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VVEngage 2021

By Lina AbiRafeh

What’s going on in Ukraine?

Long-standing tensions between Russia and Ukraine have escalated in recent weeks, creating a global security crisis that is the most significant of its kind since the Cold War. Russian troops have circled Ukraine on three sides, and it seems that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent. And this will lead to a dangerous confrontation between Russia and Western countries.

How did we get here?! Is Russia looking to start a war?!

Yes. It seems so. The most significant military mobilization in Europe since World War Two is no small thing.

The two countries haven’t gotten along for quite a while. They’ve been at war since 2014, in fact, triggered by the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Russia justified the referendum and annexation as an act of self-determination. Even though Crimea had an ethnic Russian majority in 2014, less than half of the Crimean population actually voted to join Russia. So not only did the seizure of Crimea violate multiple international agreements, it upset the European security order.

Things weren’t great before that, actually. That’s because Ukraine has been fighting for independence since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country is — was — a cornerstone of the Soviet Union. Until it said no thanks, voting overwhelmingly for independence.

What’s more, Ukraine has been working towards EU and NATO membership, meaning that this would result in a wall of Western-allied countries, blocking Russia’s access to the Black Sea. The Black Sea is vital to Russia’s geo-political and geo-economic strategy, acting not only as a springboard for exerting power in Europe, but also as an important buffer zone to ward off perceived threats from NATO.

A major turning point was the 2014 Revolution of Dignity (also known as the Maidan Revolution) that resulted in the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government. Russia supported ethnic-Russian separatist militias in the Donbas region of Ukraine, a strategic and economically-significant area on Russia’s eastern border.

Since late 2021, tensions have been increasing. In mid-December 2021, the Russian foreign ministry demanded that Ukraine be banned from entering NATO. NATO said nope! Russia sees Ukraine in NATO as a major threat — and a break-up of the family. We’re one people, Putin has said. Where do you guys think you’re going?!

Meanwhile, Russian military presence on the Ukrainian border has increased, meaning, according to Putin, Ukraine is not going anywhere. Just this week Putin recognized the independence of Moscow-backed separatist areas and ordered more troops into the region for “peacekeeping.” Western countries are now feeling the pinch.

And they are pinching back! With Putin’s peacekeeping claims dismissed as “nonsense,” the European Union has promised the imposition of more sanctions while the US will prohibit new investment, trade and financing in the two separatist regions of Ukraine recognized by Putin. The UK has also announced sanctions against Russian banks and individuals.

And so far, since 2014, there have been more than 14,000 deaths. And 1.5 million internally displaced — the majority of which are women and children. The country also has one of the largest diasporas in the world, with approximately 10 million Ukrainians (almost 25% of the population) living outside the country’s borders.

What do Ukraine’s women have to say about it?!

Women’s lives in Ukraine are overshadowed by war. And any progress toward equality takes place in that setting.

Ukrainian women have equality enshrined in their constitution — economic, political, cultural, social. And the country has made efforts to close its gender gap. Still, equality on paper takes time to translate to practice. And Ukraine remains a patriarchal country.

Ukraine currently ranks 74 out of 189 countries on the Gender Inequality Index and women remain under-represented in some key areas, most notably in positions of power, leadership, and decision-making — both economic and political. For instance, women hold only 20% of parliamentary seats. And they earn 23% less than men.

And, just like every other country in the world, women in Ukraine are not immune to all forms of violence against women. In fact, 76% of women have experienced some form of violence. Women in Ukraine also continue to experience sexual violence from military personnel. Concerningly, members of the military and police are effectively protected from criminal prosecution for domestic violence.

Women in Ukraine are no strangers to war. Every woman has a personal connection — as a survivor, a widow, a mother of a soldier, a daughter of a victim. The war is a constant character in their lives.

Ukrainian women navigate not only the threat and reality of war, but also the longer-term challenges and intergenerational trauma experienced by so many societies in protracted crises.

What’s more, women in Ukraine are no strangers to the frontlines. They’ve been active since women were allowed combat roles in 2014. Today, Ukrainian women make up 15% of the country’s armed forces.

And now, many Ukrainian women are prepared to take up arms and fight for their country, should the need arise.

I loved learning about Valentyna Konstantinovska, 79-year old volunteer with a “babushka battalion” digging trenches, providing supplies, offering medical care, and so on. These older women have been defending Ukraine since 2014, and are prepared to fight for their right to a sovereign state.

Humanitarian needs are increasing. The UN reports that 2.9 million people are currently in need — 1.6 million of those are women.

Meanwhile, Konstantinovska and other women are undergoing training organized by Azov, a far-right movement, on basic survival, medical care, and weapon use. She had been “dreaming since 2014 to learn to use a gun,” but was told she’s too old. Clearly not, as she aimed her AK-47.

Azoy is an ultra-nationalist movement with a white supremacist ideology, and little support in Kyiv. Still, they remain defenders of a city that is on the frontlines in case of an attack.

Women are at the ready, and undergoing training. NPR reported on a story of 200 women in an auditorium taking combat training. These women are learning what they must do to defend themselves and their communities should Russia cross the border.

And Konstantinovska and the babushkas are ready to “stand for our Ukraine until the very end.”

Ukrainian women fight on many frontlines — against the Russians, against the separatists, and against patriarchy. The frontlines are in their own homes, on their bodies, and on their borders.

While some women have mobilized for the fight ahead, the rest of the country — women and men alike — watch, wait, and wonder which way their war will go.

*Views expressed in this article are that of the author and not of