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Sexualized violence – the war in Ukraine

RAPE / Russian soldiers today systematically use sexualized violence. And these abuses are not just due to 'bad discipline' or abuse of power. Commanders can also use sexualized violence as a kind of reward for their soldiers. Internationally, Russian officials categorically deny that soldiers have committed sexual crimes


WARNING: This article depicts violent events.

As long as it has been fought waris, we have had sexualized violence. The memories of mass abuse of sexual character during World War II still lives. For example sexual crimes committed by the Wehrmacht and the Germans' allies in the occupied territories; of Japanese military forces (the phenomenon of so-called comfort women); of the Red Army in Hungary and Germany etc.

Although abuseone was extensive, the post-war tribunals were not particularly concerned with punishing the guilty, mostly for political reasons, but also with a general underestimation of the role sexual violence has in war.

A marked change in international legislation on sexualized violence first took place in the 1990s. The change was a result of the trials dealing with the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, where hundreds of people – mostly women and girls – were victims of sexualized violence. Since then, sexual assault and violence have been treated as war crimes, 'crimes against humanity' and 'crimes of genocide'. Sexual crimes in wartime began to acquire characteristics such as 'a method', 'a tool' or 'a tactic' in war and genocide.

Since Russias invasion of Ukraine On 24 February 2022, the topic of sexualized violence has entered the agenda in the media, politics, the military, among human rights defenders and in research. The focus is on the forms of sexualized violence committed by Russian officials in Ukraine, as well as the consequences it has. This article concentrates on the function and nature of violence, and on Russia's use of sexualized violence in the war against Ukraine.

Problems with documentation

Russia's aggression against Ukraine is still ongoing, and the picture of the crimes committed by Russian soldiers is therefore not complete. Sexual violence is part of the extensive and systematic crimes the Ukrainian population is exposed to – according to the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office more than 71 offenses have been committed so far. But unlike the destruction of buildings, killings and injuries that can be documented, sexualized violence is among the hidden consequences of war.

Despite this, information about sexual violence committed by Russian officials is now documented by international and Ukrainian human rights organizations, notably the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Center for Civil Liberties, JurFem, LaStrada, Women's Perspectives and others which provides help and support to the victims. Many foreign media have published interviews with the victims. Another important source of information is the intercepted conversations between Russians soldieris, which is regularly published by the Ukrainian Security Service. In the talks, occupiers discuss various crimes committed on Ukrainian territory, including sexual ones.

Information about sexual violence and voldthe whistleblowers are also dispersed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor's Office. They inform the Ukrainian people about the number of investigated cases, charges and the first convictions. They also inform about coordination between various state institutions, and the collaboration with Western partners to counter sexualized violence in war and provide help to the victims.

However, not all officials were equally responsible when they communicated this sensitive topic. In April 2022, she became the Ukrainian Ombudsman Ludmyla Denisova strong criticised by the media and NGOs. In an open letter, she was advised to 'choose her words more carefully', especially when speaking out about sexual violence against children, and to the media about ongoing cases with unverified information. Shortly after Denisova was fired. It sparked further speculation about sexualized violence in the ongoing war. Questions were raised both about the number of cases Denisova talked about – she claimed there were hundreds at the beginning of April 2022 – and the truth in them. She found most of them through phone calls to the psychological helpline for those affected by the war, set up with supported by Unicef. Denisova explained that she could not pass on information to the authorities, as she lacked the victims' permission.

The 'Denisova case' shows the challenges Ukrainian society faces when it comes to documenting, investigating and reporting on war crimes. The victims' rights and consideration for them and their loved ones should be central to the process. There are human tragedies behind all cases that end up in the media, which is why each one of them deserves a thorough review and accuracy.

Silence and devaluation is Russia's strategy in the information war against Ukraine. Kremlin politicians and propagandists used the Denisova case to undermine all information from the Ukrainian side about sexual crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Concrete details of sexual crimes in the war in Ukraine

After Russia's occupation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas, Ukrainian prosecutors began to document sexual crimes.1

In 2014–2017, 175 cases of sexualized violence against men and women committed by illegal paramilitary groups were registered.

In the years 2014–2017, the Eastern Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives collected information on 175 cases of sexualized violence against men and women committed by illegal paramilitary groups. The cases included rape and threats of rape, sexual torture, sexualized threats, forced prostitution, threats and attempted castration and so on. But after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the sexualized violence assumed a different scale, intensity and character.

First of all, it became more widespread. It is difficult to determine an exact number of victims. Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating about 155 cases of sexualized violence. It is probably only the tip of the iceberg when you see the extent of the sexualized violence, because these are only cases where the victims have given their permission for the case to proceed in the judicial system.

