The Russian Embassy in Estonia has posted a shameful response to a group of women in Estonia who gathered outside their building on Wednesday to protest against sexual violence by the Russian Military in Ukraine.
The protesters sent a powerful visual message around the world by standing with their arms tied behind their backs, their heads covered, and their underwear daubed in fake blood to highlight the horror of sexual violence against women and children as part of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. A similar protest has just taken place in Lithuania.
In a Tweet and Facebook post, the Russian Embassy in Estonia shared a photo of the protest with a short caption in Russian saying that “this is what the faces of local Russophobes look like.” Although few would have expected the Russian Embassy to accept accountability, their response only further highlights the cruelty being excused and the absurdity of using ‘Russophobia’ to deflect from serious criticism of real issues.
Why the women protested
The widespread use of sexual violence against women and children in Ukraine as a weapon of war by the Russian military has been widely documented over the past month, including by journalists and numerous human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
In a addition, a substantial number of intercepted phone conversations between Russian soldiers and their families casually discuss the practise of rape during their occupation of Ukraine, such as this call this week in which the partner of a Russian soldier gives her approval of the sexual abuse. Although the Kremlin routinely denies reports of war crimes (and also denies it is waging war), that becomes more difficult when the voices on the call can be matched to real people. The couple on the call were identified by cyber sleuths yesterday as Roman Bykovsky, 27, and his wife Olga Bykovskaya, whose maiden name is Pinyasovaya.
And, in a recent shocking case highlighting the widespread perceived acceptability of sexual violence within the Russian military, a Russian solder filmed himself raping a baby and posted the footage to social media. He was detained by the Russian police, although it is telling that he was unable to foresee this consequence for such an open display of Russia’s secret weapon of war.
A senior UN official told the United Nations Security Council this week that the UN is increasingly hearing accounts of rape and sexual violence by the Russian Military in Ukraine and that this is likely “just the tip of the iceberg”. In response, Ambassadors from numerous member states have urged an investigation.
First-hand testimony can be heard in this BBC report. In one reported case, about 25 women and girls aged 14 to 24 hiding in a basement in Bucha were systemically raped during the Russian occupation. According to Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights Lyudmyla Denisova, “Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.”
In a speech this week to Riigikogu, the Estonian Parliament, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also mentioned the use of rape by the Russian Military in Ukraine among other war crimes, adding that Ukraine with support from international specialists would investigate all war crimes, identify all the culprits and find them “no matter how long it will take”.
Amnesty International says that rape, which it has documented by the Russian Military in Ukraine in addition to killings of civilians, torture, and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war are human rights violations and war crimes. “Those who directly commit war crimes should be held criminally responsible for them. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, hierarchal superiors – including commanders and civilian leaders, such as ministers and heads of state – who knew or had reason to know about war crimes committed by their forces, but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible, should also be held criminally responsible.”
Estonia is committed to supporting and welcoming Ukrainian refugees arriving in Estonia. If anyone has been a victim of sexual violence, specialist services are available, including from Victim Support, a free public social service that offers emotional support as well as information about support from the Estonian government. Their contact information can be found here.
Russia’s cynical use of “Russophobia”
As recently reported by Propastop (link in Estonian), the term ‘Russophobia’ was near non-existent until 2014 and rarely ever used by the Russian government nor Russian state media.
It’s first prominent use was in 2012 by both the Russian President and Foreign Ministry, although it still did not gain wide usage after that until 2014 when Russia began its war on Ukraine. That’s when ‘Russophobia’, supposedly encouraged by the Ukrainian government, was suddenly emphasised by the Kremlin as a pretext for the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for ‘separatist’ movements in Eastern Ukraine, as well as a way to criticise subsequent sanctions. Only then did it become more widely used in Kremlin propaganda, including by the Kremlin’s supporters and aligned media outlets.
Accusations of Russophobia in the Baltic states also increased after that as a way for the Kremlin to characterise the influence of the Baltic states within the EU and Nato, despite the fact that concerns raised by Baltic governments of the Kremlin have proved accurate – most notably by Russia launching its full scale war against Ukraine this year. Propastop has recently written here about the reality of Russian speakers’ rights and life quality in Estonia and the considerable progress made towards integration since the end of the Soviet occupation.
In preparation for Russia’s escalated war, accusations of Russophobia in Ukraine again formed a central part of the pre-text narrative used by the Russian President, most notably in a pseudohistorical article about the unity of Russians and Ukrainians, which further developed into an argument that ‘Russophobia in Ukraine’ was a genocide against Russians.
The United Nations defines genocide as ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’, which includes examples that include the documented conduct of the Russian military in Ukraine, such as widespread sexual violence, as well as indiscriminately killing civilians, and conducting mass deportations in occupied areas. In contrast, there has been widespread and fierce opposition to the Russian occupation in predominantly Russian speaking parts of Ukraine, which do not recognise Putin’s accusations of genocide against them by Ukraine.
The Russian Embassy’s use of the term Russophobia to describe protestors against widely documented acts of widespread sexual violence by the Russian military – which even the Russian police felt compelled to act against in its most open form – further exposes the cynical way in which the Kremlin seeks to exploit the concept to deflect criticism from its own crimes.
Pictures of the powerful demonstration are available at ERR here and there’s a video below.
Just a quick note. We initially reached out to ERR to request the use of their photos for this article with a link and credit in order to help further spread the important message of the protesters. Unfortunately, ERR declined due to critical articles about previous ERR coverage in Propastop, including the amount of coverage dedicated to the Russian Embassy’s talking points for which Estonian media experts were invited to provide their own opinions (links in Estonian). We will, however, continue to link to ERR where it is useful for readers and also continue to provide critical analysis of ERR, like all media outlets, when it is deemed fair – but it is disappointing to use this as a reason to block further spread of the protest message. We recommend that activists with a powerful visual message consider if they can issue their own copyright free photos in order to ensure their message is spread as widely as possible.
Thank you for reading
Propastop is run by volunteers at the Estonian Defence League who monitor and fact check propaganda against the Republic of Estonia. For more English language content from Propastop, follow us @Propastop on Twitter here.