Russia Is Using Rape as a Weapon in Ukraine. The West Must Hold Putin Accountable.

Russia Is Using Rape as a Weapon in Ukraine. The West Must Hold Putin Accountable.

Note: This article contains extremely graphic description of specific sexual assaults and torture; some readers may find this very disturbing or upsetting.

As the war in Ukraine enters its tenth month, and as the Ukrainian military has begun to recover ground previously occupied by the Russians, new evidence of systematic campaigns of rape and torture has come to light. There had previously been troubling reports of widespread use of sexual violence against civilians, along with other clear violations of international laws that compel combatants to protect civilians.

This situation appears to be worsening as Ukraine builds momentum in reclaiming its territory from Russian hands. One woman recently detailed her harrowing experience being held in a prison where she was raped and tortured by Russian soldiers. This is one more gut-wrenching story on top of many that came to light over the summer—not to mention the many that we may never learn of.

In researching this article, I found stories of an 11-year-old boy who was raped in front of his mother and now will not speak, and an 83-year-old woman who was raped in her home by Russian soldiers and is now struggling to recover. There were very disturbing reports of children and even infants being sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers, including one case where an 11-month-old baby died from being raped, and another case where a mother had to witness all of her children assaulted—including 9-year-old triplets who were raped by soldiers and her 11-month-old baby sodomized by a candlestick. There is also likely sexual violence being perpetrated against adult men as well, but severe underreporting makes it difficult to know how widespread this is.

This violence has been co-occurring with other atrocities, as in Bucha, where there were mass executions of civilians, in Mariupol, a besieged city where Russian forces purposefully attacked a maternity hospital, and at a prison where civilians and prisoners of war were being held. Now, in Izyum, torture sites are being uncovered.

Political scientists have been increasingly studying rape as a tool of war, and they find that, despite common misconception, “rape in war is not inevitable.”

This is not to say that it doesn’t happen or that it hasn’t been used as a tool of war. As anyone who has studied the wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and World War II—to name a few—will tell you, weaponized rape has been used in a number of horrific conflicts. However, it is not a given that it will be used as a weapon just because a conflict is occurring.

So, if some armed forces constrain their soldiers from using rape in war, what does it tell us that we are seeing such pervasive reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Ukraine?

“In researching this article, I found stories of an eleven year-old boy who was raped in front of his mother and now will not speak, and an eighty-three year-old woman who was raped in her home by Russian soldiers and is now struggling to recover.”

My research examines when insurgent groups use tactics targeting women in war. By applying findings from my own research, I argue that the primary reason that Russia is embracing and adopting widespread use of sexual violence is as a means of coercion, which tells us a lot about the struggles of the Russians in the war. The timing of the widespread use of sexual violence in Ukraine is not coincidental. Faced with high levels of effective resistance, Russia has begun employing sexual violence in order to raise the costs of continued resistance.

Most audiences—international and domestic—find rape in war to be horrifying, and there is, unsurprisingly, a visceral dislike of this behavior. By employing a tactic that is universally disliked, and graphically demonstrating that the costs of continued resistance will be the appalling violation and mutilation of Ukrainian citizens’ bodies, Russia is attempting to coerce Ukrainians into surrendering. It is likely that these tactics are being used with the hope that Ukrainian citizens who are terrified that they or their compatriots will soon be targeted in these ways will pressure Voldymyr Zelenskyy’s government to make significant concessions to the Russians.

These tactics have not broken the will of the Ukrainian people in resisting Russia’s invasion of their sovereign land, but it is not clear that there is, at this point, any form of violence the Russians will not perpetrate, as they continue to attempt to coerce Ukraine into some form of settlement. The Russians may be hoping that these atrocities will convince the West to pressure Ukraine into backing down.

The use of sexual violence as a strategy in the war in Ukraine illustrates two things—and neither is good.

As someone who has studied this closely, my expectation of a professional military like the Russian armed forces would be that there is a tight chain of command, and that soldiers are responsive to orders issued by their commanding officers. The fact that this behavior is so widespread and so well documented means that the Russian military is knowingly violating every international law and norm about the conduct of war and intentionally using rape as a strategy of coercion. If this is indeed an attempt at coercion, it would mean an undoing of more than 70 years of norms and laws built to protect civilians during armed conflict. As any scholar of international relations will tell you, norms can and do erode if they are not upheld, so any unwillingness on the part of the West to call attention to and prosecute these atrocities could set a dangerous precedent for future wars.

