What Remains Unseen: The Russia-Ukraine War from the Gender Perspective
The Russian-Ukrainian war has continued for more than a year. Among the causes of war, most often mentioned, are the struggle for influence; the personal ambitions of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin; and his conviction about the weakness of the West and Ukraine. The sources of the war also include international anarchy and the lack of a mandatory judiciary.
If you put aside the reasons mentioned above and look at things from a different angle, you can see the hidden mechanisms of war that do not break through in everyday life. The gender perspective is a part of the feminist approach in the study of international relations. Its supporters recognize gender as an important factor in explaining the phenomena and mechanisms of the modern world and thus undermine several basic concepts of international relations. This allows us to reconstruct many concepts such as national interest, strength and power, cooperation, as well as armed conflict. The reconstruction of the dominant realistic picture of war, its understanding and explanation, and the prevailing male narrative about the war consists, firstly, in asking the question “Where are the women?” Secondly, it involves asking to what extent omitting women in the analysis of the causes of conflicts limits the understanding of the mechanism of war. Thirdly, it involves inscribing this image of non-male experiences.
It should be emphasized that there are several variants of the feminist view of international relations. What they have in common is defining masculinity and femininity in terms of socially- and culturally-constructed categories rather than biological characteristics, as well as pointing to the duality of characteristics perceived as typically masculine and feminine (e.g. reason–emotions, public–private). More importantly, all variants agree that the features attributed to men by both the male and female part of society are valued more highly than the female ones. Supporters of the feminist approach recognize that objectivity, as it is culturally defined, is associated with masculinity, and therefore what is closer to women’s experiences is perceived as subjective and less important. In the context of the war, the feminist perspective rejects the possibility of separating moral command from political action and seeks to find common moral elements in human aspirations which could become the basis for de-escalating international conflict and building international community.
Domestic Violence and International Peace
The traditional causes of wars and armed conflicts include territorial disputes, differences of interest, competition, struggle for dominance on a global scale or in the region, access to raw materials, and national and ethnic issues, as well as ideological ones. Supporters of the feminist approach also cite other reasons including the high level of violence against women and the gender gap. In their opinion, both factors contribute to a greater tendency to break international law, as well as to more aggressive international activity.
Supporters of the feminist approach also see a correlation between a high level of women’s representation in and a non-aggressive foreign policy. In the case of Ukraine and Russia, gender gaps in terms of economic opportunities, education, and health are relatively high, while those relating to women’s influence on political decisions, including those regarding foreign policy, remain very low. This may translate into a limited possibility of pacifying the behavior of states.
Considering this, it is necessary to think about the situation of women in both Russia and Ukraine. The Russian Federation has not ratified the “Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence” (“Istanbul Convention”). Moreover, in 2017, the Russian Duma passed a law aimed at Russian women, according to which domestic violence would be considered only an administrative offense, and not a crime, if the first incident of violence did not lead to serious bodily injury—that is, loss of sight, hearing, fractures, threat to health, and life. It should be noted that between 2011 and 2019, more than 12,000 Russian women died as a result of domestic violence, of which 81% were killed by their partners.
Ukraine ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2022, ten years after it was signed. Before the 2022 Russian aggression, at least 600 Ukrainian women died each year from gender-based violence. Since 2014—the seizure of Crimea by Russia and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine—about 170 women have been killed there annually. After February 24, 2022, the war remains the main threat to Ukrainian women, enhancing the possibility of loss of health and life, forced resettlement, exile, sexual violence, both war rape and violence against refugee women, and forceful prostitution. The end of the war is not synonymous with the improvement of their situation. The necessity to perform roles perceived as typically male during the war may contribute to strengthening their independence and reluctance to return to the situation from before the war of performing traditional female roles. Additionally, the return of men often affected by PTSD from the front may increase the level of domestic violence.
In both countries, the increasing militarization of social life is observed. This is significant because advocates of the gender perspective see it as a crucial source of wars and armed conflicts, as well as a factor in violence against women. While in the case of Ukraine, it is a consequence of the Russian aggression of 2014 and the ongoing war, in the case of Russia it is a process initiated and sustained by its decision-makers. Militarization in Russia involves the economy as well as schools and universities, adults and children.
