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Legitimacy, occupation and sexual abuse

The war in Ukraine and its consequences have shone a light on particular issues faced by women in conflict. With civilians often forced into compliance by Russia’s occupying forces, women are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. Such criminal actions could ultimately be utilised as a deliberate weapon of war, intended specifically to enforce a wider model of occupation in the country and reconstruct the national identity to accept the new government.

April 20, 2022 - Caroline Beshenich - Articles and Commentary

Illustration by Rui Elena / Shutterstock

Spotting state-sanctioned sexual abuse and why it matters

The “Legitimacy, Occupation, Sexual Abuse” model (LOSA) proposes that sexual abuse during conflict occurs as a strategised weapon to rebuild society in a specific form. It features clear steps often seen in cases of invasion and occupation. Despite repeated occurrences, they are often overlooked. Nonetheless, when sexual abuse is employed during an invasion or occupation, it is used for a calculated, specific set of reasons. It utilises the intimate expression of two people to suppress freedom, turning the experience into a cold, callus suppression of freedom to reconstruct society. The approach targets society’s life-givers – women – precisely because they are the teachers of the future generation. Although every conflict functions differently and progresses at differing rates of speed along the steps, the LOSA model provides a measure of predictability and incorporates a rough timeline to track events and plan action. Overall, the LOSA model functions on the idea that “to rape a woman is to rewrite the future of a nation”.

Rape as a weapon during conflict

Sexual abuse appears during armed conflict in the midst of economic instability and fighting. Its appearance is not surprising, as conflict largely follows a pattern. The LOSA model is built from the patterns of various conflicts and reflects these trends. Rape is a succinct tool because it impacts all members of society. Individually, it affects the body and the mind. When citizens are raped, a state is no longer able to offer the level of security from harm that it has upheld in the past. Through assault and rape, a society is essentially reformed according to the new narrative of the occupier. The woman represents the future of the nation. By using her in an act of sexual disrespect and abusing her dignity as a person, the conflict- rapist (tied to their state) lets the woman know her husband cannot defend her. He exercises control of the country she is in (symbolically) and owns her. The husband learns that he is no longer the head of his house, who defends those close to him. The children understand their parents are powerless. The wife, husband and children must all follow the new rules of the new government to survive and protect themselves. As the family’s safety disintegrates, the door to the further raping of children, men, and vulnerable individuals is opened.

Before invasions and occupations, the targeted area frequently experiences some degree of economic instability or national insecurity. The invading force then labels itself the “liberator”, who will rectify the problems contributing to these issues. The invader absolves itself of guilt and attempts to delegitimise the previous government. It must supposedly liberate the area’s citizens and restore the state to “order”.

Under the current or previous government, the people were to varying degrees the ends of government action themselves. Under the occupiers, however, they are a means to an end – normally, to drive a country’s surrender. The dignity of the person is lost as the occupying government seeks to solidify and legitimise itself. A legitimate government upholds this dignity and regards its people as ends in themselves. In contrast, the invader sees them as a convenient way to quickly gain power. Sex, a specific expression of love and intimacy usually expressed consensually between two people, can result in life and the continuation of society. Weaponised, it becomes an expression of domination by an occupier against a population. Instead of producing life, it actively seeks the death of one society and the replacement with another.


The LOSA model involves gradual changes in diplomatic, informational, military and economic affairs (DIME) in a country facing invasion. There are five steps explicated:

The model’s steps are:

0. Normative starting point
1. Preceding instability
2. Introduction of new societal norms
3. Rape of women
4. Totalitarianism

At first, the soon to be invaded country’s “normative starting point” will see a government carry out most, if not all, normal state functions in the four spheres. Whilst the state may engage fully with foreign governments and enjoy extensive international recognition, its economy and media enjoy few restrictions on a day-to-day basis. As an extension of its government’s diplomatic activities, the military will be engaged in promoting peace.

Instability brought on by internal and/or external factors may subsequently see the country face a small, yet noticeable series, of problems. For example, military exercises by a potential belligerent power may force the nation in question to strengthen its military presence across the country. The government may then turn inwards as it scrambles to respond to the perceived threat on a wider basis. This instability may force it into a position where it cannot make any binding agreements on its future behaviour. Everyday issues, such as the spread of information and the economy, may become increasingly weaponised by an aggressor during this stage.

All of this diverse activity then pushes the country to the second stage, in which new societal norms are forced upon the country by the invading force. The government facing invasion will likely focus on its relations with the occupying power as it takes control of the territory and assumes authority. Any foreign presence will be “securitised” and viewed as a potential threat to the country in this situation. Military patrols and even martial law will subsequently become normal. This reality has a direct impact on the lives of civilians, who face a real threat of deliberate and/or collateral violence. Non-combatants may have to regularly explain themselves to military personnel on both sides of the conflict, and their access to information, and even essentials like food and water, may become severely restricted. As a result, the lives of civilians will be increasingly dominated by the demands of those who currently control the territory they find themselves in during the conflict.

This new change in the power structure subsequently allows rape to be used as a weapon of war. Members of the occupying forces may begin to target women at this point to demonstrate the “power” of the new authorities. Whilst men can no longer protect their wives, their wives can no longer protect their children. For safety, they must adapt to the new “normal” imposed on them and submit to the occupiers, as acting against them will result in harm. On a wider basis, a troubled diplomatic front may see international humanitarian agencies denied access to areas under occupation to prevent the monitoring of the situation and recording of such crimes. This lack of outside interaction is mirrored online, with communication limited to unconventional software (e.g., Nexta during the 2020 Belarusian protests). Citizens will also be forced to obey the occupiers as they may now control the area’s entire economy. A fully established black market operates as the only other source of goods.

Finally, the occupiers may instigate a totalitarian system in order to secure their newfound power in the area. The new government can act with complete control and face few, if any, reprisals. The military will be able to carry out any pre-planned or spontaneous crimes, as the whole population is vulnerable.. At this point, it is worth noting that incidences of male rape may also occur more frequently, as the rapists know they can act without reprisal. The environment volatility ensures the occupying power’s universal control over the lives of those in the occupied area. In contrast to this, people will be bombarded with messages that the occupier is the region’s “liberator”. Now wholly separated from the world economy, the area will largely rely on an unofficial economy to survive. The local currency is useless, transportation is restricted, and a feeling of helplessness ensues which leads to desperation and compliance. The rebuilding of the societal order is well underway.

It should be noted that at each stage of the LOSA model, the “instruments of national power” found in the DIME interact. Each of these instruments is its own field and can operate in an independent manner. However, these four areas are best understood when they are supported by, and operate harmoniously with, the other instruments. Interdependence and close relations between countries become exasperated when an instrument of power in one country is disturbed, throwing it out of balance with the other instruments, and creates negative consequences for those in another country. For example, an economic depression in one country may pose diplomatic or military threats to other countries in the surrounding areas, as that single country struggles to cope with domestic strife that has arisen in response to poverty, starvation, unemployment, etc. The consequences of spillovers can be war, violence, sanctions, etc. Due to states working in blocs or groups in which the conditions of these instruments in one country can impact the instruments in another, disruptions to DIME can create a space that allows for actions that are not normally considered permissible.

The model offers an explanation regarding how a state can change from using freedom as a way to protect the people as a collective (and so gain legitimacy), to using freedom to harm people for the benefit of the individual or their societal grouping, such as its armed forces members (and so gain legitimacy as people obey it to avoid further abuse). The healthy state discussed is the “normative starting point” and respects its citizens and upholds their collective freedoms. The individual is therefore safe and able to pursue life choices largely in their control. A state that progressively moves away from this normative starting point, referred to as “Step 0”, programmatically removes collective freedoms so that the individual is constrained by state actors and ultimately fulfills their will.

