Hundreds of sexual crimes have been officially reported in Ukraine following the full-scale invasion by the Russian army, though the actual number is likely 10 times higher. Ukrainian news website Livy Bereg explores how the nation is documenting the crimes and responding to support victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
KYIV — Let's start with the official numbers. Since the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office has recorded 231 instances of conflict-related sexual violence. The aggressors target all demographic groups: men, women, children, and the elderly.
Behind the official statistics are disturbing details, with 149 cases involving women and 82 cases involving men. Thirteen of the victims were minors, with 12 being girls and one a boy who also bore witness to his mother being raped. The youngest victim is 4 years old, while the oldest survivor is an 82-year-old female pensioner.
And these are only the officially documented cases. The actual number is likely to be 10 times higher.
Survivors often hesitate to speak out due to fear, trauma, and the social stigma attached to such incidents. This is changing, however, as more survivors of sexual abuse are coming forward to share their stories and receive the comprehensive legal, humanitarian, psychological, and medical support they need.
Mass sexual assault occurs wherever the Russian occupiers set foot. Most cases of sexual crimes have been documented in the de-occupied territories of the Kherson region. Following that are the Donetsk (55), Kyiv (52), Kharkiv (21), Zaporizhzhia (15), Chernihiv (5), Luhansk (3), and Sumy (2) regions.
“Ukraine needs to liberate its occupied territories to be able to work with all the victims,” says Iryna Didenko, who heads the Department of the Office of the Prosecutor General investigating such crimes.
One of the latest cases documented by her team involved a 25-year-old woman from the Donetsk region, who was “systematically” assaulted by Russian soldiers. The victim is now in a hospital in the Ivano-Frankivsk region in western Ukraine.
“She is in severe physical and emotional distress,” says Didenko.
“Currently, talking to her is very difficult. We have launched a criminal investigation, but she is not ready to testify. So, we are waiting for her condition to improve and for her to give us consent, which is stipulated by the Murad Code," she adds, referencing the code of conduct for collecting information from victims of sexual violence. "Only then can we continue our work."
Didenko emphasizes that all survivors of sexual assault, without exception, suffer from extreme trauma.
She recalls another case in Kherson where a woman was assaulted by three military servicemen. The prosecutor’s office has already identified and charged her assailants in absentia. But Didenko says she will never forget how the victim talked about her experience.
“She said she already felt dead back then,” she recalls. “The doctors said that her body seemed intact, but her psyche was shattered. The bruises have faded, but she can't recover mentally."
According to Didenko, there is a growing focus on adopting a victim-centered approach, in collaboration with the International Criminal Court (ICC), aimed at helping the prosecutors improve their skills in dealing with survivors of sexual assault.
For instance, Ukraine seeks to adopt separate entrances and exits in courtrooms so that the perpetrator and the survivor never cross paths. Additionally, measures such as voice alteration and blurred faces in video testimonies are in place to safeguard the anonymity of victims. Furthermore, victims are given the option to alter their personal data during the legal proceedings.
The crucial point is that they have realized that they are not to blame for what happened to them.
"It even has a therapeutic effect because the person chooses their own name and surname. It's like embarking on a new chapter in their lives," Didenko says.
According to her, Ukraine wants to introduce new concepts into its legislation to provide compensation for rape victims and has also rectified several procedural errors. For example, male investigators can no longer interrogate female sexual abuse victims.
Didenko also highlights that the feedback from victims who have chosen to come forward and seek assistance has been overwhelmingly positive.
"We always ask them how they feel after the initiation of the criminal process. They say that they genuinely feel better,” Didenko says. “They can begin to connect with other survivors, realizing they are not alone, and, importantly, they have access to psychologists. The crucial point is that they have realized that they are not to blame for what happened to them.”
Statue of Princess Olga wearing a bulletproof vest in Kyiv, Ukraine
Apart from documenting crimes and assisting victims, the prosecutor's office also employs AI facial recognition tools like Clearview AI and collaborates closely with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to identify the perpetrators of these crimes.
As Didenko puts it, “There's nothing worse than giving victims hope and then not doing anything."
At present, 34 Russian military personnel stand charged with sexual assault. Eighteen indictments have been sent to court, and there have been two verdicts: 10 and 12 years of imprisonment. Unfortunately, all these verdicts and charges were issued in absentia.
“But even if a charge is made in absentia, the survivor knows we have identified the criminal which can provide some relief to them,” Didenko says. “That's why people need to come forward to make statements to the authorities and seek assistance."
Nonetheless, coming forward can be particularly hard for victims who remain in the de-occupied frontline areas.
