Ukraine has become a dangerous playground for great powers as Western countries and NATO are increasingly worried about renewed hostilities in the Donbas war. Indeed, since October 2021, Russia has triggered panic by amassing approximately 120 000 troops and heavy military weaponry near Ukraine’s eastern borders and more recently in southern Belarus. Russia has repeatedly denied wanting to orchestrate a new invasion and has made a series of security demands to Western countries. Among others, Russia requests the non-expansion of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia and the withdrawal of troops and armaments from Eastern European countries that joined the alliance after 1997.
Deploying a language reminiscent of the Cold War, Western countries threaten Russia with enormous consequences, notably economic sanctions, if they invade Ukraine. In turn, Putin has hinted that failing to meet his security “guarantees” could lead to a response similar to the 1962’s Cuban missile crisis.
However, powerful statesmen, diplomats, journalists, and military strategists worldwide seem to forget that political gambling has real-life consequences: human insecurity and widespread suffering. Women, in particular, continue to bear the burden associated with armed conflict, while the COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbates all existing inequalities.
Western countries must urgently work toward the de-escalation and de-militarization of the crisis through diplomatic means. As part of its Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP), and in line with its commitment toward the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, Canada needs to consult, listen to, and work with Ukrainian women who are the ones being disproportionally affected on the ground.
Behind Big Powers Politics Lie the True Costs of War
Framed as a climax of Russia-NATO tense relations, the prevailing discourse is not about human security. In fact, human security considerations seem to be barely a preoccupation for some, even though the conflict could escalate lethally. Amid this dangerous hypermasculine cockfight, “hot takes” and analyses from all perspectives abound. However, many seem to forget that Russia has already invaded Ukraine, and the disastrous human consequences of this conflict have been well visible for years.
To help resist Russian aggression, the United States, Britain and other NATO members have sent military equipment to Ukraine, consistent with their sustained support in the country since the 2014’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Less discussed is how this intense militarization and arms circulation have massive consequences on civilian lives. Indeed, since the start of the Donbas war, Ukrainians – especially in the Eastern part of the country – have lived in constant fear, daily insecurity, and instability.
Struggling to survive, vulnerable populations such as women, internally displaced persons (IDPs), elders, Roma populations, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities have paid the high price of war. Children are severely at risk too. They live with the consequences of long-term trauma, lost education, threats from bombardments, and landmines incidents as Eastern Ukraine is among the most mine-contaminated areas in the world.
Since the beginning of the war, authorities and the UN agency for refugees have reported approximately 14,000 deaths, 1.5 million IDPs and 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Despite several failed peace negotiations and ceasefires, the conflict enters its ninth year and continues to wreak havoc.
Several reports show that residents living near the contact line face many challenges, including poverty, unemployment, destroyed infrastructure, lack of social services, essential goods, transportation, and primary health care. Research has also noted the rise in human trafficking, survival sex work, sexual violence, and alarming HIV outbreaks linked to displacement and heavy military presence.
In every war, the resulting humanitarian crisis deepens and aggravates the inequities of the patriarchal system in place. It is globally acknowledged how small arms circulation is directly linked to gender-based violence, particularly femicides. Ukraine is no different. In collaboration with survivors on the ground, Amnesty International noted a spike of domestic violence cases in Donetsk and Luhansk region.
Ukrainian women, however, are far from being solely victims. Although excluded from the Minsk processes, they have since the 2013’s Maidan revolution been engaged in all sectors of civil society and the armed forces. Like elsewhere across the world, women are essential to peace, and no peace can meaningfully exist without them. As such, they must be included in all steps of peacebuilding initiatives and upcoming negotiations.
Toward a Feminist Analysis of the Ukrainian Conflict
For countries that pride themselves on having “feminist” foreign policies, it is evident that these “soft” power principles on paper are quickly forgotten in practice. Faced with hostile states like Russia, they adopt a hard line and prioritize material and state security issues over human security. However, the Canadian government must also put its feminist values into action when pursuing diplomatic relations with states and partners resistant to women's rights. A FFP holds the key to conflict resolution because it “provides a powerful lens through which we can interrogate the violent global systems of power that leave millions of people in perpetual states of vulnerability.” Therefore, it differs from traditional foreign policy thinking by centering and prioritizing the lives and experiences of the most marginalized.
In the upcoming weeks, Western countries must continue to firmly support Ukraine’s unconditional sovereignty, agency, and dignity. Canada should continue to closely work with grassroots civil society organizations that are working on the ground to mitigate the immediate effects of the conflicts in the country. They must listen to women veterans, IDPs, activists, doctors, nurses, and other care workers on the frontline.
From Yemen to Afghanistan, Palestine and Ukraine, a feminist analysis puts forward a simple – yet often forgotten – consideration: human lives are not abstractions. Whether Russia is “bluffing” or not, Western countries must imperatively remember the massive human toll, profoundly gendered humanitarian crisis and devastating consequences of this conflict. Human security is not a secondary consideration but rather must be central and crosscutting in all defense, peace and security decisions.
The author of this article acknowledges the delicate timing of this publication, written before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. Since then, the discourses surrounding this war have changed rapidly; the article has been slightly modified to adjust that. The author of this article would like to emphasize that nothing justifies Russia's actions, and that Ukrainians have a fundamental right to self-defense. The argument defended in this article is that the humanitarian dimension of this war is neglected by many. By promoting a realist view of world politics (a world of tense competition between great powers), we forget not only the human costs associated with this war but also the agency of Ukraine, which is more than a “pawn” for great powers. The author stands in solidarity with Ukrainians.
Bénédicte Santoire (benedicte.santoire [at] uottawa.ca) is a Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests primarily include feminist theories in International Relations and Feminist Security Studies. Her thesis – funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC) and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (BÉSO) – focuses on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in the post-Soviet space, particularly in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia