This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The Russo-Ukrainian war began in February 2014, involving Russia and pro-Russian forces on the one hand, and Ukraine, with the support of NATO and the European Union on the other (Lally 2014). The conflict began in February 2014, and centred on the status of Crimea and parts of Donbas, which has been internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.
After the Euromaidan protests and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was removed in February 2014, and the pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine, Russian soldiers (without insignias) took control of strategic positions and infrastructure in Crimea. In March 2014, Russia adopted a resolution to use military force in Ukraine (Morello et al. 2014), following which it annexed Crimea after a local referendum it organized (Reuters 2014). In the month after, demonstrations by pro-Russian groups in Donbas escalated into a war between the Government of Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. Russian military vehicles crossed the border into Ukraine.
In September 2015, the UN OHCHR estimated that 8000 casualties had resulted from the conflict. Between April 2014 and September 2021, the UN OHCHR recorded a total of 3095 conflict-related civilian deaths, and over 7,000 civilian injuries. Some estimates suggest that over 10,000 people were killed in the conflict (Losh 2017).
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
The Russo-Ukraine war triggered sexual violence on both sides with no penal consequences for the perpetrators (Losh 2017). While in the region that is loyal to Russia, several women are subject to sexual violence with impunity, the territory held by the Ukrainian government witnessed sexual violence as part of law enforcement (Losh 2017). The Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict dataset shows that sexual violence by Russian forces has been reported in three of seven years of conflict since 2014 in eastern Ukraine (Hallsdóttir, 2022). The UN OHCHR documented instances of sexual violence in territories controlled by the government, by armed groups, and in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (UN OHCHR 2017). Owing to severe underreporting, there isn’t much clarity on the actual numbers. Women were especially vulnerable to sexual violence at entry-exit checkpoints along transport corridors along the contact line and checkpoints run by government forces and armed groups alike (Walker 2016). The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) listed four types of risks of sexual violence as prevalent in the initial phase of the war, from 24 February to 26 March 2022 (OHCHR 2022a). On 29 June, the OHCHR (2022b) reported receiving 108 allegations of conflict related sexual violence, of which it had verified 23 cases.
Basis of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence has typically been used as part of torture or cruel treatment in the Russo-Ukraine war, rather than for strategic or tactical purposes. Most cases documented by the UN OHCHR (2017) pertained to the deprivation of liberty by either the government forces or armed groups – where men and women alike were subjected to sexual violence to punish, humiliate, and/or extract confessions. In some instances, to increase pressure on those they wanted to target, the perpetrators detained or abducted and used sexual violence against relatives of their targets. In the territory controlled by armed groups sexual violence was also used to compel individuals deprived of liberty to relinquish property or perform other actions demanded by the perpetrators, as an explicit condition for their safety and release (UN OHCHR 2017).
In many instances, women were subjected to survival sex in exchange for men supporting their basic needs in the conflict region (Protection Cluster Ukraine 2016). It was also used in the name of erasing disobedience (Bodnar 2016), maintain strict, effective control over the occupied cities and to restrict the freedom of speech (Ukrainian Centre for Social Reforms 2016), and even shift the borders of the conflict where landowners were threatened with rape if they did not comply with forced evictions (Krauzman 2021).
Reuters (2014) "Putin admits Russian forces were deployed to Crimea", Reuters, 17 April 2014. http://uk.reuters.com/article/russia-putin-crimea-idUKL6N0N921H20140417
Hallsdóttir, Esther (2022). "Are Russian troops using sexual violence as a weapon? Here's what we know". The Washington Post.
Morello, Carol; Constable, Pamela; Faiola, Anthony (17 March 2014). "Crimeans vote in referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine, join Russia". The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2014/03/16/ccec2132-acd4-11e3-a06a-e3230a43d6cb_story.html
Lally, Kathy (17 April 2014). "Putin's remarks raise fears of future moves against Ukraine — The Washington Post". TheWashington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/putin-changes-course-admits-russian-troops-were-in-crimea-before-vote/2014/04/17/b3300a54-c617-11e3-bf7a-be01a9b69cf1_story.html
OHCHR (2021) “Conflict-related civilian casualties in Ukraine.” https://ukraine.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/Conflict-related%20civilian%20casualties%20as%20of%2030%20September%202021%20%28rev%208%20Oct%202021%29%20EN.pdf
OHCHR (2017) “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine 14 March 2014 to 31 January 2017.” https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/UA/ReportCRSV_EN.pdf
OHCHR (2022). Update on the human rights situation in Ukraine. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/HRMMU_Update_2022-03-26_EN.pdf
Losh, Jack (2017). "Rape and the Ukrainian War: How Sexual Violence Fuels Both Sides of the Brutal Conflict." https://www.newsweek.com/2017/12/08/ukraine-war-rape-sexual-violence-724754.html
Walker, Shaun (2016). "Russian and Ukrainian women's sexual abuse stories go viral." https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/08/russian-ukrainian-women-sexual-abuse-stories-go-viral
Protection Cluster Ukraine (2016) Protection Considerations for People Living Along the Contact Line.
Bodnar, A. (2016) “Gender-based violence as a weapon against the unbowed and a way to entertain.” Justice For Peace in Donbas. https://jfp.org.ua/rights/porushennia/violation_categories/henderno-obumovlene-nasylstvo/rights_violations/gbv-as-entertainment?locale=en
Ukrainian Centre for Social Reforms (2016) Analytical report: Gender-Based Violence in The Conflict-Affected Regions of Ukraine. United Nations Population Fund. https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/node/124030
Krauzman, M. (2021). "Weaponisation of Female Bodies: Inaccurate Reports of Sexual Violence In The Donbas Conflict." https://thesecuritydistillery.org/all-articles/weaponisation-of-female-bodies-inaccurate-reports-of-sexual-violence-in-the-donbas-conflict
OHCHR (2022b) "The situation of human rights in Ukraine in the context of the armed attack by the Russian Federation, 24 February to 15 May 2022." https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/situation-human-rights-ukraine-context-armed-attack-russian-federation