Russian forces have used sexual assault as a weapon in the past. Are they now?

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No tangible proof of these allegations has yet been revealed. But evidence from recent conflicts as well as some aspects of the current invasion suggests great concern.

Russian armed forces have recently perpetrated sexual violence in other conflicts

First, Russia has recently committed wartime sexual violence. According to Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict Datasetsexual violence by Russian forces has been reported in three of the seven years of conflict since 2014 in eastern Ukraine.

The State Department National Report 2020 for Human Rights Practices in Ukraine notes, for example, that Russian-led forces allegedly inflicted “beatings and electric shocks 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 ill-treatment to punish, humiliate or extract confessions” from detainees.

This is not new for Russia either. The Russian military reportedly committed rapes in Chechnya every year for seven consecutive years at the turn of the century, against people in and out of detention.

For example, Amnesty International reported case 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 raped numerous detainees in Chechnya, including chechen boys from the age of 13.

The lack of unity of the Russian army is a red flag

Second, the apparent lack of internal unity of Russian forces is worrying. Research suggests that low levels of internal cohesion within armed groups – meaning they lack social connections with each other – correlates with wartime sexual violence. When service members don’t trust and care about each other, they are more likely to rape each other. Indeed, when fighters rape together, it can reinforce loyalty and cohesion within armed groups.

Researchers find that forced recruitment, particularly by press group when men are taken away with or without notice and forced into the army, it can also erode cohesion. The Russian military is conscription-based, so all service is compulsory. Corn reports suggest Russia is now relying on desperate measures. Men have even been snatched from their cars or from the streets in broad daylight.

Sexualized and dehumanizing language preceded mass rape elsewhere

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

One example is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rude remark to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last February, referencing an old joke about marital rape. When reviewing the implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreements between Ukraine and Russia aimed at stopping the war in eastern Ukraine, Putin said:whether you like it or not, it’s your duty, my beauty.” Experts have drawn the Kremlin’s gendered and sexualized rhetoric towards Ukraine and described Putin’s abusive behavior as “characteristic of rape culture”.

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

Syrian soldiers joining Russian forces in Ukraine is bad news

Research suggests that the recruitment of foreign fighters can increase the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence, at least by rebel groups. This is partly because they can threaten the internal social cohesion of the armed group.

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

What to prepare for in Ukraine

With all of these factors at play, early 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.

Esther Hallsdottir is a master’s candidate in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a research assistant for the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict Data Project. Previously, she was a project manager at UNICEF Iceland and served as the Icelandic Youth Human Rights Delegate to the United Nations.



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