Russia's Toxic Masculinity
The macho image of Vladimir Putin and his aggressive language coincide with the policy of the Russian Federation. The leader of Russia is a man parliament and parity in education who believes in the usefulness of sheer force, even brutality, which he has proved many times, including during the Second Chechen War and with Ukraine. Being the political leader of the Russian state, he has transferred this pattern of behavior to the state, which is relentless, ruthless, and cruel in its actions. The image of the alpha male manifests itself in maintaining a distance from members of his own government, showing superiority to ministers or generals, as well as leaders of Western countries and Western integration structures. Putin’s arrogant treatment of post-Soviet states and Central European NATO members during talks with U.S. President Joe Biden in December 2021 is in line with the logic of gender and gender hierarchy, which is important for the feminist trend.
According to Laura Sjoberg, states’ identities are gendered in the sense that their goal is to reproduce male-perceived traits such as violence, aggressiveness, and honor in their relations with other states. State identities are gendered and relations between states are based on a gender hierarchy. They can be found, for example, in the competition of Russia, the aim of which is to prove to other countries, including primarily the West, its own “masculinity:” relative and absolute strength. Putin’s goal was to return to the concert of powers and for the U.S., Germany, and France to accept the neutral status of Ukraine, to stop NATO enlargement, and to not deploy additional troops and weapons systems on the territory of countries that were not members of the alliance before 1997.
Putin’s behavior is in line with his perception of interpersonal relations and a world in which the stronger are allowed more and weakness should be exploited. The logic of gender and the gender hierarchy can also be related to the terminology of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, often referred to as rape. Conquering its territory is sometimes called its penetration. The German attack on Belgium in August 1914, as well as the Nazi attack on Poland by the Third Reich on September 1 and the USSR on September 17 in 1939, were all described similarly. Likewise, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Iraq and Saddam Hussein were then identified as the hyper-male aggressors, with the U.S.-led coalition as the chivalrous defender.
The interstate rivalry can also be presented as a personal contest between leaders Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as the leaders of Russia and the U.S. An attempt to prove one’s own relative and absolute strength, but also to feminize the opponent (by reducing or subordinating him), can be seen in Putin’s relationship with President Biden. Putin, Russian politicians, and the state-controlled media describe the President of the United States as an old man, a sick man, and an infirm fool.
What image of masculinity accompanies President Zelensky? He is portrayed as a hero and defender of his country. Zelensky is ready to show his emotions, to ask for help, to be moved, so he reaches for features more often attributed to women. The war between Russia and Ukraine can therefore be written into a duel between the models of toxic “macho” masculinity in Putin and the brave, gentle, but still strong defender embodied by Zelensky.
Putin also verbally feminizes the European Union, calling it “Gayropa,” by joining the words gay and Europe. In the eyes of Putin and many Russians, the EU focuses on minor, unimportant, and unmanly issues such as equal rights for women and LGBTQ people. They also consider those Europeans immoral and a threat to traditional European and Russian values. Sticking to the gender characteristics of countries’ identities, the EU is often perceived as the epitome of characteristics closer to women. One of the first to write about this was Robert Kagan, according to whom the European Union is from Venus, unlike the U.S. being from Mars. The U.S., along with NATO, are often cast as defenders of the European Union. At the same time, for many years, attempts have been made to strengthen the male element of the European Union’s identity, as exemplified by the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). Within the ESDP, power and security are defined in much more masculine terms—“hard” power and “military” security. It is worth noting that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict helped the EU to strengthen the masculine component of its international identity.
The strongest form of feminization, both verbal and physical, concerns Ukraine. The stronger state, which is Russia, attacked the weaker state, which is Ukraine, by previously using pressure, blackmail, and interference in its internal affairs. Before the aggression of February 24, 2022, Russia attempted to decide about the future of Ukraine, trying unsuccessfully to make deals with superpowers. An analogy can be made of Ukraine as a woman whose possessive partner controls her life. If she eludes him, he will use violence and try to destroy her. Ukraine’s turn towards the West after more than three centuries of union between the two countries is treated in the Russian narrative as a betrayal of Ukraine, for which it had to pay.
Bad Russian Warriors and Ukrainian Wonder Women
The archetypal image of war and the accompanying narrative reproduces the image of a passive, innocent, and beautiful woman (“Beautiful Souls”), and active, just, and fighting men (“Just Warriors”) who are assigned the active roles of warriors and protectors. By contrast, women are usually assigned the role of passivity (superficially), depicted as non-combatants, and shown as needing protection. Despite the passage of time and the changing world, in wartime and state narratives, the need to protect women motivates men to wage war, and in peacetime to strengthen their power and control. The misconception of women as passive makes their perspective easier to ignore because it is difficult to translate into interstate relations.
