Russia Accused of Weaponising Rape in Ukraine

Mounting evidence that soldiers are using sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Oleksandra Horchynska


Ukrainian prosecutors and human rights groups are gathering evidence of mass rape and assault committed by Russian soldiers in preparation for future war crimes trials.

As troops withdrew from towns and suburbs around the capital to regroup and refocus the offensive on Ukraine’s east, women and girls have shared grim testimonies of gang rape, sexual violence at gunpoint and assaults committed in front of relatives, including children. There have also been reports that men and boys have been subjected to sexual violence.

“Ukraine has agreed to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for crimes committed during the Russian aggression, and various forms of sexual violence is one of them,” Kateryna Pavlichenko, deputy minister of internal affairs, told IWPR.

Forensic scientists examining hundreds of bodies Russian troops left behind in towns like Bucha and Irpin said that many women had been raped.

Rape and sexual assault are considered war crimes under international humanitarian law. In 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights declared systematic rape and military sexual slavery crimes against humanity. The 1995 UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women defined rape by armed groups during conflict a war crime. 

Ukraine's prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova told reporters that her office has concluded the first stage of investigations in Irpin, a suburb of the capital Kyiv, where they spoke to 228 witnesses. Asked whether rape was a deliberate Russian tactic, she replied "I am sure, actually, that it was strategy." 

Speaking in Kyiv on May 3, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict Pramila

Patten warned that cases already under investigation were just “the tip of the iceberg,” and urged victims to report the crimes so that they could be documented and perpetrators brought to account. She added there were also “not yet verified [reports]… of sexual violence against men and boys”.

Pavlichenko explained that prosecution was a challenging and lengthy process, starting from the identification of perpetrators to establishing the intention of a deliberate strategy and the willingness of victims to testify.

“Investigations, gathering evidence, recording evidence; each stage must be carefully addressed,” she told IWPR. “But even for such crimes there is no statute of limitations, there is no amnesty. We need to gather strength and endurance, to follow international protocols. And the testimonies of the survivors will become our long-range weapon."

Human rights organisations like the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union are gathering evidence. Executive director Oleksandr Pavlichenko told IWPR that “they must first be investigated… the problem is identifying and proving these crimes”.

He maintained that “international experts should also be involved in investigations, as is the case now, with experts from France working on DNA tests,”, referring to the forensic support France is providing to Ukrainian investigators to document Russian abuses in Bucha.

Some psychologists, however, warn that immediately gathering evidence risks further traumatising victims.

“I understand that proofs and testimonies are needed, but this is still an open wound and the investigators are hurting [victims],” said Marta Chumalo, a psychologist and deputy head of the Lviv-based Women’s Perspective NGO. She noted that often survivors “need time before they decide to testify, to speak about this trauma.

“I had a case of a woman raped in her childhood, but she found the strength to tell a psychologist about it only when she was over 20 years old. And another one and half year passed before she gave evidence to the police…[when] she was no longer afraid to go to court and talk to the police. Such an evolution does not occur in a day or a month. It may take years.” 

Rights groups maintain that sexual violence has long been systemic amongst the Russian army. Oleksandr Pavlichenko stated that in Donbas there had been cases of rape since 2014, “recorded and documented, but not properly investigated”.

Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian Novaya Gazeta journalist killed in 2006, documented cases of rape Russian soldiers committed in Chechnya, with reports also surfacing in Syria.

“The two Chechen wars and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights on the statements against Russia, [show] rapes, torture, abductions, killings of civilians were their hallmark,” Larysa Denisenko, a lawyer and co-founder of the Ukrainian Women Lawyer Association, told IWPR. New evidence surfaced every day, she added, including recordings of phone conversations between soldiers and their relatives.

“[They show] support from mothers and wives for this violence. You can hear [soldiers] flaunting and promising to repeat sexual violence,” Denisenko said. 

Ukraine’s security services have provided evidence of intercepted conversations in which soldiers admitted raping women and underage girls. In an intercepted conversation, a soldier said that "in a village, soldiers raped an adult woman and a 16-year-old girl”. In another conversation a woman's voice can be heard giving her partner, a Russian soldier, permission to rape Ukrainian women. Investigative journalists said that they had  identified the two people. 

Experts note that sexual violence committed in war time is intended to terrorise civilians and demoralise troops.

“Ukrainian society is still processing this this trauma,” Chumalo said. “Denial, anger, rage, and a desire for immediate revenge are natural first reactions. But society has yet to respond to the trauma. First, the war is still ongoing. Secondly, very little time has passed for a conscious reaction.”

As of May 1, the national police had launched ten criminal proceedings for rape committed by Russian soldiers.

"One of the proceedings was initiated [following] a number of media reports of cases of rape by the occupiers, including children,” Pavlichenko explained. “It relates to the criminal proceedings initiated by the office of the prosecutor general, according to information from the parliament’s commissioner for human rights about more than 400 people’s appeals to the hotline.”

Therapists like Chumalo encourage victims to seek support in an environment that can nurse and strengthen them. Sometimes, this can only be after they leave the country.

“In Ukraine they constantly faced situations that cause re-experiencing the trauma, like seeing people in uniform or hearing air raid alerts,” she noted. “In such situations, the woman's psyche screams danger.”