"Very often, people are robbed before being assaulted and then they simply don't have any means of communication,” Didenko explains, adding that her office is nonetheless doing all it can to help victims near the frontlines or in recently liberated territories.
Investigations into sexual violence in the liberated regions showed the prosecutor’s office that such abuse is systemic in the Russian army, with commanders oftentimes being the ones who order military personnel to commit sexual crimes.
In one of the recent cases in the Kharkiv region, witnesses said a Russian commander ordered four men to rape a woman after he had his 'first turn’. In another case in the Kyiv region, two women told the prosecutors they clearly heard a Russian commander giving orders to soldiers to commit sexual violence against them.
“The motivation behind all these crimes is the same: destruction, humiliation, and intimidation," Didenko says.
She also mentions an incident where an 80-year-old woman not only fell victim to sexual assault by a Russian soldier but also faced threats when he arrived at her house in the middle of the night. In addition to committing sexual violence, he terrorized her by declaring that she would never leave her home again, as he had hung a grenade on her door. The woman managed to escape through a window and seek refuge with her children the following morning.
Woman walking in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Aug. 29
One of the most shocking crimes involved the rape of a 4-year-old girl in front of her mother in the Kyiv region.
"This crime has been solved,” Didenko says. “Two soldiers essentially terrorized the entire street in a village in the span of a few hours. There were 12 victims, with eight of them being sexual assault cases. Our colleagues are providing psychological and humanitarian support to the child and the mother. We do not abandon the victims.”
Currently, the condition of the little girl and her mother has significantly improved.
Sexual violence and torture are not only inflicted on women but also men, especially if they show any pro-Ukrainian leanings. Genital mutilation is the most prevalent form of brutality, and there is also a case of a man being raped by a club.
“However, these incidents are underreported among men, mainly because they generally don’t want to talk about it,” Didenko says. “They just say, 'I was tortured.' But they don't disclose how.”
The Prosecutor General's Office also documents cases of sexual violence against those who were in captivity. One such case was of a 22-year-old Ukrainian marine infantryman from Snake Island, who was subjected to daily electric shocks to his genitals while in captivity.
Didenko says his captors would deliberately lead him into the shower so that the water would amplify the pain caused by the electric shocks. They also forced him to sing the Russian national anthem, claiming that the Russian 'tricolor hung in Kyiv'. They also told him he would be shot as a traitor in case of a prisoner exchange, to which he allegedly replied, “I'd rather be shot by my own people than stay here with you every day.”
Another deeply sensitive issue, which the Prosecutor General's Office does not wish to discuss, pertains to pregnancies resulting from the heinous acts against women and girls by occupying forces.
"The key thing we are doing now is developing safety guarantees in such cases, including at the legislative level,” Didenko says. “We cannot discuss the details and statistics, however.”
Recurring aspect of war
Natalia Potseluieva, a trauma-focused psychologist, psycho-sexologist, and project coordinator for Assisto, says that working with rape victims “requires a deep, long-term, and integrative approach because the main goal is not to harm the client or retraumatize them.”
She also notes that people often ask psychologists why Russians exhibit such cruelty. To her, sexual violence has regrettably been a recurring aspect of war.
Violence is propagated everywhere. It’s an 'us versus them' mentality.
She highlights that in the last 25 years, conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur, Sudan, Uganda, Congo, and others have witnessed sexual violence used as a weapon to terrorize and displace local populations and to hinder a country’s recovery. In Bosnia alone, up to 55,000 women and children were raped during the 1991-1995 war. Going back further, during the first month of the Japanese attack on Nanking in 1938, 200,000 Chinese women were raped. In 1971, Pakistani regular forces assaulted 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women.
"Hundreds of thousands of German women were raped by Soviet soldiers, and this can be read in the book A Woman in Berlin,” Potseluieva continues. "Sexual violence during a military conflict is one form of weaponry. It's a non-verbal message to their adversary that I am stronger because not only have I defeated you but I have also left a mark on your children and wives.”
She further explains that civilian populations in occupied territories often find themselves defenseless against armed military aggressors, particularly when such actions receive tacit approval or even direct orders from a commander — a phenomenon she observes within the Russian army.
"It's ingrained in their mental and cultural code,” the psychologist says. “Violence is propagated everywhere. It’s an 'us versus them' mentality. That's why they don't feel any pangs of conscience when committing atrocities against Ukrainians. This pattern doesn't only apply to Ukrainians. The Russian army acted the same way in Chechnya, Georgia, and everywhere their feet touched. So, we have no other option but to defeat this Russian mentality.”