This kind of war narrative can be transferred to the Russian-Ukrainian war only to a small extent. Certainly, the wartime hero narrative containing the ideal image of masculinity, courage, and protection can be found on both sides of the conflict. At the same time, on the Ukrainian side, we are observing a clear and unprecedented increase in the activity of women, including female soldiers. This makes the narrative about passive “Beautiful Souls,” although sometimes present, definitely more difficult, because it blatantly does not reflect reality. Ukrainian women are visible and active, which has been influenced by the militarization of the state after 2014.
In 2008, only 1,800 women served in the Ukrainian military, a number that rose to 23,000 in 2017 and then 24,487 in 2018, 27,074 in 2019, and 29,760 by 2020. According to Deputy Minister for Veterans Affairs of Ukraine Oleksiy Illiashenko: “There are more than 400,000 combatants since the beginning of the military aggression of the Russian Federation in 2014. More than 19,000 of them are women.” Russian women could and did serve in the Russian and Soviet armies as volunteers. After the collapse of the USSR, by a November 1992 decree of then-President Boris Yeltsin, women were allowed to enlist in the contract service. According to Russian law, however, women cannot fight in combat.
The “Just Warriors” narrative is also more difficult to defend. Ukrainian women, whether as soldiers or refugees, remain active, and many of them have the power of movers and do not need protection. The image of Ukrainian and Russian mothers is also different. The former are mainly war victims, refugees, or soldiers, while the latter is dominated by the image of bad mothers, women ignoring crimes, and supporting Russia and their sons. Additionally, many women as heads of states and leaders of international institutions cannot be omitted from a gender analysis of the war: it is enough to mention Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission; Annalena Baerbock, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany; Ingrida Simonyte, Prime Minister of Lithuania; Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia; and Sanna Marin, Former Prime Minister of Finland. Despite the huge support of Western countries, including the EU, Finland, Sweden, and Germany, which pursue an explicitly “feminist foreign policy,” these leaders rarely mention that gender will be a framework for them, or even one of the elements of solving Ukraine’s problems.
In the discussion on non-military activities, negotiations, or the future of Ukraine, gender issues are not raised. The unity of the West and the relatively quick sanctions imposed on Russia initially hit primarily the wealthiest and the middle class. As time passes and the Russian economy shrinks, those who are most marginalized, including women, will suffer the most. As a consequence, the participation of women in the labor market and feminist activism will probably weaken, while the patriarchy will strengthen, and the level of violence will increase. Since the end of war often means the threat of a significant increase in domestic violence, it is postulated that women should be included in future peace negotiations. The argument in favor of their participation is also the result of research, according to which such agreements are more durable.
None of this is to say that women are somehow more peaceful than men. It only shows that they can bring new elements to negotiations and pay attention to what is of little importance in the perception of men. Getting Ukrainian women involved in peace talks would also reflect the enormous contribution they have made to the defense of their homeland. So far, the only Russia-Ukraine negotiations held in Istanbul in March 2022 were almost exclusively attended by men. As mentioned previously, the leaders of European countries and the European Union can play an important role in changing this scenario. According to a survey in March and April 2022, conducted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo, 43% of the Ukrainians surveyed were in favor of the participation of women in the Ukrainian delegation for peace talks. Their participation is supported by 47% of Ukrainian women surveyed and 40% of Ukrainian men. Only 13% were against it.
Rape as Low-Cost Weaponry
Armed conflicts have a gender dimension, due to the intentional choice of strategy and tactics of warfare, including rape. Women and girls are particularly (though not exclusively) at risk of war rape. According to the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) definition, rape is considered a war crime. According to the statute, rape refers to a situation in which
the perpetrator invaded the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body. The invasion was committed by force, or by threat of force or coercion, such as that caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or abuse of power, against such person or another person, or by taking advantage of a coercive environment, or the invasion was committed against a person incapable of giving genuine consent.
The crime of war rape in Ukraine was proved in the first weeks of April 2022, as the Ukrainian ombudsman received 400 reports of rapes committed by Russian soldiers. In March 2023, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine published a report on war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. It covers manslaughter, torture, rape, and the deportation of children. Rape as a war crime was also mentioned by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in her speech during the Munich Security Conference in February 2023.