Few victims want to testify, for various reasons. Some are afraid of stigmatization, mistrust and reproach. They just want to forget painful memories and avoid further traumatization by himself or his family. Some do not believe in the judiciary. Others are afraid to testify because the war is still going on, and they fear that the occupiers will come back and take revenge if they bring the crimes to light. It means that the number of sacrifice maybe not hundreds, but thousands if you look at how many Ukrainians are now in captivity or in occupied territories.

A tool of terror

Secondly, sexualized violence has become a tool of terror, not only against certain groups, but against the population of the occupied territories. The victims are not only women and men, but also children and the elderly. A separatist soldier broke into the home of 75-year-old Lyudmila in a village near Kherson, brutally beat her and strangled her before he raped her. Another 83-year-old woman stayed raped in front of her disabled husband, who was bedridden. She has reported the case to the police, she says in the interview with CBS.

According to information from the UN, the youngest victim is four years old.

It is cases of gang rape of two girls aged nine and eleven in Burzhha, Kyiv region. Through wiretapped phone conversations between Russian soldiers intercepted by the Ukrainian Security Service (SSU) and published on YouTube, it is heard that 10 soldiers raped a 12-year-old girl in the Luhansk region, and in another intercepted conversation, a Russian soldier says that three others raped a 16-year-old girl. Among the victims are also boys, including an eleven-year-old who was raped while his mother was tied up and forced to watch.

Demonstrative cruelty

Third, sexual offenses are committed with an exceptionally demonstrative cruelty. This is proven both through the age of the victims, and through relatives or other vulnerable groups being witnesses – children or the elderly – but also through the dynamics and manifestation of the violence. In many cases, it is not a brief assault, but an act that goes on for hours, days or weeks, and takes the form of sexual torture which satisfies the aggressor. It is typical of sexualized violence in captivity, prisons and camps.

The UN Human Rights Commission in Ukraine included in its report a testimony from a man who was a prisoner of war near Olevnika in the Donetsk region. He told that the abusers attached wires to his genitals and nose and gave him electric shocks: "They weren't interested in how I answered questions they asked, they did it for fun."

Victoria, a 42-year-old woman from the Kyiv region, became raped all through the night, despite her pleading with the men to let her go free. It is also common for men to be killed while trying to defend their spouse – and for the raped wives to be killed as well. Some victims have received teeth knocked out, hair cut off, knife wounds to the face and neck, fingernails pulled out, legs and joints broken. A very special form of cruelty is when children are raped in front of their parents, and vice versa.

Such stories are enough to confirm that sexualized violence committed by Russian and pro-Russian forces is a weapon in the war against Ukraine.

Andrea Arroyo (Mexico:USA)-Ukraine Human Cost

The meaning of violence

Sexualized violence by Russian forces should not be considered as an isolated phenomenon, but as part of the broad repertoire of violence against civilian populationone on occupied Ukrainian territory. Sexualized violence is one way to demonstrate authority, to terrorize, humiliate, frighten and demoralize the "enemy" and reduce the will to resist. That is why it assumes grotesque and demonstrative forms.

Perpetrators act in a way that makes the victims realize what the violence means to the abusers. For example, the perpetrators' vocabulary emphasizes the political significance of the violence: victims learn that they have been targeted because of their political views, their Ukrainian national identity, or their relatives' connections to the Ukrainian military or state institutions.

An example: On April 3, 2022, a mother of four became a mother in the Kherson region raped for twelve hours by two Russian soldiers, who called her a 'banderite' (a member of OUN-B, part of  Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) – presumably because the husband served in the Ukrainian armed forces.

according to Iryna Didenko, the prosecutor at the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office, they know of examples of Russian occupiers purposefully targeting the spouses of Ukrainian officials, possibly to try to undermine their morale and masculinity. One of them, Anastasia, says: “They forced us to undress and squat while men watched. They also shaved off our hair.” The image of the female soldiers who was released from Russian captivity on April 2, 2022, shocked not only his families and colleagues. Visually visible evidence of abuse was a message to the Ukrainian people about the enemy's intentions and values, and that it will spare no means to achieve its goal.


Sexual violence against LGBTQ+-people in Ukraine also have a political side. Not only motivated by the homophobia of individual soldiers, but possibly also by Russia's aggressive rhetoric, policy and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation In recent years. Pro-Kremlin propaganda describes Ukraine as a "testing ground for LGBTQ people and unnatural phenomena" and "Satanism" – according to Ramzan Khadyrov, which says that Russia will be 'forced' to fight the alleged evil through a 'spiritual' and 'just' war.

