Rape Rhetoric and Russia’s War on Ukraine

Putin’s rhetoric towards Ukraine is characteristic of rape culture—and the international community can’t afford to ignore it.

An anti-war rally in Vancouver on Feb. 26. (GoToVan / Wikimedia Commons)

As in the case of many an abusive ex-partner, Putin has threateningly hovered and glowered over Ukraine since the country declared itself independent in 1991.  

And after years of tension—taking every opportunity to test its borders, mischaracterize its history and malign its character—Putin finally struck out in violent revenge for his humiliating loss by invading Ukraine this week, determined to take back by force what he has asserted is rightfully his. 

This playbook of bullying and domination is well known to those who study sexual and interpersonal violence, with parallels both implicit and explicit. For years, witnesses have stood on the sidelines while Putin raged and menaced.

For example, Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent occupation of Donbass, though condemned by the West, remained substantively unchallenged. Whether geopolitically or interpersonally, when bystanders look the other way or raise faint objections in the face of abusive or exploitative relationships, an escalation of violence often ensues. 

Those who enact state violence also often employ rape rhetoric. Two weeks before giving the order to invade Ukraine, Putin was reported to have made reference to a joke about marital rape, saying, “It’s your duty, my beauty” when he spoke of compelling President Zelinsky to comply with the Minsk agreements. Putin takes a “whether you like it or not” approach in the case of an accord that Ukraine finds unfavorable, and feels to have been “foisted upon the country’s leaders with little room for recourse.” Zelinsky demurred, agreeing that Ukraine was a beauty, but objecting to Putin’s use of the possessive adjective “my” in his statement.

Putin apologists protested that his phrasing was not a reference to rape, but rather “an ordinary expression often used to reprimand stubborn children.” In 2006, Putin joked about rape charges then pending against Israel’s President Moshe Katsav, saying he was envious of Katsav, who “didn’t look like a guy who could be with 10 women.” Faced with criticism for the remark, the Kremlin attributed it to difficulties in translation from Russian to English. 

Assaulting or making denigrating statements about those perceived as weaker, and then denying that those insults (whether physical or verbal) ever actually occurred is a common tactic of abusers. Its effectiveness depends on others being complicit in the ruse, or at least not making strenuous objections.

Thus, as Russian troops (as many as 190,000), tanks and blood supplies amassed along the Ukrainian border, even while Putin professed to be engaging in mere military exercises, many in the international community preferred to willingly suspend disbelief, leaving a vulnerable state prone to invasion.

In addition to gaslighting, where the veracity of victim’s experience is denied, aggressors often engage in victim blaming, accusing their targets of provoking acts of violence against them by their own actions—as Russia has done in the case of Ukraine.

Citing what the BBC and others have called “false and irrational” motivations for moving in on Ukraine, Putin claimed that his intent was actually to protect the people of Ukraine from what he called “Nazification” (though their president is Jewish and had relatives who died in the Holocaust) and paradoxically professing that Russia was the one who could not feel safe due to what he called a constant threat from Ukraine.

The psychological manipulation attendant to such claims by the powerful epitomizes the proverbial addition of insult to injury, contributing to the further marginalization of victims by casting doubt on their credibility. 

Oppressors fear the loss of partners whose behavior they have sought to control and Ukraine’s drift towards the West, out of the Kremlin’s orbit, resulted in a punishing response that is not unexpected in such power relationships, whether between countries or domestic partners. The exercise of agency on the part of the formerly subjugated is infuriating to the abuser, who may react with murderous rage. 

Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is characterized by his fantasy-based (not historical), oft-repeated trope that Ukraine is the “mother of all Russian cities,” inextricably binding the two, with Ukraine identified as an essential root of Russian imperialism, according to author Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins and the London School of Economics.

Putin, says Pomerantsev, uses false “historical narratives about Ukraine which are all about deification on the one hand and the desire to humiliate and abuse on the other.” As Ukraine has persistently asserted its separation from Russia, it has been characterized by Russia “as a prostitute: If Kiev refuses to be Moscow’s mother… then it must be castigated as a whore.” This metaphor aptly illustrates philosopher Kate Manne’s concept of male entitlement as a feature of misogyny, obligating women, or those with fewer resources, to give powerful men what they purportedly deserve, or risk defamation and grave threat.

Rape culture, in the context of conflicts such as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, can be characterized by the increased incidence of violence against women and the restriction of rights for all.

Such beliefs are rooted in rape culture, which, according to counseling psychologists Johnson and Johnson, includes: 1. traditional gender roles, 2. sexism, 3. adversarial sexual beliefs, 4. hostility towards women, and 5. acceptance of violence. Susan Brownmiller coined the term “rape culture” in her classic feminist bestseller, Against Our Will; Men, Women and Rape in 1973.

Rape culture is characterized by its continuous put downs and objectification of women and restrictions on their autonomy. Societies where rape culture is rife may also be more likely to abide anti-democratic sentiment and restrictions on the exercise of agency by all citizens, at times through violent means. 

Rape culture, in the context of conflicts such as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, can be characterized by the increased incidence of violence against women and the restriction of rights for all. Rape has been used as a weapon of war the world over throughout history, as Brownmiller makes clear—and there is reason to fear that such tactics will be employed in the current conflict in Ukraine.

The international community must refuse to turn a blind eye to this seemingly inevitable element of the brutality of war. Ignoring the actions of bullies as they threaten and malign their victims allows for the escalation of violence that, when unchecked, can expose individuals to grave danger—and the international community to the brink of world war.  

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Bonnie Stabile, Ph.D., is associate professor and associate dean for student and academic affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, where she founded and directs the Gender and Policy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @bstabile1.