Using the model

A state progresses from one step to the next in this model due to conflicts within its DIME domain. Usage of the model is simple. It may be likened to a “common signs and symptoms of a heart attack” graphic, or a similar warning, that one might see at a doctor’s office. Using open-source information (humanitarian reports, news, social media, etc.) and private contacts from within an area under occupation, an analyst can pinpoint an area’s current place on the model. Fluctuations in the diplomatic, informational, military and economic domain should be regularly noted in order to track the progression of the domain on the model. Incidental occurrences, such as spontaneous robberies or black-market activities, should be noted in the “economic” domain. Random incidents of rape by government actors should also be noted as a domain progresses through the model. As patterns within the analysis begin to emerge, attention should be paid to repeated behaviours. The model cannot say “x occurrences of government actors committing rape equals regularity”. But in an area that prior to conflict did not experience anything beyond sporadic incidences of civilian-perpetrated rape, a few credible incidences in a short period of time (a week, for example) by governmental forces is enough to no longer be considered spontaneous. Of course, this is now reason for alarm. Analysts may be helped by international humanitarian organisations “calling out” the invading force’s behaviour at the third step. They “call out” the beginnings of a new societal standard, in which the invader’s forces can act without consequence. They may consider demanding that their observers be allowed in the country as a humanitarian force solely functioning for the well-being of the women under occupation.

To use the model, an analyst needs to be versed in the domestic and international circumstances of an area before the occupation. An area expert is aware of the area’s accepted “normal” and can recognise when a situation is beginning to change. An open-source intelligence analyst may also prove invaluable in such a situation due to their familiarity with open and readily available sources.

The LOSA model is not groundbreaking, and its conclusions are familiar enough that analysts can generally agree on their relevancy. When a government loses legitimacy, either through its own actions or another government’s aggressive behaviour, instability is bound to occur. As the country’s diplomatic, informational, military and economic domains suffer from instability, gaps appear in governance, and these create opportunities for criminal activity allow for criminal activity. Invading governments may take advantage of these gaps by allowing their agents to perpetrate crimes (e.g., rape) in order to subjugate the population. Obedience is obedience regardless of whether it is based on devotion or fear. If a man wants to protect his family, a woman wants to protect herself and her children, and the children want to live, they must all adjust to their new reality as they simply do not know if the international community will come to their assistance. To prevent more horror, vigilance is needed. It is necessary to watch for the symptoms of violence. Being able to theorize before the situation gets worse just might save people and their future.

The current situation in Ukraine

On March 27th, Ukrainian MP Maria Mezentseva reported one widely known case of rape that occurred in an area next to Kyiv. A Russian soldier killed a man and then raped the man’s wife repeatedly in front of their child. Mezentseva said further that “We have reports of women being gang raped. These women are usually the ones who are unable to get out. We are talking about senior citizens. Most of these women have either been executed after the crime of rape or they have taken their own lives.”

Where does this leave Ukraine? Overall, the country is on the precipice of the model’s third stage. Rape as a weapon is currently incidental. Russia has not yet publicly devolved into legitimising its belligerency through sexual abuse.

On the diplomatic front, the most important point is that Zelenskyy’s government maintains its presence in Kyiv. Russia has not been able to install a belligerent government and therefore is prevented from enforcing the third stage. Additionally, international powers are still very much in contact with Ukrainians on the ground and Zelenskyy is actively fulfilling his presidential role. However, issues could occur if he goes abroad for negotiations for an extended period of time. Russia could take advantage of this and force its strategic advance, pursue a sexual abuse strategy, and prevent Zelenskyy from returning. This would subsequently create a government-in-exile scenario. In such a situation, the government has a valid voice, but its legitimacy is questionable as it is not physically in the country and unable to meet citizens’ needs.

In terms of the information domain, Ukraine has been repeatedly targeted in cyberattacks. Yurii Shchyhol, the chairman of Ukrtelecom, said that on March 28th the company’s infrastructure experienced a strong cyberattack. Reducing Ukraine’s internet access further encourages a reliance on Russia for information. To that end, Russian propaganda continues to seek two things. It hopes to divide the Ukrainian people along ethnic lines and discourage loyalty to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s power. Russia’s claims that it is working towards the “denazification” of the Ukrainian state undermines the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has indicated that the Russian language will need to replace the Ukrainian language as part of this process. Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, as he demonstrated at his inaugural address in 2019. Ukraine is a country with two languages. To suggest that one of these languages may be associated with Nazism is to declare those who speak the language Nazis. This further threatens the legitimacy of the government as abuse of the population continues.