As a result, Russian forces do not hide their hostility towards anyone who does not have a traditional sexual orientering in the occupied territories of Ukraine, and uses voldtekt as a tool to punish and humiliate. This is dealt with in the report LGBTQ and the war, published by the Our World center in November 2022: One of the victims recalls how two Russian soldiers broke into her home in the Kherson region at night: "Are you one of these 'pink' people?" Although there was no pretext except that 'K' looks masculine. "We were raped – me and my boyfriend – with physical force." Another part of the report states that when the soldiers found out that a 31-year-old man in Mariupol was gay, he was transferred to a prison in Olevnika in the Donetsk region. The soldiers entered information about his sexual orientation into his papers, and as a result he became the victim of several cases of sexual violence.

The witnesses

A characteristic feature of the Russian occupiers' sexual crimes is that they 'need' the public to do as much damage as possible. This is what distinguishes sexual crimes during war from similar incidents in peacetime, where such crimes are usually committed in secret to cover up and for the perpetrator to escape punishment.

Especially close friends and relatives are forced to observe the torture.

Criminals often do not think about the responsibility they have in the occupied territories. They are primarily interested in asserting their power and achieving both personal and military-political goals. This is the reason why violence assumes a public form and that violence is used in the presence of relatives, friends, neighbors or other people who are with the victim in the crisis center or in detention centers.

The presence of witnesses – especially close friends and relatives – inflicts further suffering on the victim, and eyewitnesses are also traumatized, since they are rarely able to help. They are forced to observe the torture – silently and helplessly. As a result, witnesses themselves become victims and live with it trauma, similar in intensity and symptoms to the trauma of the so-called primary victims. A six-year-old boy from Mariupol saw his mother being raped by several assailants over several days. He got gray hair, says the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. A 15-year-old who witnessed abuse against his mother got suicidal thoughts afterwards.

Sexualized violence and military socialization

Sexualized violence becomes a tool of war when it serves the tactical and/or strategic interests of the army rather than just the interest of the individual soldier – in other words, when it is not only the result of a lack of discipline, but a factor in the easier achievement of military-political goals .

The commander is aware that their subordinates commit sexual assaults against the civilian population in occupied areas or against prisoners of war, but do not 'actively' oppose it.

Wayne Jordash, a British lawyer who is a consultant to Ukrainian prosecutors, said he saw signs commandeds consent in 30 cases he had reviewed. In some cases, the commander himself organized rape. It experienced 42-year-old Svetlana from the Kyiv region. She says that among three soldiers who knocked on her door during the night last March, there was an officer. He ordered the woman to join them next door, explaining: 'Our boys have been drinking and they want to relax.'

Sexualized violence is perceived by commanders as an acceptable and 'safe' way to channel soldiers' rage and frustration after defeat on the battlefield and dissatisfaction with the prevailing conditions.

Commanders can use sexualized violence as a kind reward to their soldiers, a way to encourage them and increase the morale of the soldiers, especially with mobilized soldiers who are low on motivation. At the same time, sexualized violence can be perceived by commanders as an acceptable and 'safe' way to channel soldiers' rage and frustration after defeat on the battlefield and dissatisfaction with the prevailing conditions.

It is therefore not a coincidence that Russian soldiers committed many crimes against civilians as they retreated from territories which Lyman i Donetsk regions. Gang rape also serves as a tool to form cohesion and shared values ​​in the army – an experience that brings soldiers closer together. Considering that many of those who ended up in the Russian army, especially since the mobilization in September 2022, did not know much about the war beforehand and hardly planned to participate in it, sexualized violence – as well as other crimes – can be a ritual for military socialization.

The soldiers later came out of the house, carrying four naked women with bruises on their breasts and backs – all four had been shot in the head.

#Gang rape as a way to form brotherhood is shown in the story of a man who witnessed rapes in Irpin.2 He saw several soldiers taking women into a neighboring house, and heard women screaming and crying from the basement:

“I did not hear that they were ordered to do so, nor that anyone tried to stop them. On the contrary, the soldiers encouraged each other, it was a joke to them. They spoke Russian, so we understood them. I don't remember the wording, but the meaning was something like: 'Our superiors let us do what we want unless you go to Butsja, because in Butsja there is no one waiting for you. I still don't know what they meant by that, but I guess they belonged to a unit that was stationed there, but came to Irpin to act like that.” He says that the soldiers later came out of the house, carrying four naked women with bruises on their breasts and backs – all four had been shot in the head. He was ordered to put the dead women in a truck, which the soldiers then set on fire.

The castration

Commanders may encourage sexual offenses to intimidate and demoralize the adversary. Illustrative in this respect was the video of the castration and killing of a Ukrainian prisoner of war, published on Russian social media on July 28, 2022, probably committed by a soldier from the Chechen department of Akhmat, according to research done by Bellingcat. In the investigations, they found the same soldier in various propaganda videos.

