessarily entirely absent (e.g., the insurgent group The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka). In the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the volume of reports of sexual violence, although not necessarily a known strategic weapon of the state, is significant enough to call into question the root of the violence. The majority of alleged perpetrators are from the ranks of Russian armed forces (eighty-seven cases in the OHCHR report), however, perpetrators from the Ukrainian armed forces, including the territorial defense, law enforcement, and civilians have also been reported. For both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, low morale combined with forced or unwilling recruitment serve as the breeding ground for sexual violence perpetration, even amongst those who would not likely perpetrate in peacetime. The theory of combatant socialization, coined by Dara Kay Cohen, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, argues that armed groups use sexual violence as a recruitment and bonding tool. Furthermore, groups that forcibly recruit during war are more likely to perpetrate gang rape than other groups. Rape is not directly ordered by commanders but is also not condemned. Members fear being ostracized from the group and submit to raping as a bonding activity.
Russia’s military is built upon social and economic inequalities that contribute to low morale and diminishing combat motivation. There is stark contrast between contract soldiers and conscripts in both compensation and training. Contract soldiers – who serve three years – are adequately compensated and receive sufficient training. On the other hand, conscrips serve one year, are minimally compensated, receive at most four months of basic training, and are brutally hazed in a process called dedovshchina (which likely correlates to gang rape). On September 21, Vladimir Putin called for a “partial mobilization” which resulted in thousands of men being conscripted into the armed forces – including those with no military training and disabilities – within one week. Additionally, refusing to be drafted is now classified as a criminal offense. There have been multiple reports of soldiers begging for food, looting, and outwardly stating their disapproval of and confusion surrounding the conflict’s aim. For Ukrainian soldiers, although morale is higher, with thousands of people volunteering for the Territorial Defense Forces and civilian defense activities, secretive and arbitrary recruitment measures are still being deployed to sustain against the strength of the Russian military and rising casualties. The New York Times details reports of unwilling Ukrainian men being signed up for service, while those who are eagerly volunteering are dismissed. Ukrainian commanders have warned that the forced drafting of unwilling men is affecting the morale of enlisted men who actively volunteered.
In both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, low morale compounded with inexperience and the inevitable chaos and breakdown of the state during war awards perpetrators – especially those forcibly or unwillingly recruited into positions of power – an unparalleled opportunity to perpetrate sexual violence. Russian soldiers have done little to cover up their crimes (e.g., killing witnesses), which leads Dara Kay Cohen to believe that “It doesn’t suggest… individual soldiers are going off to engage in opportunistic sexual violence. It suggests something that is at the very least being tolerated by the command, if not ordered.” There have been reported incidents of systematic rapes, including the raping of twenty-five women and girls between the ages of fourteen to twenty-four in a basement of a house in Bucha. Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights Lyudmyla Denisova stated that “Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.” Reports such as these link sexual violence to the theory of ethnic hatred where sexual violence serves as a tool to humiliate the ethnic opponent and assert dominance. Additionally, blood lines are destroyed through forced pregnancy, genital mutilation, castration, or sterilization.
The stories of these individuals will continue to be uncovered, but the true extent of sexual violence – especially within the context of conflict – remains difficult to track. Yet despite extensive underreporting and a history of impunity surrounding sexual violence crimes, there are attempts to hold perpetrators accountable. Ukraine has held a preliminary hearing for the first case concerning the incident highlighted at the start of this post. Although it is unlikely that Romanov would be extradited if sentenced, these efforts by Ukrainian prosecutors as well as civil society actors work to hold perpetrators accountable and provide support and services for victims as the conflict rages on.