The Russian military presence has acted in the region of Kyiv and has destroyed Mariupol. The first stage of invasion has been declared “completed”. Although Kyiv has not fallen, the point remains that the country has experienced a Russian military presence. They have already been actively intimidating Ukrainian civilians. They have committed sporadic rape. As they seek to forcibly legitimise Russia’s presence in the area, the danger of widespread, state-permitted rape from these foreign forces is high. Areas like Mariupol are especially at risk, as their infrastructure has been demolished and they will soon become dependent on Russia for humanitarian aid. Russia’s initial goal was to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. That evolved into security issues related to Ukraine’s possible future with NATO. Ultimately, the Russian leadership hopes to enforce the recognition of its authority and re-shape the Ukrainian national identity. Whilst the men have gone to war to defend Ukraine, women and children remain with the hope of their country surviving.

According to Ukrainian Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko, Ukraine has lost 564.9 billion US dollars. Around 119 billion is related to infrastructural damage. If Ukraine wins the war, it will struggle to bring back its citizens who have fled abroad, as the effort and funds needed to rebuild will be extensive. For now, the destruction of the Ukrainian economy and its infrastructure is how Russia aims to bring Ukraine to its knees. As NATO and the West balances humanitarian and military efforts on the border between the European Union and Ukraine, the country still needs even more help. If the situation deteriorates, Ukraine be forced to turn to the invading power for support (such as food, medicine, water, etc.). While its infrastructure continues to be impacted and the economic toll climbs, the need for immediate assistance will continue to grow. The West will continue to provide what it can. At some point, however, the need will become great enough that Ukraine may be forced to ask Russia for help or concede to further Russian demands.

Ukraine is bilingual. Ukraine is inherently multicultural, with several minorities and nationalities counted among its population. It is not simply another limb of Russia, although such are their claims. Of course, Ukraine’s history is intrinsically connected with Russian and wider Slavic history. However, the realities of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union are now long gone. Ukraine had a difficult start in the 1990s and struggled to gain its footing as an independent country. However, it has now found its voice and a balance. Ultimately, it has found its place in the world. It lies between the East and West, but it is its own country and has its own destiny. The West should pay attention before this destiny is forcibly rewritten by the invader.

As Russia shifts its gaze from Kyiv to Mariupol, the international community must not lose sight of the continuing situation across the country. The long-term, and history’s tendency to repeat itself, must be remembered. Once moved, the new position of a border does not have to be permanent. What happened before in history can happen again. If the world does not pay attention to Ukraine, and this forced rewriting of its future, the situation in the country and Europe may get even worse.

And eventually, it might cross Ukraine’s borders.


Sexual abuse during occupation occurs because the occupier believes they will not be stopped, that no one will help the occupied people, and that an escalation of violence will not be prevented. Rape during conflict maybe an unwritten exercise of power willingly executed at the tactical level by the occupying force, with the focus of achieving a strategic goal. Overcome with fear and deprived of their dignity, the citizens now under occupation must obey the new authority to stay alive. To do this, a person must forfeit their dignity and will. They must also adjust to the evolving situation in spite of their preferences and choice. Forced obedience produces a new society. The use of rape as a weapon plays a key role in constructing the future of the area’s new society.

To avoid mass sexual abuse during occupation, this article recommends that international groups and NGOs monitor occupation situations (utilising contacts in the occupied areas), speak out formally when verified instances of state agents (i.e., military forces, encouraged or organised criminal activity, etc.) perpetuating rape occur, and issue warnings to the international community specifically stating that the risk of widespread sexual abuse is now visible. Pointed dialogue with the aggressor state should be pursued across each DIME domain, demanding security guarantees for the people (especially women) living under occupation and harsh penalties against those who act in a sexually aggressive manner. While at risk persons may not be able to be extracted from the area, the international community should work to request safety guarantees and establish a monitoring system with the consent of the invading government to maintain a presence while at the area. Battlefield rape is not collateral damage in war. It is a deliberate attempt to alter society and achieve a strategic goal.

Caroline Beshenich is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on an extra-mural basis at the Jagiellonian University’s Department of Political Philosophy in the Institute of Political Science and International Relations. Additionally, she is studying philosophy with the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow. Her research interests encompass the issues of international security, anti-human trafficking, the Russia and CIS area, ethics, and finding the non-apparent connections between issues,

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