Rape is associated with the possibility of loss of life or health, both physical and mental (notably depression), but also with shame, trauma, the possibility of pregnancy, and sometimes rejection by the family or local community. It is therefore associated with a double burden of victimization. This type of violence is a cheap and effective weapon, as it serves several purposes. It is pursuant to a policy of ethnic cleansing without resorting to genocide. The very real fear of threat caused by violence and demoralization prompts people to leave certain territories. Secondly, forcing men to watch rape serves as their symbolic castration, and thus feminization and humiliation. Thirdly, sexual violence against women, including those in Ukraine, can be related to the symbolic expansion of the state’s territory and the humiliation of the nation’s mothers. The conqueror, in this case the Russian soldier, at the moment of conquest dominates not only the particular woman but also those whose role was to protect them. In this context, forced impregnation is a violation not only of a woman’s bodily autonomy, but also an attack on a group, nation, or state. It is a message about the adversary’s inability to protect what is valuable. The ability to achieve so many goals at relatively low cost means that decision-makers and commanders rarely punish this type of violence. They often even encourage it, especially since a conviction for war rape is difficult and rare, despite existing international standards. The sexual violence and rape of women and girls in Ukraine by Russian soldiers is a deliberate use of this type of tactic.
Why do rapes occur during wars, including the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war? First, during armed conflicts there is a polarization of gender roles, the strengthening of relations based on patriarchy and the abuse of power, as well as the increase in the use of sexual violence. In the case of the ongoing war, the conservatism of Russian society and the aforementioned high level of violence against Russian women are also important factors at play. This makes the use of sexual violence outside of state borders easier, especially if it is treated as a kind of weapon and tactic of war carried out with a sense of impunity and even properness. During wars, social norms are suspended, and control over one’s own family or society disappears. At the same time, a soldier in a hostile country where general conscription has been announced has “easy access” to women staying at home without their partners. Forced recruitment of soldiers, such as in Russia, also increases the likelihood of sexual violence.
Currently, the ranks of the Russian army are recruited from the lower classes and imprisoned criminals, which reduces the cohesion of the army and lowers the morale level. According to some researchers, group rapes are the way to socialize reluctant soldiers and consolidate the group. Faulty and coercive selection mechanisms for Russian fighters, low pay, low group cohesion, low morale, lack of full knowledge of warfare, and national and ethnic diversity all contribute to higher levels of violence during war.
The gender perspective allows us to see what is invisible in international relations, as well as in wars and armed conflicts. It helps to understand better the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine and the ongoing conflict. We find gender logic and gender hierarchies important for the feminist perspective in past and present relations between Russia and Ukraine. We can also find them in Russian politics, especially under Vladimir Putin. The machismo of the Russian leader is also embodied in Russia, which emphasizes force and violence in its foreign policy. It can therefore be concluded that the gender logic and gender hierarchy overlap with the anarchic structure of international relations. In an invisible gender-specific way, it orders global international political relations.
 See also Agata Włodkowska, “The Conflict in Ukraine from the Feminist Perspective'' in The Russia-Ukraine War of 2022. Faces of Modern Conflict, eds. Agnieszka Kasińska-Metryka, Karolina Pałka-Suchojad, (New York: Routledge 2023): chap. 6.
 Judith Ann Tickner, “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation,” Millennium – Journal of International Studies 17, no 3 (1988): 430–431.
 Tickner, “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles,” 437–438.
 See Valerie M. Hudson, Mary Caprioli, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Rose McDermott, and Chad F. Emmett, “The Heart of the Matter. The Security of Women and the Security of States,” International Security 33, no. 3 (Winter 2008/09): 7–45.
 Hudson, Caprioli, Ballif-Spanvill, McDermott, and Emmett, “The Heart of the Matter,” 7–45.
 Insight Report, “Global Gender Gap Report 2021,” March 2021, https://www.weforum.org/reports/ global-gender-gap-report-2021?_gl=1*1488zh6*_up*MQ.&gclid=Cj0KCQiAjbagBhD3ARIsANRrq EuigYbtZnqhm8hgC7gaqZ1S0TYAp9ZmT3aDZn3pBwbHlf6K_kIJiOwaAqrWEALw_wcB. See Also “Global Gender Gap Report 2022,” Insight Report, July 2022, https://www.weforum.org/reports/globalgender-gap-report-2022/in-full?_gl=1*70maen*_up*MQ.&gclid=Cj0KCQiAjbagBhD3ARIsANRrqEu igYbtZnqhm8hgC7gaqZ1S0TYAp9ZmT3aDZn3pBwbHlf6K_kIJiOwaAqrWEALw_wcB. Notably, the Russian Federation was not featured in the 2022 edition.
 “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence,” Istanbul, 11 May 2011, Council of Europe Treaty Series, no. 210, https://www.coe.int/en/web/ conventions/full-list?module=treaty-detail&treatynum=210.
 CEPA, “Russia’s Domestic Violence Epidemic,” 24 August 2021, https://cepa.org/russias-domesticviolence-epidemic/.