Research on sexual violence in war sheds light on the second observation that deserves attention in this conflict: despite being an armed force representing an advanced nation state, the Russian military is not as cohesive and professional as we previously believed.

Dara Kay Cohen, who literally wrote the book on rape in civil war, finds that rape—particularly gang rape—is used by armed forces to create unit cohesion when soldiers have been forcibly recruited. Given the reports circulating that Russia has been conscripting young, inexperienced men, some of whom reportedly do not even realize they are being sent to fight in Ukraine, it is unsurprising that the Russian military has poor unit cohesion. Forcing or encouraging these men to participate in gang rape—an inherently risky activity, particularly from a sexual health standpoint—can help force bonds between soldiers who were not willingly recruited to fight.

But the bottom line is this: the fact that we are seeing such pervasive sexual violence means that the Russians are losing very badly. In general, we don’t expect that soldiers in an interstate war—especially soldiers from a state with as much advanced military capacity as Russia—will need to resort to these types of tactics in order to gain coercive leverage over their adversary. The fact that the Russians, who have myriad other military tools at their disposal, are resorting to tactics that are this reckless and heinous should be taken as further evidence that they do not have a clear strategy for navigating the war.

“ As any scholar of international relations will tell you, norms can and do erode if they are not upheld, so any unwillingness on the part of the West to call attention to and prosecute these atrocities could set a dangerous precedent for future wars.”

There are a number of organizations on the ground trying to document these horrific incidents as war crimes, ranging from NGOs to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to independent investigators. And they are having some small successes, at least domestically.

A few months ago, a Ukrainian court convicted a Russian soldier for committing war crimes. Several investigators have suggested that there are numerous war crimes being committed in Ukraine; among them, the widespread use of sexual violence. The Ukrainian government is doing its best to find the perpetrators of these horrific acts and hold them to justice. But the West must do more.

Unfortunately, without actually putting boots on the ground, the West cannot prevent these atrocities. But just as the Russians are using rape to raise the costs of Ukrainian resistance, so too should the West raise the costs of using these inhumane weapons in conflict. This starts with drawing attention, again and again, on every platform, at every public meeting of Western leaders, and in private conversations, to this horrific violence. It means dedicating resources to investigating what is happening on the ground, and then making sure the rest of the world knows about it.

It must also include prosecuting sexual violence in Ukraine as a war crime. International norms, if not defended and upheld, will erode, and the erosion of the norm against using sexual violence in war is extremely dangerous. Some journalists who cover these issues have already pointed to the ways in which the information environment of the war in Ukraine lends itself to collecting evidence that may lead to war crimes prosecution.

Even if Putin or the military commanders who are ordering and allowing sexual violence as a strategy are never brought to account in a court of law, a strong attempt by Western governments to hold accountable any soldiers found guilty of having committed rape and torture in Ukraine will be critical to defending international norms.

In addition, Western officials must work to de-stigmatize rape so that survivors can avail themselves of any and all resources, and providing said resources will be critical in the coming weeks and months. Furthermore, it is important to remember that not all survivors of sexual violence are women, and that men and sexual minorities who are survivors of sexual violence will also need resources and support.

Most importantly, the international community must find a way to provide access to emergency contraception and safe abortion for survivors of sexual violence, both in Ukraine, and those streaming over borders into countries which, in practice, do not allow abortion. Forced pregnancy and birth is an additional form of violence that we cannot allow to be perpetrated against survivors.

Finally, ensuring that survivors have access to long-term, trauma-informed mental health support will be critical in helping them process and integrate these horrific events. As the West contemplates the types of resources it is providing to aid Ukraine, the sole focus cannot be on military equipment—we must also think about the social, emotional, and relational support that those surviving this war are likely to need, and be sure to provide it.

Russia Is Using Rape as a Weapon in Ukraine. The West Must Hold Putin Accountable.

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