Rape: The Russian tool of conquest

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 10, No. 6, June 2022

Police uncover the body of Karina Yeshiva, 22, in Bucha. Witnesses say she was tortured, raped, and shot in the head by Russian soldiers. Source: DW.

Stephanie Wild
University of Cape Town

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, at least 4,000 civilians have been killed. Moscow has therefore been accused of targeting civilians. However, this is not the only tactic emerging. Acts of rape and sexual violence are also emerging as a weapon of war. In fact, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report on the 3rd of June stating that they had already received allegations of 124 acts of conflict-related sexual assault in Ukraine. These reported assaults have mostly been against women and girls, ranging from gang rape, to coercion, to forcibly bearing witness to acts of sexual violence perpetrated against partners and children. Concerns surrounding human traffickers exploiting existing networks are also on the rise. A United Nations Security Council meeting, in particular, brought this to the attention of the world on June 6. 

Sexual violence being heavily associated with stigma and shame, the concern is that the actual figure is much higher than 124. A more accurate idea of the actual figure will only emerge with an end to the conflict. However, considering the number of reported sexual assaults, it is clear that Ukrainian women are the victims of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers each day. This points to a weaponization of sexual violence.  

The weaponization of sexual violence in Ukraine

The concept of weaponization essentially points to a systematic use of rape and acts of sexual assault with the intention of forwarding the agenda of war. Notably, this does not refer to soldiers experiencing violent outbursts out of frustration at war. It is not an accidental phenomenon. It is very much intentional. More specifically, rape is used to dehumanise its victims. This occurs through the stripping away of the victims’ dignity. Moreover, it is a way in which to express dominance. Soldiers display a physical act of dominance through the complete violation and dehumanisation of the civilian victims. It is therefore the ultimate act of dominion and victory. In fact, feminist scholars identify sexual violence, and rape specifically, to be a tool of patriarchal control, whereby sexual access to women reaffirms a man’s authority. Ultimately, the systematic use of rape when at war is a method of control through the dehumanisation and domination of the victim. This is happening in Ukraine.

In fact, Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner, Lyudmila Denisova, has been open about this weaponisation tactic described above. She has gone so far as citing victim testimony to suggest that they are signs of a “genocide of the Ukrainian people”. These victim testimonies include Russian soldiers calling Ukrainian women “Nazi whores”, as well as identifying the intention to rape until these victims can no longer birth Ukrainian children. And so, testimonies coming out of the invaded nation support this theory. With the liberation of each village, comes an influx of calls to Ukraine’s Psychological Assistance Line. While women appear to be the target of this violence, the Russian army has expanded its scope to include men and children. A man as old as 78 has reported being a victim of sodomy, and a one-year-old has been reported dead as a result of rape by two soldiers. The result of these actions is intended to be a Ukrainian sense of humiliation and helplessness.

Furthermore, it is not only testimonies and news headlines that support this notion of weaponization. This is not the first time that Russia has come under fire for this very strategy. For instance, the Soviet Army systematized the use of rape towards German women in the Second World War with the intention of gaining enemy territory. More specifically, throughout the Soviet Army’s mission to take Berlin, an estimated 125,000 German women are said to have been raped. This figure, when expanded to consider the Soviet occupation of and traversal of Eastern Europe is said to be closer to two million. Even more shocking, reports from this time indicate that victims ranged between the ages of eight and eighty.

Again, these acts cannot be dismissed as coincidental violent outbursts. Not only do the figures appear far too high for this to be the case, but evidence suggests that reports of the mass rapes were in fact read and seen by then-President Stalin. This re-enforced the idea of rape as a “tool of conquest”. Acts of sexual violence during the 1945 Soviet expansion of territory are therefore shown to have been indiscriminate and systematic. This is eerily similar to what is happening now in 2022. Russia is, again, on a mission to expand and increase its territory.     

How should Ukraine- alongside the international community- respond?

In rather broad terms, the solution here is to learn from previous mistakes. When looking at the international community’s response to Russia’s use of systematic rape in the 1940s, it was essentially non-existent. Rather, there was a silence that shrouded this topic. It is widely acknowledged that this narrative only changed in 2008 with the release of the film A Woman in Berlin. Essentially, this has amounted to over 60 years of impunity. It cannot happen again. Impunity breeds repetition. Russia must be shown that this tactic, no matter the war, is no longer an option. More than that, victims require recognition. As previously mentioned, victims of sexual violence experience extreme shame and stigma in society. The psychological effects are, as a result, generational. And so, intervention is key for a just transition to peace. 

Judicial processes in Ukraine indicate that such recognition is already underway. For instance, the first Russian soldier to be tried for rape has already been identified, Mikhail Romanov. He is accused of breaking into a civilian home, murdering the homeowner, as well as repeatedly assaulting said homeowner’s wife. While he is not in Ukrainian custody, he will be tried in his absence. And so, despite the war raging on, war crimes are already being tried in the courts of law. This momentum must, simply, not be lost. 

 Additionally, a response to these crimes must not be strictly judicial. Acts of sexual assault are notoriously difficult to convict. And so, these judicial proceedings must be accompanied by some transitional justice mechanism to ensure that those victims unable to see their attackers convicted are too recognised. These mechanisms, at their core, are driven by this very purpose. To do so, a universal truth and account of events must be established. There must be no question in the minds of the nation that these women, men and children suffered. This can only be done through investigating cases, as well as through providing the victims of Russian sexual assault a platform on which to recount their experiences. This therefore calls for a truth commission post-war. 


Stephanie Wild has a B.A in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, accompanied by a B.A Honours in Justice and Transformation, from the University of Cape Town, where she is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law. Her research focuses on transitional justice and gender.