 “March In Dnipro Urges Ukrainian Women Not To Remain ‘Silent’ On Domestic Violence, March In Dnipro Urges Ukrainian Women Not To Remain ‘Silent’ On Domestic Violence,” Radio Free Europe, November 25, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/march-in-dnipro-urges-ukrainian-women-to-not-remain-silent-on-domestic-violence/30290165.html.
 Yael Lahav, Keith D. Renshaw, and Zahava Solomon, “Domestic Abuse and Forgiveness among Military Spouses,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 2, no. 2 (2019): 243-244; Michelle D. Sherman, Fred Sautter, M. Hope Jackson, Judy A. Lyons, and Xiaotong Han, “Domestic Violence in Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Who Seek Couples Therapy,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 32, no. 4 (October 2006): 479-490.
 Laura Sjoberg, Gendering Global Conflict: Toward a Feminist Theory of War (New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2013), chap. 3.
 Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, The Rape Of Poland: Pattern Of Soviet Aggression (Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2010).
 Sjoberg, Gendering Global Conflict, chap. 3.
 See Rebecca Friedman, “Soviet and Russian Masculinities: Rethinking Soviet Fatherhood after Stalin and Renewing Virility in the Russian Nation under Putin,” The Journal of Modern History 92, no. 4 (December 2020): 859–898.
 Robert Kagan, “Power and Weakness,” Policy Review, no. 113 (June and July 2002).
 EEAS, “The Common Security and Defence Policy,” https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/common-security-and-defence-policy_en#:~:text=The%20Common%20Security%20and%20Defence%20Policy%20(CSDP)%20enables%20the%20Union,on%20civilian%20and%20military%20assets.
 Jean Bethke Elshtain, “On Beautiful Souls, Just Warriors, and Feminist Consciousness,” in In Women and Men’s Wars, ed. Judith Stiehm (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1983).
 Stefan Weichert and Emil Filtenborg, “For Ukraine’s female soldiers, armed conflict is not the only danger,” euronews.com, May 11, 2021, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2021/05/07/for-ukraine-sfemale-soldiers-armed-conflict-is-not-the-only-danger.
 “‘Ukraine has more than 19,000 women defenders out of more than 400,000 combatant’: Oleksiy Illiashenko,” Ministry for Veterans Affairs of Ukraine, September 10, 2021, https://mva.gov.ua/en/news/v-ukrayini-z-ponad-400-tisyach-uchasnikiv-bojovih-dij-bilshe-19-tisyach-zahisnici-oleksij-illyashenko.
 Azadeh Moaveni and Chitra Nagarajan, “Another deeply gendered war is being waged in Ukraine. Countries with ‘feminist’ foreign policies need a sharper gender framework for addressing Ukraine’s predicament,” Al Jazeera, March 15, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/3/15/another-deeplygendered-war-is-being-waged-in-ukraine.
 Jana Krause, Werner Kraus, and Piia Bränfors, “Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations and the Durability of Peace,” International Interactions 44, no. 6 (2018): 985-1016.
 Ragnhild Nordås, Louise Olsson, Gudrun Østby, and Torunn L. Tryggestad, “Ukrainian Women Engage in Resistance and Should Be in the Peace Talks: New Survey Evidence,” April 2022, https://blogs. prio.org/2022/04/ukrainian-women-engage-in-resistance-and-should-be-in-the-peace-talks-new-surveyevidence/.
 “Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” Rome, July 17, 1998, in force on 1 July 2002, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 2187, no. 38544, Depositary: Secretary-General of the United Nations, https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/unts/volume%202187/v2187.pdf.
 Laurel Wamsley, “Rape has reportedly become a weapon in Ukraine. Finding justice may be difficult,” NPR, April 30, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/04/30/1093339262/ukraine-russia-rape-war-crimes. See also “Sexual Violence ‘Most Hidden Crime’ Being Committed against Ukrainians, Civil Society Representative Tells Security Council,” Meetings Coverage Security Council, SC/14926, June 6, 2022, https://press.un.org/en/2022/sc14926.doc.htm.
 “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine,” Human Rights Council, March 15, 2023, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/hrbodies/hrcouncil/coiukraine/A_HRC_52_62_AUV_EN.pdf.
 “Remarks by Vice President Harris at the Munich Security Conference,” The White House, February 18, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/02/18/remarks-by-vice-president-harris-at-the-munich-security-conference-2/.
 Lori Handrahan, “Conflict, Gender, Ethnicity and Post-Conflict Reconstruction,” Security Dialogue 35, no. 4 (December 2004): 437.
 Nordås, “Why Widespread Sexual Violence.”
 Sjoberg, Gendering Global Conflict, chap. 3.