After the publication of castrationsvideo, which shows what are characterized as war crimes, there were no statements from the Russian military command about the actions of the perpetrator and his accomplices who filmed and participated. Neither the Russian military prosecutor's office nor any other institution or politician has commented on a case that is under investigation.

The alleged perpetrator told Bellingcat that he was arrested by the security police FSB, but released after two days, and that the FSB told him that everyone in the video was 'Ukrainian soldiers'.

In other cases, Russian authorities not only protect their soldiers from prosecution for war crimes in the occupied territories of Ukraine, but also openly reward them, which serves as a encouragement to new crimes for other military units. This happened to the 64th Motorized Infantry Brigade stationed in Butsja, who became notorious for several cases of sexual violence, including against children. By Putin's decree of 18. April 2022 the brigade received the honorary title 'guard' for "heroism and honour, firmness and bravery".

'It's a lie' – official Russian discourse

From the first reports of rapes began to circulate, Russian officials began to deny everything. "We categorically deny this," said Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov 1 March 2022, in response to the statement from the International Criminal Court ICC) about the war crimes of the Russian army. A few weeks later he stated: “We do not believe the information [from the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office] about raped women at all. That is a lie.”

Internationally, too, Russian officials categorically deny that soldiers have committed sexual crimes in Ukraine: At the UN Security Council meeting on the situation in Ukraine on April 4, 2022, the Russian side claimed that such information was spread to "distort the facts and discredit the special military operation".

In an open letter, she was advised to 'choose her words more carefully'.

Another UN meeting on 6 June 2022 opened with a report from That's why Patten, UN special representative for sexual violence in conflicts. She spoke about 124 cases of sexualized violence linked to the invasion of Ukraine. The response from Russian UN Ambassador Vasilij Nebenzia, was that "no evidence" supported such accusations, which were "the favorite tactic of the Kyiv regime and its Western counterparts". When Patten presented information that Russian soldiers used Viagra during rapes, the Russian Foreign Ministry published in response from spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. According to her, such claims were a "perverted fantasy" and "impossible to take seriously".

We can see a similar rhetoric in the Russian media about the denial of sexual crimes committed by the Russian army. In June 2022 stated propagandista Olga Skabejeva in her TV talk show that "it is a well-known fact that no one has raped anyone. Anyway, not a single person accusing Russian soldiers, hasn't even said his name, surname, place of the incident or time of the rape".

But the presenter presumably knew that Ukrainian prosecutors already had transferred a case about rape to the legal apparatus – published on Facebook. The suspect was Mikhail Romanov from the 239th Regiment of the 90th Tank Division of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Kremlin's top propagandist

Other Russian media people also stick to the official 'lack of evidence' version. Presenter and author Vladimir Solovyov, the Kremlin's top propagandist, wrote in his Telegram channel on May 4, 2022 that "the information minions of the Banderites are breathing life into an old 'myth' that the Russian army are rapists". In his view, it was nothing more than a "revival of the Goebbels propaganda" that "emerged in Nazi Germany towards the end of the war" about Russian soldiers raping all German women between the ages of 8 and 80.

Solovyov drew parallels between the 'fictitious' sexual crimes of Russian soldiers in 1945 with those of the Russian army in Ukraine now. In his desire to convince his audience, the Kremlin propagandist referred to the denial of one of the most documented and investigated sexual crimes in the history of warfare, namely those committed by the Red Army in occupied Germany. According to military historian Antony Beevor's research around 100 women became i Berlin subjected to sexualized violence by Red Army soldiers – thousands of whom died, mainly by taking their own lives.

Sexualized violence by the Russian military in Ukraine is not just a 'by-product', a result of poor discipline, low morale or abuse of power by individual soldiers and officers. Its systematics, scope and organization show a deliberate use of sexual violence to achieve the leadership's military-political goals. That is why investigation and punishment of the culprits should be a priority – not only for Ukraine, but also for international institutions – to help the victims and achieve justice and lasting peace.

Translated from English by Iril Kolle. Previously published in Spline. Copyright Eurozine

1 The perpetrators were on both sides of the conflict, for example members of the disbanded Ministry of the Interior's "Tornado" company, some of whom were convicted of rape.
The UN pointed to cases of sexualized violence used by Ukrainian police officers
against internees in Donbas.

2 Side 35 points. 99–101 i Interim Report on reported violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Ukraine.

Marta Havrysko
Marta Havrysko
Havyshko is a historian and feminist, National Academy of Science/Basel University.

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