Sexual Violence in the Russian Invasion of the Ukraine

An interview with Dawn Brancati published April 12, 2022, part of the ISS Reflections Series

How frequent has sexual violence been during the war?

We are only beginning to learn about the pervasiveness of sexual violence during the war.Now that cities that Russian forces occupied are being liberated, survivors are sharing their experiences. These survivors, including men and women, have reported horrendous abuses by Russian soldiers—molestation, sodomy, forced nudity, genital mutilation, and castration. It is too early to have any reliable data on the incidence of sexual violence in the war. In fact, until the war has ended, it will be very difficult to collect reliable data. Even then, especially if Russia retains a foothold in Ukraine, it will be very difficult to collect precise data of the frequency of sexual violence. Many victims of sexual violence may be killed and unable to relate their experiences. Many victims, especially men for which wartime sexual violence is often described simply as torture, will be reluctant to report acts of sexual violence due to the intimate nature of the crime, as well as the shame and embarrassment often associated with it.Opposing sides can also complicate matters by inflating incidences of sexual violence committed against their people to discredit their opponent.

Why is it happening at all?

The most obvious reason is that Russian forces are seeking to terrorize and demoralize the Ukrainian population to break their will to fight. Recent intelligence reports, revealing that Russian soldiers have received direct orders from high-ranking officials to kill and brutalize Ukrainian civilians, support this interpretation.

Sexual violence can also be used to extract information from detainees, though, so far, reports from civilians do not suggest that the Russian soldiers are using sexual violence for this purpose.This may be more common among Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russians, and vice versa.

Sexual violence can also be used to build cohesion and loyalty among forces. Even if the Kremlin did not give Russian soldiers direct orders to engage in sexual violence, soldiers are likely to expect impunity for their behavior. Putin revealed his own callousness toward sexual violence by alluding to old `joke’ about marital rape when speaking about President Zelinsky’s need to comply with the Minsk agreements.   “It’s your duty, my beauty,” Putin reportedly mocked.

Lack of discipline among the lower ranks of Russia’s military may also be a contributing factor.Although the Russian military is professionalized and discipline ought to be high as a result, there are many reports of a lack of discipline among the Russian forces—with troops deserting their positions and sabotaging their own weapons in order not to fight. Among foreign mercenaries who lack an ideological commitment to the war effort and Russia, a lack of discipline can be an ever greater issue.

Miscegenation is also a reason that sexual violence occurs during wars, but given the cultural similarity between Russians and Ukrainians, this is not likely an issue here.

Does it work?

Sexual violence is clearly effective in terrorizing people, but terrorizing Ukrainians has so far not broken their will to fight.For some Ukrainians it could have the opposite effect and compel them to pick up arms against Russia. Ukrainians, though, are unlikely to need any additional incentive to defend their homeland.
Research on whether torture is effective in extracting honest information from detainees is inconclusive.Rigorous social science research on torture is neither possible nor ethical.At best, one can say that there is not strong evidence that torture is more useful for extracting information from detainees than other practices.

Can ICC do anything to stop it?

Sexual violence against civilians can constitute a war crime. War crimes include, but are not limited to, “willful killing”; “torture or inhuman treatment” and “willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health.” The ICC’s can prosecute cases against people who commit war crimes, but only in very circumscribed situations.They can do so if a state is a member of the ICC, or if the UN Security Council passes a resolution to this effect.The ICC has little chance of initiating a case in this situation.Neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of the ICC, both having signed but not ratified the Treaty of Rome. Russia tried to “unsign” the treaty in 2016 after the Court criticized its actions in Crimea. Russia also possesses a veto power on the UN Security Council.However, the threat of ICC prosecution lacks any utility in deterring violence. The threat of prosecution is supposed to deter combatants from committing war crimes.But, even where the threat of prosecution is real, combatants can avoid punishment through exile or double down to avoid prosecution.

Can we expect it to increase in the future?

Unfortunately, we can expect sexual violence against Ukrainians to grow if Russia’s weapons are depleted and terror becomes an even more appealing strategy for it, and if foreign mercenaries increasingly enter the war on Russia’s side.We can also expect it to rise if Russian soldiers rely less on missiles and bombs to control territory and more on ground forces, and if Russian forces are more successful in capturing Ukrainian soldiers and members of the country’s territorial defense.